Eight winners at last year's Cheltenham Festival put trainer Gordon Elliott on par with Champion trainer Willie Mullins, but now he has to try to better that.
"I couldn’t believe it," Elliott said. "We didn't even have a winner on the Tuesday. The problem is, when you do these things, you have to try and beat them."
In 13 short years as a trainer, the former point-to-point rider has landed 22 Cheltenham Festival wins, but he has only landed one of the four championships races - the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
This season though Apple's Jade has emerged as one of the brightest talents jump racing has ever seen, romping to three Grade 1 wins by a combined 62 lengths, and booking her place in the Champion Hurdle.
Undoubtedly, she was the star of the show as Elliott talked through the horses he hopes will make the Festival grade at Cheltenham next month in our Gordon Elliott Stable Tour.
"She’s come out of her win in the Irish Champion Hurdle well and will have two more little bits of work before the Champion Hurdle, but nothing serious. She's been awesome this season.
"I was nervous coming back in distance against the geldings in the Irish Champion Hurdle. Everyone was saying to me, 'what she’s doing, she could win a Champion Hurdle'. I wasn’t sure she could show the pace she did show at Leopardstown.
"She showed how good she is there. The last time she showed that was winning the juvenile hurdle at Aintree. She’s just gone from strength to strength and I think she’ll run a big race in the Champion Hurdle.
"She got beaten in Down Royal when I hadn’t had her long, so I’d say I didn’t have her fit enough, and we were riding her wrong, we were dropping her in a bit. Then she was beaten a head in the Fighting Fifth shortly after. I wouldn’t blame her for that, I’d blame me for being a bit anxious at the time and trying to think I could improve a horse out of Willie Mullins’s.
"When she was beaten at Cheltenham and Punchestown last year, she was in season, and we knew that, but we didn't think it would be a problem. But it was.
"You have to keep an eye on her cycle and monitor it very closely now, and the girls that look after her are doing a great job.
"We'll just keep her ticking away now. She doesn’t need to do a whole lot of work, she's pretty fit. I'd say that’s one mistake made last year, was the extra run in February.
"I’m not saying that is what got her beaten at Cheltenham, but definitely having her fresher is better
"Making it is not a must. She was taken on in the Hatton's Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse in December, and I'd argue that was her best run of the season."
"I would bring a horse to the moon if it meant it could win a race, I'm the first to say that, but with the year that's in it, and what she did at Leopardstown the last day, she has to run.
"She could win the Mares' Hurdle, but if she wins a Champion Hurdle, she’ll be a hero. She’s already a hero in my eyes, but she would be something special if she could do that."
"Cheltenham is coming fast enough for Samcro. He has options at Cheltenham, Aintree and Punchestown. The next 10 days will be important. He looks good, but until you give them a few good bits of work you don’t know where you’re going.
"He had a deep lung infection that you couldn’t see on the scope. When we did find it, we gave him a fortnight not doing much and we gave him a course of antibiotics. A couple of weeks doesn't sound much to miss, but at that time of the season it is crucial.
"There’s no decision made, he may go, or we may take the shoes off and look forward to go chasing with him next season. If he does go to Cheltenham, I imagine it will be for eth Stayers' Hurdle."
"She came home with sore shins after her last run in the Savills Chase at Christmas. The ground was quick enough. Touchwood, she has a couple of bits of work to do, but all being well she’ll run in the Gold Cup.
"She hasn't run further than 3m before and when you go into those unknown trips, it is worry with every horse, but if she turned up in the same form as she was in the John Durkan Chase, where she was second to Min, I think she'd have a great each-way chance. She's a good mare and I think she can finish in the first four or five.
"She's last year's JLT Novices' Chase winner so it's definitely a positive that she’s been over there, travelled and done it all, before. She’s not Don Cossack, but she’s got a nice weight in the Grand National too, so we’ll be keeping an eye on that as well."
