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Donn McClean: Many worthy contenders, but there could only be one Horse of the Year

Gordon Elliott’s double Grand National winner was recognised at the HRI Awards this week.

History maker: Tiger Roll en route to his second Grand National.
History maker: Tiger Roll en route to his second Grand National.
Image: PA Archive/PA Images

IF YOU HAD been betting on Horse of the Year, you probably would have bet odds-on Tiger Roll.

Not that the competition in 2019 wasn’t intense, because it was. Al Boum Photo won the Cheltenham Gold Cup, while Kemboy won the Punchestown Gold Cup and was rated the best steeplechaser in training. Apple’s Jade won her third Hatton’s Grace Hurdle, and she won the Christmas Hurdle by 26 lengths and the Irish Champion Hurdle by 16.

On the flat, Iridessa won the Pretty Polly Stakes and the Matron Stakes, and she went to Santa Anita and landed the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf. Magical won the Tattersalls Gold Cup and the Irish Champion Stakes and the English Champion Stakes, and if it hadn’t been for Enable, she would have won the Eclipse and the Yorkshire Oaks as well.

But none of them won the Grand National.

Other horses have won the Grand National and missed out on the Horse of the Year accolade, but Tiger Roll is different. We know that he is different, it’s just difficult to pinpoint why. Maybe it’s because he has won two of them, but he was box office after he won just one. Maybe it’s his connections, his owners, his trainer, his rider(s), the people who look after him. Maybe it’s his back story.

A Godolphin cast-off, Tiger Roll was bought by Gigginstown House as a potential juvenile hurdler after he had won at Market Rasen on his hurdling bow for Nigel Hawke. You never would have thought Grand National then. You couldn’t have thought Grand National. He looked nothing like your typical Grand National horse. The only connection he had then with Aintree was the fact that his then trainer had ridden Seagram to beat Garrison Savannah in the great race in 1991.

Gordon Elliott set about achieving as much as he could with his new recruit. Aim him at the Triumph Hurdle if he was good enough. And so the Tiger Roll story began.

There are many compelling chapters in the Tiger Roll story. We know all the chapters that have been written by now. There’s the Triumph Hurdle chapter for starters, when Davy Russell, out of Gigginstown favour, was cast centre-stage again after Bryan Cooper’s injury, and entrusted with the Tiger Roll ride. There’s the Munster National chapter, when the Authorized gelding stayed on strongly for Donagh Meyler to land the race named after JT McNamara.

There’s the National Hunt Chase chapter, which also commemorated JT McNamara that year, when Tiger Roll kicked a couple of fences hard, yet Lisa O’Neill remained on board and kept him balanced and drove him to victory. And there are the cross-country chase chapters, the 2018 version when he proved that soft ground was no issue, and the 2019 version, when he out-classed his rivals and came home over 20 lengths clear, ridden to victory on both occasions by Keith Donoghue.

And there are the numbers. Four visits to the Cheltenham Festival, four victories. Twelve career victories so far under seven different riders.

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But most of all, there are the Grand Nationals. Both of them. He wasn’t unexpected in 2018, but he wasn’t favourite either. Davy Russell’s first Grand National winner, Gordon Elliott’s second, his first since Silver Birch, and just getting home by a head from Pleasant Company.

Tiger Roll went mainstream then, interviews and videos and The Late Late Show and everything. Then he went back to Aintree in April 2019, 6lb more on his back and off a 9lb higher rating, and consolidated his position in the public’s consciousness by winning it again.

Keith Donoghue will tell you that, while Tiger Roll is a small horse, he doesn’t ride like a small horse. That he has some scope over his fences. Louise Magee will tell you that it’s terrifying to watch him race, that all you want is for him to come home safely.

Michael O’Leary said after he won his second Grand National in April that he thought he had no chance, that history tells you that you don’t win two Grand Nationals. Davy Russell will talk easily about Tiger Roll’s intelligence, about how quickly he figured out the Aintree fences, how he could kick the tops off them and not lose ground. And there was Becher’s Brook, when he danced left around a fallen rival, but danced back right again so that he maintained his equilibrium.

There is all the inevitable talk about the prospect of a third Grand National this season, and that would be unprecedented. No horse has ever won three Grand Nationals in a row. The build-up will be compelling. But the possibility of a third should not cloud the fact that Tiger Roll already has two Grand Nationals in the bag. No horse has won back-to-back Grand Nationals since Red Rum won his first two in 1973 and 1974. That’s 45 years ago. Tiger Roll is a history maker already.

Other achievers were recognised at the HRI awards on Tuesday evening: Darragh O’Keeffe and Rachael Blackmore and Wayne Lordan and Colin Bowe and Gavin Cromwell and Jessica Harrington and Billy Lee and Naas Racecourse.

There was a warm reception for the Racing Post’s senior reporter Tony O’Hehir, who deservedly received the Contribution to the Industry award, and there was a standing ovation for Pat Smullen and Ruby Walsh, who both retired from the saddle in 2019, 21 jockeys’ championships between them, when they were announced as the Irish Racing Hero award winners.

About the author:

Donn McClean

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