It is only a short walk from the main yard at Gordon Elliott’s Cullentra House Stables to the back field but the dogs lying outside the tack room in the afternoon sun are unimpressed by the equine royalty that awaits us there and they decide it is not worth the effort. They raise their heads briefly and watch us disappear around the corner.
The four horses in the field do not look up from their grazing as we lean on the gate and stare at them but they are quite a sight, these kings and queens at their leisure.
Apple’s Jade and Shattered Love stand on one side of a rope and the mighty Samcro stands on the other. Beyond Samcro, the fourth horse, smaller and stockier, shows a first flicker of curiosity and walks slowly towards us.
The narrative around the Grand National next Saturday will fix on Tiger Roll’s tilt at history
There is a white patch, which looks a little like a heart, on his forehead. It seems apt. Because this is Tiger Roll who, next Saturday, will try to become the first horse to win the Grand National two years in succession since Red Rum did it in 1973 and 1974.
‘He’s got a massive engine,’ says Elliott. ‘He always wants to win. He’s got a great heart. He’s the horse of a lifetime.’
A truck carrying wood chippings towards the construction site of a new barn trundles past, trailing clouds of dust, and Tiger Roll and Samcro take fright and bolt towards the centre of the field. We walk back to Elliott’s office where his desk sits in front of a picture window that looks out on to the yard and where a large-screen TV is set to a racing channel.
The office is a monument to obsession and to success. Trophies from Cheltenham and memorabilia from Aintree and Leopardstown crowd the shelves and line the walls. A couple of picture frames sit on the desk but there is nothing in them. No pictures of a partner. No images of dad with his kids. None of the gestures to family that successful men often make in their place of work.
Tiger Roll will seek to be the first horse to win back-to-back Grand Nationals since Red Rum
‘I’m single,’ says Elliott, 41. ‘No kids that I know about. I work hard. I’d say I’ve had a few long-term girlfriends but most of the break-ups have been my fault because I’m too selfish. Horses are 24/7. It’s not easy for someone. I’m not ready to settle down. I hope it happens to me someday but at the moment I just don’t see it.
‘Racing’s my life. There’s only one thing I want to be: that’s champion trainer. I don’t really care about anything else. Holidays don’t interest me. I look at football but it doesn’t bother me. I don’t support anyone. I don’t play golf. I haven’t got time. That’s the way I am. I like being at home. I like what I do. It’s good. I like winning.’
If the narrative around the Grand National next Saturday will fix on Tiger Roll’s tilt at history, it will also revolve around the remarkable prominence of Elliott in the race and the rise and rise of a trainer whose hunger to catch and overtake his great rival Willie Mullins in the pecking order of Irish racing has become all-consuming.
If Mullins is a patrician presence in Irish racing, Elliott is the outsider, the son of a panel-beater and a housewife, a man whose ambition has driven him on and whose 78-acre empire here amid the lush countryside of County Meath continues to grow.
The lorry that startled Tiger Roll was a symbol of that ambition, the instrument of a man who is still building towards the fulfilment of a dream.
As he sits at his desk, Elliott, a former jockey with a decent record in point-to-points, runs his finger down the list of provisional entries for the big race at Aintree and estimates he will have anything from 10 to 12 runners in the National when the line-up is finalised on Thursday. Martin Pipe, Elliott’s idol and former employer, holds the current record with 10.
Gordon Elliott’s 78-acre empire amid the lush countryside of County Meath continues to grow
‘I’d love to run 11,’ says Elliott. ‘I worked for Martin Pipe and he taught me a lot of what I know. I’d like to run one more than him if I could. Would it mean something? It would mean something to win the race again but it would be nice to beat him at something too. He’s done most things, so it would nice to beat him at one thing.’
There is something refreshing about the openness and voracity of Elliott’s ambition. He does not hide behind false modesty or disingenuous self-deprecation. He is not boastful and he is the very opposite of brash, but he has worked so hard to rise to where he is now that he feels no need to apologise for his success.
He listens politely to the suggestion that one man training a quarter of the field in a race as big as the Grand National is unhealthy for the sport and swats it away. He listens to the idea he is dependent on the patronage of the Gigginstown House Stud, the racing operation run by Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary and the owners of Tiger Roll, and dismisses it.
‘I understand it when people say I have too many runners in the National,’ Elliott says. ‘I get it day in and day out. But I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth. I didn’t get left anything. I bought this place six years ago. I built everything myself.
‘My background does drive me. I have a mortgage to pay and wages to pay every day of the week. I took a chance when I bought this place. I hadn’t got the price of a deposit, never mind buying the place. We have kept driving on and driving on and driving on. We never stop.
