AWhile one of the biggest names in show jumping officially left the scene last week, two more have returned to action as a nationwide hunting campaign that officially began in May slowly gains momentum. Farewell Altior, one of the exceptional two-milers of recent decades. Hello again, Davy Russell and Gordon Elliott, after several months of absence for very different reasons.
In the last two seasons of his career, much more time was spent speculating where Altior would run next, then forensic analysis of why he hadn’t, than what ‘watching him in action on the track.
At his best, however, Altior had an irresistible, captivating shine and aura of invincibility accumulated over four undefeated seasons over hurdles and fences, setting a world jump record with 19 straight wins, in 2019. At one When Willie Mullins and Elliott came to dominate the Cheltenham Festival, Altior also took out anything Ireland could throw at him. That challenge now falls to his stable mate, Shishkin, and it is surely for the best horses cannot feel the weight of the wait on their backs.
Probably Altior’s most lasting memory is her second victory in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, which came despite running a half a stone or more below her best and appealed to her courage as much as to his exceptional talent. But he was a special horse from the start and sets the bar high for Shishkin as the new season unfolds towards a potential encounter with Energumene, Ireland’s top two-mile, in the spring.
There is more to the National Hunt calendar than Cheltenham and while it seemed unlikely last October, Russell is looking good for at least one more season. His return to the winner’s precinct in Navan on Saturday came 342 days after a crash in the Munster National in Limerick that left the veteran jockey with a fractured C6 vertebra in his neck and looked likely to end his 23-year career.
Russell, however, had other ideas, and while Richard Johnson has followed Barry Geraghty into retirement as the 42-year-old recovers from his injury, he seems immune to the possibility of doing anything else.
Russell returned to the home of a well-deserved hero after winning on a crossfire on Saturday and followed a 14-1 chance at Listowel on Sunday, his only run of the day. Both were coached by Elliott, who had made a more understated return to the track a few days earlier.
Elliott’s welcome after a winner at Sligo on Wednesday was warm rather than thrilled, but he was more than happy to just be back on a racetrack after a six-month ban that could – and arguably should – have – be longer.
Few will need to remember the reason for Elliott’s ban or the damage done to racing’s image in Britain, Ireland and the world when a photo of him appeared on horseback on a galloping dead horse, posing for the camera with a smile and a victory V sign.
In addition to his six-month ban and a € 15,000 fine, Elliott lost several of his best horses to rival trainers after the photo was released. He has undoubtedly paid the price for his blind stupidity. He also split from Simon Munir and Isaac Souede in July after a BBC Panorama investigation aired footage of the owners’ Vyta Du Roc being slaughtered at a slaughterhouse in the Midlands.
Elliott said that at the time the horse was moved to a rider’s home with the owners’ permission, but the trainer was still the last person allowed to take responsibility for Vyta Du Roc.
It is difficult to say, however, if, even now, he fully appreciates the extent of the damage he has inflicted. The only interview before his return to action, in the Racing Post, included as much reflection on the possible motives behind the photograph’s publication as expressions of regret for its existence in the first place.
“Even though it’s so competitive here in Ireland,” he said, “we all support each other and I guess through things like that you get to learn a little bit more about who are your real friends.
“Others had their own agendas, and everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I was disappointed by some people. I shouldn’t have done what I did – I will never turn away from it – but I am a human being who made a mistake.
The photo was an insult to the hard work and dedication of thousands of stable employees who treat their horses with the dedication and respect they deserve and a blow to the sport that has propelled Elliott to fame and fortune .
The damage will last even as Elliott rebuilds his career and remains a ghost at the banquet when he saddles a big winner for a long time. How warm, or not, the welcome after his next winner at Cheltenham remains to be seen.