He might well have delivered the most uninspiring performance of his career when making his first start for Gordon Elliott recently, but curiously it might just have been the nudge required for Don Poli to get his chance in the Aintree Grand National.
Formerly trained by Willie Mullins, Don Poli was one of the more high profile Gigginstown House Stud-owned horses to vacate their stables at Closutton this autumn. Amid a high-profile and much talked-about disagreement over training fees, Michael and Eddie O’Leary elected to remove 60 horses from the champion trainer’s string.
Elliott was a key beneficiary, with Don Poli joined by Apple’s Jade and more at his base in Co Meath. The former made a spectacularly inauspicious start to this phase of his career when pulled up in the JNWine.com Champion Chase at Down Royal in early November. So poor was that run, where Don Poli never travelled an inch for Barry Geraghty before the towel was thrown in, that it simply must be written off as too bad to be true.
Elliott will nonetheless be going to the drawing board before making his next move, although the trainer has already suggested that Aintree is the most viable target for Don Poli now. Should he turn on Merseyside in the spring, it won’t surprise anyone if Don Poli ends up being favourite for the Grand National 2017.
Don Poli is a divisive figure, despite his consistent form and Grade One-winning past adventures. Twice a Cheltenham Festival scorer, once over hurdles and once in a three-mile chase, he has earned himself a reputation for being quite a slow horse. While it wouldn’t ultimately pay to argue differently, a review of his win in the Martin Pipe over hurdles at Cheltenham in 2014 certainly offers a different perspective.
His first run for Elliott was the 15th career start for Don Poli, who won’t turn eight until the New Year. Prior to his Down Royal disaster, he had finished outside of the first three just once in 14 attempts. That is a mightily impressive air of consistency and performance for a horse dubbed to be one-paced.
On plenty of occasions, supporters of Don Poli have longed for more aggressive tactics, particularly last March after he had stayed on into third place in the Gold Cup behind Don Cossack and Djakadam after exaggerated waiting tactics from Davy Russell. Those tactics might have been employed by Geraghty at Down Royal had things played out differently. That race also marked the first time Don Poli had sported headgear. Applied to sharpen his attitude, it could prove that it had an adverse effect.
Good enough for third in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, Don Poli now looks booked for a tilt at the Grand National in 2017. His new trainer is a master of preparation for such races and given how bad things began for the Elliott/Don Poli partnership, there will be plenty willing to write them off. He might not be seen much on the track this winter, but the suggestion is to be wary of Don Poli come the springtime. It could well come to pass that Aintree and the world’s most iconic steeplechase are his destiny.