‘We are lucky: we have good staff and good owners. If you sit back at all in this game for a second you are going to go backwards. That’s the way I see it. The success hasn’t changed my hunger. No. It does for a lot of people.
‘If you’re David Beckham or you’re somebody who’s playing soccer and getting a couple of hundred thousand a week, maybe, but in this game you’re not making much money. You’ve got big overheads so you can’t sit back. It’s all go, you know.
Trophies from Cheltenham and memorabilia from Aintree and Leopardstown adorn his office
‘My mother and father aren’t from horses. My father’s out there cutting the lawns for me. My mother cleans the house for me three days a week. I have worked hard for everything I’ve got. I didn’t get any hand-outs.
‘I wouldn’t stick my fingers up to anyone but if you work hard, you find people who are going to whinge about everything. But that’s life, especially in Ireland. I have got five or six different owners on 10 of my horses for the Grand National so it’s not like one owner owns them all. But that’s just the way it is.’
The National has a special place in Elliott’s history. When he was just 29 and had not yet trained a single winner in Ireland he won Britain’s most famous race in 2007 with Silver Birch. ‘People didn’t know who I was,’ he says, ‘but they knew who I was after it.’
He targeted races at courses in northern England and Scotland because they were races he thought his horses could win. He was a regular visitor to Perth, Ayr and Musselburgh. Always the advice of his mentor Pipe rang in his ears. ‘Keep your horses in the worst company,’ the exalted trainer had told him, ‘and keep yourself in the best company.’
Elliott recites that mantra now. ‘In other words,’ he says, ‘make sure your horse is running well and winning and make sure you are hanging around the right people. We all want to be there on the big day and have runners on the big day but there is no point going to Wimbledon and trying to play on Centre Court when you should be playing in your local park. You go where you can win. That’s what I was taught.’
The trainer wants to overtake his great rival Willie Mullins in the pecking order of Irish racing
And so Elliott won at Perth, Ayr and Musselburgh and his horses graduated to bigger things. And soon he was winning in Ireland, too. And gradually his string of horses grew with his reputation and the 30 horses under his tutelage turned to 40 and to 50 and to 100. And then in 2013 he bought Cullentra House and the land around it because he knew he could not achieve his ambition without it.
The property is state-of-the-art now. There is an equine swimming pool, there are four purpose-built gallops, an all-weather schooling strip. There is capacity for 200 horses. Elliott has built such a reputation that when O’Leary split with Mullins a couple of years ago it was natural he should move many of Gigginstown’s horses to train at Cullentra House.
Elliott has trained well over 1,000 winners. He has won two Grand Nationals and the 2016 Cheltenham Gold Cup with Don Cossack.
Through it all he has remained down to earth, likeable. He admits only to one diversionary weakness: between 1.30pm and 2pm every day he watches the Australian soap Home and Away.
‘It’s become a bit of a joke now,’ he says. ‘Maybe it’s embarrassing. People normally don’t ring me when Home and Away is on. It’s a switch off for me.’
Elliott is well liked. People are pleased for him. He is unrelentingly respectful towards Mullins and open about the fact that his rival is the man who sets the standards. His yard appears a happy place.
Jockey Davey Russell celebrates after riding Tiger Roll to victory in the Grand National last year
‘I am easy going most of the time,’ Elliott says. ‘When things go wrong I can get revved up. If you don’t, you shouldn’t be doing it. You have got to have a bit of fire in you. If somebody rubs me up the wrong way I wouldn’t be afraid to let go at them.
‘But I enjoy what I do. I have got a great team behind me.’
Elliott will travel to Aintree confident Tiger Roll is in the form of his life and that even though he will be carrying six pounds more in the National than 12 months ago he has a good chance of repeating last year’s hair-breadth triumph and writing his name in the record books alongside Red Rum.
Whatever happens, his own ambition will not be sated. He is too far behind Mullins in the prize money list this season to have a realistic chance of stopping him winning Ireland’s champion trainer title for the 12th year in succession. But he will keep coming back. And only a fool would bet against him.
‘I’m 41 and I’ve trained a lot of winners for my age,’ he says. ‘But there’s only one thing I want to be and that’s champion trainer.
‘I’m hoping I’m going to be in the game for the next 25 or 30 years and hopefully it’ll happen at some stage.
‘I’ve done nearly all I can do in terms of building here at Cullentra House. I have been here for six years. I still feel like we’re on an upward curve. I love it. I love racing. I love winners. I don’t care where it is. If it’s Perth or Leopardstown or Tramore or Aintree, I just love training winners. I love horses. I love racing.’
The Randox Health Grand National Festival at Aintree Racecourse runs from Thursday, April 4 until Saturday, April 6. Tickets are available from thejockeyclub.co.uk/aintree/events-tickets/grand-national/tickets/