One businessman, at least, is bucking the recessionary trend in his beleaguered country. In the four years since he won the 2007 Grand National with the patched-up point-to-pointer Silver Birch, Gordon Elliott's training empire has expanded from 10 horses to 60, and patronage from some of the sport's shrewdest owners. Here yesterday he put the seal on his emerging talent with a double, courtesy of Chicago Grey in the opening National Hunt Challenge Cup and Carlito Brigante, who turned the normally competitive Coral Cup into a solo tour de force.
Elliott, 33, won the National only a year after setting up at Capranny, near Trim in Co Meath, and at that point had not saddled a winner in his own country. "To be honest," he said yesterday, "I didn't really realise what I'd done at Aintree, didn't really appreciate it. Now I realise just how hard the job is, and today is massive, not just for me, but the whole team back home. Everyone works hard and the reward is us going onward and upward."
To win a championship contest this week requires, as well as all the usual skills, a high-class horse. To win a handicap requires a certain native cunning, with which not all of Elliott's profession are blessed. But two of his mentors have been Tony Martin and Martin Pipe, leading exponents in that particular field.
Carlito Brigante, who finished fourth in the Triumph Hurdle at the meeting 12 months ago, had maintained his handicap mark all winter, warming up for yesterday with a second place over an inadequate distance on unsuitably testing ground. That was his first outing since surgery to aid his breathing and yesterday showed the benefit with puff to spare as he galloped six lengths clear up the hill.
Chicago Grey's margin of victory was almost as great at four and a half lengths, but it was a harder-fought success, ground out inch by inch under Derek O'Connor in the amateurs' four-miler. The display by the eight-year-old, who jumped impeccably, will surely put him under consideration for the Aintree showpiece in due course. "Today was the day," said Elliott. "We'll enjoy that first and think about anything else another time."
Carlito Brigante brought up a double not only for his trainer but his owner, Michael O'Leary, whose Mouse Morris-trained First Lieutenant inched home from Rock On Ruby in the mid-distance Grade One novice hurdle, and Davy Russell, who rode both horses. It was a seventh Festival success for Morris, and a first since War Of Attrition, in the same maroon silks, took the Gold Cup five years ago. "I count this day as a tribute to my father, Ted," said O'Leary. "I wouldn't have owned a racehorse if he hadn't bred the love of it into me and, as he's having treatment for cancer, it's an emotional moment."