Trainer Change: Elliott is King of Switchers

Gordon Elliott: King of the Switchers

Elliott: King of the Switchers

Gordon Elliott does a fine line in trainer-speak, his interviews peppered with ‘listens’, ‘obviouslys’ and his own coinage ‘defin-night-ly’, but there is nothing clichéd about how he trains racehorses, writes Tony Keenan.

He has taken an unusual approach from the start, training a Grand National winner before his first win on Irish soil, an achievement that ranks among the best of his career or at least until he managed to get a pair of wins out the inveterate rogue, Fort Smith!

Elliott added another signature moment last Thursday, July 2nd, when sending out seven winners across two meetings at Perth and Bellewstown, the accumulator only coming out at 474/1 suggesting that each winner was expected to one degree or other. It is the profiles of these winning horses that are interesting however:

 

Horse First run for Elliott Previous Trainer Runs for Previous Trainer Cost
The Absent Mare 21/4/15 R. Dickin 46 3,800
Broughtons Bandit 12/5/15 W. Musson 25 2,000
Russian Regent 7/6/15 C. Ross 23 N/A
Bank Bonus 2/7/15 E. Griffin 25 N/A
Mustadrik 15/10/14 B. Hills 6 4,000
Be Seeing You 14/11/14 R. Charlton 7 13,000
Moonmeister 5/7/14 J. Morgan 4 N/A

 

That’s an eclectic bunch, coming from an array of different trainers; English and Irish, flat and national hunt. It is notable that those where the sales information was available were cheap purchases and many were exposed runners. Furthermore, Elliott didn’t need them on the premises long to extract a win; received wisdom says that a trainer should bring a horse along gradually from the outset and get to know their traits whereas Elliott seems to take a different approach, one that certainly cuts down on training fees in the initial stages of a horse’s career.

These sort of stable switches have been Elliott’s lifeblood since he started training. His Grand National winner Silver Birch after all came from Paul Nicholls’s yard while many of his other stars like Bayan and Dirar started their racing careers elsewhere.

Since he had his first runners in 2006, Elliott has had 289 horses arrive with him from other stables, a huge number really; 34 of these won on debut for a strike-rate of 11.7% (this includes all runners up to Thursday July 2nd as do all other references in this article). I decided to dig a little deeper into the Elliott switchers and looked at the last one hundred horses that moved to his yard from other trainers.

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The most notable thing about this group was their price tags. Of those 100 horses, 55 passed through a public sales ring and their total cost was €993,800; for ease of calculation I have not differentiated by euros, pounds and guineas. The average cost of those horses was €18,069 but I think the median price of €8,500 is more relevant as there were a number of expensive outliers.

During this period, Elliott got seven horses that cost €40,000 or more but of those six ran in the colours of high-spending owners, five for Gigginstown House Stud and one for Barry Connell. The majority of his owners don’t have that sort of spending power and nor do they need to in order to have winners.

By any standards, these are not expensive horses and getting an animal for less than five figures that will likely do a job and win a race has to be rated value. Most sensible owners realise that buying a horse is a sunk cost but when you can get one so cheaply it is much more palatable and Elliott (and his bloodstock agent Aidan O’Ryan who signs for many of these horses) have clearly got the knack of spotting gold amidst the junk metal of the horses-in-training sales.

One can contrast Elliott with Willie Mullins here; after all, Mullins is his main rival with Elliott having finished second in the trainers’ race in both 2012/13 and 2014/15, albeit at a respectful distance. As befits his position, Mullins can afford a better class of horse than Elliott.

One need only look at his runners over the past fortnight to see this during which time the like of Rough Justice (€170,000), Aminabad (€11,000), Wood Breizh (€20,000), Daneking (€115,000) and Max Dynamite (€200,000) all ran. There are relatively inexpensive horses in there – Mullins has a mix of owners like most other trainers – but there is also the scope to buy a very expensive horse too, something that Elliott can only do to a degree.

And Elliott is well aware of this and tends to be tactical in when he takes on Mullins; there is no point in him constantly opposing the top dog on his ground, so instead he moves the game and thus changes the terms of engagement.

Elliott’s seven winners last week came at Perth and Bellewstown; Mullins never has runners at the first track and had only four across the three days of the Bellewstown Festival. Consider the tracks where Elliott has had the most runners since the start of his career:

  1. Perth 415 runners (124 winners)
  2. Fairyhouse 291 runners (35 winners)
  3. Navan 278 runners (27 winners)
  4. Downpatrick 269 runners (54 winners)
  5. Punchestown 247 runners (36 winners)

 

The likes of Fairyhouse, Navan and Punchestown are all obvious places to run, local tracks and/or major national hunt venues, but Perth and Downpatrick are anything but. Perth after all is in another country while Downpatrick is out of the way and a gaff track often frowned upon by purists.

But by competing there Elliott is finding the right level for his horses and getting wins out of them which is what owners want above all else, and avoiding the Mullins powerhouse in the process. Mullins fans would argue, perhaps rightly, that he could hoover up races at those tracks if he wanted but the point is he doesn’t and his chief rival deserves praise for spotting this opportunity. Prestige is important to Elliott for sure but winners seem more so.

Back to Elliott’s recent one hundred switchers. They are a mixed bunch, combining the obvious flat horses bought to go hurdling, expensive Gigginstown horses acquired from bumpers and point-to-points, Gigginstown horses that need rejuvenation from other trainers and exposed horses bought to win a small race or two. It is probably the last group that Elliott deserves most credit for and a high proportion of his acquisitions fit this profile.

The average number of runs this group of horses had before arriving to him was 13.3, not fully exposed but not lightly-raced either. Their strike-rates before coming to the yard and while there make fascinating reading. On their runs with previous trainers, the horses are 127/1330 (9.5%) whereas with Elliott they were 113/633 (17.8%).

I’m not saying he’s a better trainer than all the others as that’s difficult if not impossible to quantify; but such is the contrast in numbers, it is hardly an illogical conclusion to draw. Certainly, he places his horses as well if not better than anyone, putting them in the right races and getting their wins, something that pleases owners no end.

It is difficult to put a figure on how much Elliott improves horses that move to his yard. Some are changing codes; some are so sour they will never be sweetened. However, of the one hundred horses studied, I found twenty-two that could reasonably be said to have had the opportunity to prove themselves with both Elliott and their old yards and the average difference between their peak national hunt ratings with both stables was 8.95 pounds in favour of Elliott.

So if you’ve got a few quid to spare and want to get into racehorse ownership, Elliott might be the call. The chances are you’ll win a race of some sort and you might even win a good race – the trainer found Troytown Chase winner Ballbriggan and Grade 1 chaser Realt Mor on forays to other yards. There might be a few clichés along the way but it’s defin-night-ly a small price to pay.

Tony Keenan

Follow Tony at @RacingTrends

 

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