Donn's Articles » Tiger Roll

Tiger Roll

It was on this day three years ago that Tiger Roll won the Boyne Hurdle at Navan.  Gordon Elliott’s horse was already a Grand National winner by then, he and Davy Russell had, together, negotiated the 30 spruce fences and bettered their 37 rivals at Aintree in April 2018, and just got home by a fast-diminishing head from Pleasant Company.

The 2019 Boyne Hurdle was seen as a stepping-stone for Tiger Roll – as evidenced by an SP of 25/1 – back to Cheltenham the following month in a bid to land another Cross-Country Chase, then onto Aintree to try to become the first horse since Red Rum to win back-to-back Grand Nationals.  He did all of that too.  A second Cross-Country Chase, a fourth win at the Cheltenham Festival, and a second Grand National at Aintree, even more impressive than the first.

The talk then was inevitably of a third Grand National, of a modern-day Red Rum.  But the 2020 Aintree Grand National was quenched by the global pandemic, and Tiger Roll was taken out of the 2021 renewal, owner Michael O’Leary determining that his handicap rating of 166 was too high, that that rating would leave him with too much weigh to carry.  Instead, Tiger Roll ran in the Grade 1 Betway Bowl two days before last year’s Grand National, finishing fourth of five finishers, 92 lengths behind the 169-rated Clan Des Obeaux off level weights.

If there was a sense of Hamlet without the prince during the preamble to last year’s race, it was all diluted in the aftermath, in the euphoria that was sparked by Minella Times’ win, and Rachael Blackmore riding into the history books.

There is a sense of déjà vu about the race this year though.  The weights for the 2022 Randox Grand National were announced on Tuesday, Tiger Roll was given a rating of 161, and his owner again said that he wouldn’t run, that his rating was too high, that it would be unfair to ask him to run in the Grand National off the handicap rating that he was alotted.

You can see the case.  Tiger Roll is 12 years old now, beyond his prime as a National Hunt racehorse.  He was seriously impressive in winning the Cross-Country Chase again at the 2021 Cheltenham Festival, his third Cross-Country Chase, his fifth win at the Cheltenham Festival, but that was almost a year ago, and over a year before the 2022 Grand National.  He was 11 then, not 12, and he has been well beaten in both his runs this season to date. 

Also, that is the only time, in nine runs since his 2019 Grand National win, that he put up a performance that was up to a mark of 161.  And it was on Cheltenham’s cross-country course, a unique course, very different to Aintree’s Grand National course.  Tiger Roll’s Grand National rating of 161 is 6lb higher than his Irish rating.

It was a tricky one for the handicapper though because, as good as Tiger Roll is on Cheltenham’s cross-country course, his record tells you that he is probably even better on Aintree’s Grand National course.  Put those spruce fences in front of him on spring ground in April, and he is dynamite.  And the handicapper can still take ‘the Aintree factor’ into account when framing the Grand National weights.

The Grand National used to be a race in which strength and experience were more important than youth and enthusiasm.  Not so these days, since the course modifications.  The last six winners were all aged eight or nine, and no 12-year-old has won the race since Amberleigh House won it for Red Rum’s trainer Ginger McCain in 2004.  

Also, history tells you that it is not easy to carry big weights to victory in the Grand National.  Tiger Roll carried 11st 5lb when he won in 2019, and only two horses have carried more than that to victory in the race since Red Rum won it under 11st 8lb in 1977.

Incidentally, the 11st 8lb that Red Rum carried to his third Grand National victory as a 12-year-old in 1977 was 6lb less than the 12st that he carried to his second victory in 1974 when he was nine, the age that Tiger Roll also was when he won his second.  Tiger Roll’s rating of 161 for this year, as a 12-year-old, is 2lb higher than the rating off which he won it as a nine-year-old.

Of course, Red Rum was a Grand National legend.  His record in the race was staggering, he ran in it five times between 1973 and 1977, winning it three times and finishing second twice.  When he was scratched from the race at the 11th hour in 1978, there was a sense of lacking.  The Grand National without Red Rum, it just didn’t seem right.

Tiger Roll is the closest thing that we have had to Red Rum since, and, similarly, there is little doubt that his absence this year will detract from the race.  His first victory in 2018 went mainstream, he and Davy Russell transcended racing, appealed to the masses, and his second victory went further still.  To have him at the centre of the preamble again this season would have been a fillip for the Grand National in particular and for racing in general.  That said, no one horse is greater than the race, and it is obviously an owner’s prerogative to make decisions that he or she believes to be in the best interest of their horse. 

The 2022 Randox Grand National is still set to be a compelling race.  It will still have the excitement and the drama and the exhilaration and the stories.  It just won’t have Tiger Roll.

© The Sunday Times, 20th February 2022