El Nymph is living proof of the old adage never look a gift horse in the mouth.
The only problem is that Matamata trainer Nigel Elliott nearly did.
A grey El Roca filly that had been passed in on Gavelhouse.com came to Elliott’s attention but after inspecting her at Sonia Waddell’s Riverdale Farm near Tamahere, he decided she wasn’t the one for him.
The next day, Waddell rang Elliott back and said he could have the filly for free as her breeders had two others out of the mare and were keen to get the family up and going. Again, he declined.
“But then I slept on it and being out of a Sir Percy mare, there was a bit of staying blood there and I thought ‘why don’t we give her a go?’ So we went and picked her up,” Elliott recalled.
“We brought her home, broke her in and it’s all gone from there. So she’s a free horse that’s doing the job for us.”
El Nymph has gone on to win three of her 20 starts for Elliott and his wife and training partner Tammy and shapes as a leading contender for Saturday’s Taumarunui RSA Gold Cup (2200m) at Rotorua on the strength of her commanding last-start win over the same distance at Te Rapa.
“She’s won two of her last four but she could have won all four of those races if things had gone right,” Elliott said.
“She let herself down at Tauranga when she was hanging on the corner of the Kiwifruit Cup and was only beaten a head at Wanganui the start before that. She’s going superbly.
“Tammy went out and galloped her this morning. Usually she’s hard to get onto the track. We have to lead her out but today she was straight out there and her work was awesome. Tammy was really happy and we can’t fault her going into the weekend.
“She’s just got a mind of her own. If she decides she doesn’t want to do something she won’t. But when her mind is on the job, watch out.”
Elliott said El Nymph was getting easier to deal with as she got older and the couple were slowly ironing out her quirks.
“When she started off, she was always hard to get into the gates. Michael McNab used to ride her and he’d get off her so they would load her into the gates riderless,” Elliot said.
“She was perfect up to her first trial but then she stayed home for the next month because after that she refused to get onto the float.
“But she’s getting better all the time. She just loves the racing. She’s more settled now. She’s really clicked.”
With apprentice Erin Leighton opting to ride at Otaki on Saturday, the Elliotts have taken the opportunity to reunite El Nymph with McNab.
“Michael has ridden her and really likes her. While we don’t get the 1kg off her back, Michael is a top, in-form jockey and we’re rapt to have him on.”
Bookmakers have El Nymph as a +380 equal favourite for the Taumarunui Cup with Divine Duke.
“A top-two finish would be good but first place would be better. She’s pretty much beaten most of the horses in the field and if not, she’s beaten horses that have beaten most of the rest,” Elliott said.
“We had been holding off getting her over ground but we’ve always thought staying would be her forte. At the moment, we’ve got our eyes set on the New Zealand Cup at Riccarton. We reckon that race will suit her to a tee.”
Elliott said El Nymph would have a short break after Saturday’s race, while still having Tammy ride her “two or three times a week” before plotting a path towards November’s Group 3 Christchurch Casino New Zealand Cup (3200m), with the Listed Feilding Gold Cup (2100m) at Awapuni two weeks prior a possible lead-up.
Making the El Nymph journey all the more remarkable is Elliott’s backstory.
The 43-year-old only saddled his first horse seven years ago, having come from a harness racing family. His great uncle Charlie Elliott was a prominent breeder, owner and administrator who bred and raced 1986 New Zealand Derby winner Alba’s Reign. The Elliott Room at Alexandra Park is named after him.
Elliott remembers going to the races with his dad, the late Glenn Elliott, and harbouring a dream to train thoroughbred racehorses one day.
That came about when he was convinced to take a share in Red Tsunami, whose track rider he soon became acquainted with and later married.
He pestered Waikato trainer Janet Jeffrey for advice and was eager to learn and now, as a fully-fledged trainer, has achieved his dream.
Elliott lost both his parents about a month apart three years ago.
“It was a crazy, sad time. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now if Dad didn’t take me to all the race meetings as a kid. It would be great to win the Cup on Saturday for him and Mum,” he said.
As well as training, Elliott operates a boxing gym out of Putaruru and runs boxing events, including one in recent weeks in conjunction with former All Black Liam Messam that raised $25,000 for a boy diagnosed with brain cancer.
Among those currently training under Elliot are star jumps jockey and trainer Shaun Phelan, apprentice Elen Nicholas and former jockey Isaac Fraser-Hayes, who is unbeaten as an amateur fighter.