By Will Hayler
He who pays the piper calls the tune and while Michael O’Leary was again absent from the unveiling of the weights for the 2018 Randox Health Grand National in London on Tuesday, his master’s voice was not missing from the build-up to the April 14 contest.
Quite understandably, trainer Gordon Elliott was asked almost immediately by the media at a pre-event press conference in a dimly-lit room due to a power cut about the comments made in the run-up to last year’s race and more recently by Gigginstown Stud’s patron O’Leary, as well as his racing manager and brother, Eddie.
Almost as understandably, Elliott was clearly uncomfortable at being forced to act as spokesman for O’Leary (as had been the case 12 months ago when within minutes of Outlander being announced amidst much glitz as the top-weight for the world-famous race, the trainer simply declared “he won’t run”), directing reporters to “ring him up and ask him”.
The facts: Michael O’Leary said earlier this month at Leopardstown that horses he owned at the top of the weights (specifically Outlander, and to a lesser extent, one presumes, Sub Lieutenant and Valseur Lido) would not run unless the weights for the National were compressed, as had been the case in previous renewals until last year.
Twelve months ago, he described BHA Head of Handicapping Phil Smith’s rationale behind the weights allocated as “utter drivel”. Last week, Eddie O’Leary told the Racing Post that “the Grand National is a fantastic race but it can only get better when Phil Smith goes.”Nigel Twiston-Davies, Jonjo O'Neill, Gordon Elliott and Patrick Mullins at BAFTA in London on Tuesday (FocusOnRacing)
Both men are absolutely entitled to their views and they are far from lone voices in questioning how specific handicapping decisions have been reached in the National in previous years. It almost inevitably comes with the territory given the huge amount of prize money and prestige on offer.
Would the decision to leave Outlander’s mark unchanged and effectively treat the race as a normal handicap therefore mean the horse would once again not be running, he was asked?
“I wouldn’t like to second-guess Michael O’Leary so you can ring him and ask him yourselves. He [Outlander] has an entry in the Grand National but if I was a betting man, I’d say I’d keep him for the Punchestown Gold Cup,” said Elliott.
There was a long pause.
“Listen to be honest sometimes things can be said and taken out of context as words... Maybe you should ring him up and ask him, there’s no point asking me. I only train the horses.
“Whatever the handicapper does I’m very happy. Whatever the English or Irish handicapper does, whatever weight they allot I just smile and keep kicking.” He wasn’t smiling but seemed happy to keep kicking.
It was put to him that O’Leary’s comments about the handicapping of last year’s race had been sent to the media as a prepared statement.
“To be honest, I personally myself thought that it was probably taken out of context a little bit. If think if you asked Michael O’Leary the same question again I think it was taken out of context,” he said.
“I think it’s gone very dangerous when you say things to journalists. You have to be very careful of what you say because sometimes they are blown out of context and it’s ridiculous, I think, to be honest.”
Elliott went on to nominate four horses as likely starters in this year’s National. He mentioned Cause of Causes first, as well he might given the fantastic race he ran in the race 12 months ago. Tiger Roll, owned by Gigginstown, was identified as another intended starter.
It is impossible to have anything but admiration for Elliott’s achievements as a trainer. If he’s not crowned champion in Ireland this year, he will be next year or soon enough. He has a winning knack for getting the best out of his team.
Those who work for him speak highly of him.
But nothing that O’Leary or O’Leary have said has been “taken out of context”.
Their objection to last year’s weights seemed to stem from the fact that Irish-trained horses had been allocated British ratings above their Irish marks. This year, his 163 mark exactly mirrors the latest rating published by the Irish Turf Club. Will that be enough to tempt his owners into running? Almost certainly not.
Elliott was left awkwardly waiting for the subject to change. So, now, are we all. For the sake of 1lb or two, let’s hope this doesn’t have to become a recurring theme.