"I couldn’t believe how well he won the Boyne Hurdle at Navan on Sunday. It surprised me because I thought he’d finish second or third last, to be honest. In fairness to him he’s always slick enough over hurdles. He just measures it to inches over fences too.
"It was a good pipe-opener for the Cross Country Race, and he just showed how good a horse he is. He's won the Triumph Hurdle, the National Hunt Chase, last year's Cross Country, and of course the Grand National. We’re very lucky to have him.
"It would put a smile on your face looking at a horse like him. He mightn’t be the best horse I’ve ever trained but he’s the most likeable."
"Would he be good enough to win the Ryanair Chase? He’d need a lot of things to go his way, but I think the style of racing in the race will suit the way he is ridden and because of that, he could sneak into a plac.e
"He was third in the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown last time out, and that's as good as he is, but that was a messy race. A better race with a faster gallop suits him better. We’ll be riding him to be placed."
"He won his second hunter chase at Navan last weekend. His jockey Barry O'Neill said he just did what he had to do. Obviously Cheltenham is a step up again, but I think he’s a horse with a lot of experience in those big handicaps and that the Foxhunter could suit him well. Obviously we will have to respect everything Enda Bolger runs because he's some operator in that race."
"Delta Work’s in very good form, again I didn’t go to Leopardstown for the Dublin Racing Festival with him. He was declared and all, I was just fearful that the ground was too quick for him.
"Davy Russell said it was a quick as he wanted it when he won there at Christmas, and he has plenty of experience. He’s three runs over fences, he’s won two Grade 1s. I didn’t think I had anything to gain from running again."
"I'm thinking of bringing him back in trip to 2m for the Arkle Novices' Chase. He wasn’t a bad two-miler over hurdles, and the way he won in Limerick at Christmas, albeit, Getabird made a mistake, suggested it could be the right call.
"If you go back through Hardline’s form he beat Us And Them in a novice chase at Navan last December, and he’s chased the Arkle favourite Le Richebourg home the last twice.
"I’m not saying we could beat Le Richebourg. If the ground is good, probably not, but on softer ground? I’m not so sure.
"I thought he ran a good race over 2m5f last time out at Leopardstown. He jumped on top of a fence going away from the stands, and was slow at the next, and Jack Kennedy sort of just hunted him around after that."
"I would like to go for the four-miler with Champagne Classic, but I have to speak to his owners Gigginstown House Stud because they have a lot of entries in the novice chases. I think the race will suit him though. There is the RSA Chase as plan B, but I have Delta Work for the RSA, so I’d like to split them up if I can.
"I thought Champagne Classic ran well at Navan last weekend to be second, though he didn’t jump as well as he had at Naas before. I put it down to the ground being a lot quicker, thankfully his legs are okay after it and I’m sure the ground will be lovely and safe at Cheltenham, as it always is."
Glenloe is entered in the National Hunt Chase too, but he’s missed a bit of work so I’m not sure if he’s going to get to Cheltenham. We’ve no plan for him in the near future.
"I'm half thinking of stepping Mengli Khan up in trip to 2m4f for the JLT Novices' Chase. It's not concert, but I'm just disappointed with him over 2m. He’s not having a cut at his fences. Sometimes Flat-bred horses can do that.
"He’s been a wonderful horse, he’s won umpteen races for us, and off his handicap of 142 in Ireland, the Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase is the right race for him.
"He even ran well the last day at Leopardstown. He tried to do a bit of the donkey work and got tired and lasted home to finish fifth. He's won over 2m4f at Cheltenham before and I think the step up in trip really works."
"I was disappointed Vision D'Honneur was beaten first time out at Leopardstown, but he came back to win at Punchestown, and at Leopardstown last time out the ground was as quick as he wanted it - he didn’t really let himself down or jump off it. But he seems in good form at home. Down the road you could step him up trip beyond 2m.
