Google Gordon Elliott and you won’t read about a coach who won three Grand Nationals. Instead, the first result is an image of a man sitting astride a dead horse.
The notoriety of this “moment of insanity” is one of the life sentences Elliott is living with after the photo went viral on social media just over a year ago.
Captured in 2019 as the body of the horse that died at a gallop awaited removal, it shows Elliott sitting on the body, talking on his phone and holding two fingers up to the camera.
A year later, Elliott says not a day goes by without the scandal invading his mind.
The storm of outrage lashed him there were real concerns about his mental wellbeing, let alone his future in a sport he had dominated: on March 4 last year he attended a hearing before the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board part (IHRB) unsure whether he can continue training.
In that case, he was suspended for six months.
“The week before I had more favorites for Cheltenham than any other manager in England or Ireland,” he recalled at a restaurant near his Cullentra Stables in Co Meath.
“Just before the bumper at Fairyhouse (February 27th) I saw the photo. It was a day I will not forget. I knew as soon as I saw it: “This is not good”. There’s no point in trying butter.
“I remember calling Noel Meade and saying, ‘I don’t know what to do.’ I’ve had people tell me X, Y, and Z to say different things, but I immediately said it was me. It was a moment of madness and something that shouldn’t have happened.
“You get to know who your friends are and who is looking for their five minutes of fame, which aren’t perfect either. But it was my fault. It was very stupid and I let everyone down, my co-workers, my whole family and all my owners.”
The photo wasn’t a matter of welfare — it was more of a matter of stupidity, and the failure of some to make that distinction clearly hurt him.
“Everyone who enters my yard or looks at my horses at the races is always first class,” he emphasizes. “It hurt me because I love horses.
“I could understand the public reaction. I haven’t fallen out with anyone, but a few have come forward and apologized for what they said (about me). Some can no longer look me in the eye. That’s life, but you have to move forward.”
Even so, a man who has never courted the public found the consequences almost too much to bear.
“There were journalists trying to get over the wall. it was crazy As hard as it was for me, my parents are normal people and they have never experienced anything like this in their lives. It has been terrible for the whole family and for the village here in Summerhill.”
How badly was he affected? “It’s not something I’ve really talked about because I don’t want to get too deep or morbid, but it shook me. I’ve gone from someone who was self made with a farm full of horses and owners to a business lost maybe within hours.
“It was tough when I saw the (10) horses leave on Tuesday, the boys and girls were screaming and crying. They loved these horses and took care of them like children. I understood why they left. I have not argued with their owners and the door is always open. But I had to pull myself together and not let everything slip away as much for everyone on the farm as for myself and for the owners who stayed with us.”
After being used essentially as caretaker for the duration of his six-month suspension, Denise Foster watched last year’s Cheltenham Festival on television.
“I watched every day, every race,” he says. “I think when Black Tears crossed the finish line (in the Mares’ Hurdle) I had tears in my eyes. I was very happy for Denise who was almost like a mother to the staff. When Tiger Roll won (the Cross-Country Chase) I cried. The dogs and cats knew until a few days ago that I was training the horses, but they kind of felt like they were watching the plague on TV.
“The whole thing has probably given me some time to hold myself back and look at the lifestyle you live and the people you don’t appreciate enough. You’re getting into a little bubble, and that got me thinking a little. I never realized how much of a spotlight I was in until this happened. I just thought I was a normal person, working with horses, racing and doing my best.”
The racing public certainly seems to have accepted that he has served his sentence and it is time to move on.
If Elliott, who is sending his biggest-ever team of 50+ horses to this year’s festival, isn’t on the ferry back to Ireland in two weeks time as lead trainer, there’s a good chance he’ll at least have the trophies of both the JCB Triumph Hurdle (Pied Piper or Fil Dor) and the Boodles Gold Cup (Galvin) under his arm. Tiger Roll’s likely retirement on Wednesday could also prove emotional. But in a results-driven business, the suspension doesn’t seem to have hurt him.
“I thought a lot about the reaction when I went back to the racetrack for the first time,” he recalls. “A couple of close friends came the first day. The next day it was Sligo. We had a winner and they threw me back into the parade ring. That was something and I almost had tears in my eyes. I went to Cheltenham in October and everyone was brilliant and I haven’t had a day of stress since.”
In many ways, this is no surprise: Racing is a forgiving sport, and Elliott is his biggest rags-to-riches story since Martin Pipe, his mentor, except that he trades a better horse class.
The son of a panel beater from Summerhill, where he is a local hero and sponsor of the local football team, left school at 15 with no contacts or background in the sport other than a desire to be a jockey.
In his mid-twenties, he realized he wasn’t good enough, so the next step was training. Starting with half a dozen horses and a burning ambition, he saddled Silver Birch, an offshoot of trainer no less than British series champion Paul Nicholls, to win the 2007 Grand National before he had even fielded a winner back home in Ireland.
He says he doesn’t know how to turn on a computer, but he now trains more than 200 horses at his own home, Cullentra House, near Longwood, and employs 70 people. He was so accomplished that the first thing he did when he bought the now 90-acre farm was to hire an accountant.
Many who start with six horses never progress beyond six horses and national advancement is never guaranteed, but Elliott has a sixth sense when it comes to the needs of equestrians.
Tiger Roll, his horse of a lifetime, has given him two more Nationals and is bidding for a record the week after next that equals his sixth festival win. He already has a Gold Cup under his belt thanks to Don Cossack and has sent 118 winners to Ireland since regaining his license in September.
When it comes to training, Elliott is, as one local summed him up in a wonderfully Irish way, “an ordinary man, but with nothing ordinary”.
https://www.independent.ie/sport/horse-racing/gordon-elliott-i-went-from-being-someone-who-was-self-made-with-a-yard-of-horses-to-maybe-losing-it-all-in-hours-41409564.html Gordon Elliott: “I’ve gone from someone who was self-made with a yard full of horses to a loss of maybe in hours”