There are good horses, very good horses, great horses, legends even. And then there is TIGER ROLL.
It was very much a case of easy Tiger as the 9yo strolled to his second successive Randox Health Grand National success and wrote himself into the Aintree history books on a day to remember on Saturday.
For those of us lucky enough to be there, it was spine-tingling stuff in the spring sunshine. The shortest favourite since 1919 he might have been, but there was still a sense of awe and wonder as Tiger Roll eased to the front and glided past the Elbow. Was he really dismissing such a strong field with such contemptuous comfort?
As we all know by now, not since Red Rum in 1974 had a horse landed back-to-back Nationals. Ginger McCain’s went on to finish second in each of the two following years before winning it again, as a 12yo, in 1977.
A decade after Red Rum, along came Desert Orchid, another darling of the crowds. But so sharply has cynicism replaced sentimentality in the sporting world since then that, notwithstanding the efforts of the unbeaten phenomenon that was Frankel, I never thought I’d see the day when ‘Rummy’ or ‘Dessie’ would be challenged for the volume of affection and appreciation they drew from the public.
So, stand up and take a bow, Tiger. You are getting there, judging by the reception afforded you both before and after Saturday’s race. And quite rightly too, considering a CV that now includes not only two Nationals but also four Cheltenham Festival triumphs.
When it was first mooted that Tiger Roll would tackle Aintree, owner Michael O’Leary, of Gigginstown House Stud, suggested he was so small, he would headbutt the fences. He did threaten to headbutt the Liverpool turf a couple of times after Valentine’s Brook on Saturday’s second circuit when nodding and/or stumbling on landing. But otherwise, his performance was as smooth and polished as it had been 12 months earlier under 9lbs less.
O’Leary is now suggesting Tiger Roll won’t be going for the hat-trick next year, fearing the weight burden he would be saddled with. But will he be able to resist the public clamour, given the powerful place the gelding now holds in our hearts?
As a 10yo, he would still be at the peak of his powers. And in terms of actual weight carried, he can only go up another 5lb, given that 11-10 is the maximum allowed. O’Leary’s worries might be justified, however, in the amount of weight Tiger Roll would have to concede to his rivals. Since Saturday, he has been propelled 13lbs to an official rating of 172. Good luck to the handicapper in compressing the National weights to accommodate that!
Such a lofty rating actually makes Tiger Roll’s display on Saturday the best in a National since Crisp almost defied top weight behind Red Rum in 1973. Better even than that four years ago of the ill-fated Many Clouds, who ran off a mark 1lb higher.
Amazingly, it is also a rating that would have seen Gordon Elliott’s hero finish second in last month’s Cheltenham Gold Cup. The manner in which he won the Grade Two Boyne Hurdle over 3m at Navan in February also suggests he must have gone close in the Stayers’ Hurdle at the Festival too!
What is most remarkable about the Tiger Roll story is that he is one of the few National winners to have improved subsequently. The well-documented demands of the race have been taken in his stride. Nothing has fazed him, and while he is clearly a one-in-a-million racehorse, the contribution to his immortality of trainer Elliott and jockey Davy Russell should not be under-estimated either.
I know of no-one within racing who has not the utmost respect for Elliott, a self-made, man-in-the-street trainer, more at home in the pub downing a few pints with the punters than he is rubbing shoulders with the cognoscenti of the owners’ ranks.
Russell is not averse to a forthright opinion or two, particularly at Cheltenham Festival preview nights. They mean he is sometimes not everyone’s cup of tea. Indeed he wasn’t O’Leary’s when he was dismissed as Gigginstown’s retained rider in December 2013. But he remains Elliott’s go-to man when a big handicap requires winning, and no-one can doubt that the 39-year-old is riding as well as ever at present. Few pilots use their vast experience more effectively, and his Aintree partnership with Tiger Roll has been poetry in motion.
Ironically, Gigginstown’s current retained rider is Jack Kennedy, brother of Paddy Kennedy, who was aboard Saturday’s runner-up, MAGIC OF LIGHT. What a ride he was given by Jessica Harrington’s 8yo as she aimed to become the first mare since Nickel Coin way back in 1951 to land the spoils. Who knows what might have happened without two major home-straight blunders, at The Chair and the last fence?
Blunders were also made by the third, RATHVINDEN, most notably when he lunged at the Water Jump and then almost unshipped Ruby Walsh at the second Valentine’s. I was surprised to see Walsh ride Willie Mullins’s well-backed 11yo so handily, but I suspect his mount did too much, which cost him at the business end.
Admirable top-weight ANIBALE FLY made it four Irish-trained horses in the top five and completed an amazing record of near-misses in both this race and the Cheltenham Gold Cup over the past two seasons.
Terrific displays were also delivered by WALK IN THE MILL in fourth, 2017 winner ONE FOR ARTHUR in sixth and REGAL ENCORE in seventh. And a word of praise should also go out to VIEUX LION ROUGE, who palpably fails to stay the 4m2f trip but has now successfully jumped 181 National fences in seven completions of the course.
Of the disappointments in the race, few were bigger than LAKE VIEW LAD and ROCK THE KASBAH. Of the hard-luck stories, Irish raiders PLEASANT COMPANY and JURY DUTY were both still going sweetly when unseating their riders.
In any review of the race, it would also be remiss not to send deepest condolences to owners Graham and Andrea Wylie who, after losing two of their horses in falls at the Festival, were scarred by tragedy again when UP FOR REVIEW was unluckily brought down at the first fence.
The death was the first in an Aintree National for seven years, but still triggered condemnation and even a spate of petitions calling for the race to be banned. Of course, the critics are entitled to their point of view as they question the need for danger to satisfy the thirst for entertainment. But Aintree’s risk-management is now widely regarded as second to none for a traditional; sporting event that is loved by millions across the globe, not least by those close to the horses who take part.
Also, it never ceases to amaze me how slapdash the critics are with the evidence they summon to support their case for a ban. One of this week’s petitions, launched by Jennifer Johnstone, of Glasgow, is spoiled by her bewildering assertion that “From video footage before the race, it was clear that Up For Review was clearly weak and didn’t appear well enough to walk, never mind race. Therefore, it isn’t really surprising that he died”. Quite apart from being a contender for fake news item of the century, the assertion is an outrageous slur on the professionalism of grieving trainer Mullins and the independent vets who gave all of Saturday’s runners a thorough check beforehand.
I have expressed my concern in the past that the National was in danger of holding the rest of racing to ransom if it perpetually gave the impression that it was cruel. But I am more than happy with the way the authorities have adapted the race in recent years to meet safety and welfare demands, and providing they continue to move with the times, I am sure the National can survive.
What is absolutely certain is that the rest of the three-day Aintree shindig will survive. I have bored myself, never mind everyone else, by banging on, season after season, about the high quality and rich competitiveness of the meeting. It is unrecognisable from that of 20 to 30 years ago, and is now a true jewel in the crown of Jumps racing. For that, massive credit must be heaped on Aintree itself, which runs the most smooth and skilful of operations that appeals to ardent racegoers and casual racegoers alike and has been embraced by the Liverpool public as an unmissable, annual joy.
It is unnecessary folly to compare it with Cheltenham. But it is always fascinating to see whether Festival form holds up and to discover which of the heroes from March can double up a few weeks later. This time around, only two managed it -- Triumph Hurdle winner PENTLAND HILLS and, yes, you’ve guessed it, Tiger Roll.
Just one other achievement to add to the list of a remarkable racehorse.