"I think we were riding Felix Desjy wrong half-way through the season. I was dropping him in thinking he had a bit of speed, but he’s actually just a relentless galloper. He goes for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, and it's not essential he makes the running there.
"He’s going two-mile chasing next year. I’m looking forward to that."
"I didn’t go to Leopardstown with Battleroverdoyen because I thought he was after having three runs pretty close together and needed a break, but he’s in good form now.
"He might lack experience with only two runs over hurdles, but I’m happy that he jumps well enough and has done all he can do. Timing wise, I thought it was the right thing to do, to go straight to Cheltenham and I think the racing will suit him there."
Galvin, who won his third hurdle at Ayr recently, will also go for the Ballymore Novices' Hurdle.
"Commander Of Fleet won the 2m6f Grade 1 at Leopardstown last time out. They came out round the last hurdle with no running rail and it's a big daunting place when they are on their own so he ran around a bit. He was green, but he has the engine and tou’ll see a sharper horse the next day.
"He had run well in the Royal Bond over two miles against a few good horses, but the trip was just too short for him. I think three miles will suit him, and I think the Albert Bartlett will suit him too. He can take his time early and just hunt away. He’s a nice horse, he won a Land Rover Bumper last spring.
"The one negative for me is that he does lack a bit of experience with only three runs over hurdles, but we might get a school into him between now and then and see what happens."
"Defi Bleu goes for the Albert Bartlett too. He was well-beaten behind Commander Of Fleet last time out, but the ground was too quick and I shouldn’t have run him. You kinda get lured in to running at these big festivals because the prize money is so good, and you have to support these races, because if you don’t we’re going to lose them.
"He might be joined in the race by Dinons, who won at Cheltenham over 3m in October, but has not run since Navan."
"Lethal Steps and Surin will run in the Fred Winter Handicap Hurdle. I don’t think there’s any point us running anything in the Triumph Hurdle because Joseph O’Brien has such a strong hand in it.
"I couldn’t believe when I was looking at the betting last night; he has four of the top five in the market. I will run something, but I’ll have more in the Fred Winter, and Lethal Steps is a horse who could run well there.
"Coeur Sublime is in the Triumph Hurdle, but scoped dirty after being well-beaten by Darasso at Gowran Park the other day. So it’s touch-and-go whether he will make it to Cheltenham.
"He arguably should be three wins from three runs now, but he fell at the last when he should have won two runs ago, and got beaten a short-head in Fairyhouse the run before that. The next week or 10 days will tell us a lot."
"The Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys Handicap Hurdle is a race I say every year I’d like to win. We've won the last two and will fire five or six horses at it again this year.
"Cartwright, Flawless Escape and Moratorium, if he doesn't qualify for the Pertemps Final, could all run, but the main one would be Dallas Des Pictons. He’s got a mark of 141 in English, so that will leave him in lovely.
"Eclair De Beaufeu might also run in the Martin Pipe. He ran very well to be fourth in the big 2m handicap hurdle at Leopardstown, but I wouldn’t know if he’s quick enough for two miles in the County Hurdle. As much as you have to stay in that race, would he lie up early? We’ll see what way the ground is, he could run in the Coral Cup as well.
"Along with Moratorium, Sire Du Berlais is our one for the Pertemps Final Handicap Hurdle."
"We will probably run four in the Champion Bumper, headed by Envoi Allen. Everything was against him at Leopardstown last time out. I think he just does what he has to do. He was bought to be a three-mile chaser and I’ve probably had a lot of speedier horses than him, but you won’t see the best of him until he gets to three miles. To do what he’s doing now is amazing.
"He'll be joined by Thatsy, who won at Navan last weekend, Another Katie, and Abacadabras. He ran out in the race Envoi Allen won last time when in second. I'm not saying he would have beaten him, but he was coming at him, when he ducked through the rail. On the day, we walked the track and the rail was low enough. I’d say it was just greenness."
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