Sunday Times – 7 April 2019
The little heroes can be the greatest. As Tiger Roll walked back with rolling waves of applause crashing down from the grandstand, Davy Russell took another bucket of water to empty over his diminutive partner’s back. The fences may be softer, the distance shorter and the drops have gone. But the Grand National remains the most watched, most exciting, most demanding race on the planet, and history had been made in the heat.
The blinkers had been taken off and walking beside Tiger Roll you could marvel at the slightness of his almost pony sized stature and the pointed elegance of his soaking bay face. He will now rightly become one of the world’s most familiar and best loved equines and as Davy Russell stood up in the irons and pumped his arms at the crowds in triumph, it was hard to believe what extraordinary separate journeys horse and rider have been on.
For who would have thought that the little three year-old up from Nigel Hawke’s small country yard in Devon who had won the five runner juvenile hurdle at odds of 12-1 at Market Rasen in November 2013, would five and a half years later become an Aintree legend to rank alongside Red Rum. Tiger Roll had been a £10,000 Godolphin reject and soon after Market Rasen, Nigel Hawke was happy to collect £80,000 at the sales with the thought that this would be a handsome profit. 34 wins and £1.2million later he might not be so sure.
The ability is of course all Tiger Roll’s, but the mentoring through these last five years is but the latest and greatest example of the intuitive skills of trainer Gordon Elliott. With 200 horses under your care it must be difficult to nurture individuality but the way Gordon and his team have handled their brilliant but quirky little hero ranks alongside the Aintree training legends all the way back to Vincent O’Brien.
For while Tiger Roll won the Cheltenham 2mile Triumph Hurdle within 4 months of his move to Elliott’s, he lost his way afterwards to the extent of seeming fed up with the game. Elliott changed his routine, got his humour back, won the 4m National Hunt Chase with him at the 2017 Cheltenham Festival, humoured him again by winning the Cross Country Race there last year before his first Aintree triumph, a pattern he repeated this spring.
At his side during this time, as she was here in the sweat soaked glory of the Aintree walk in, was Louise Magee who somehow juggles dealing with this equine legend with the even more important and ardous duties of being mother to two sets of twins. Louise took another bucket of water and emptied it over Tiger Rolls narrow little neck, then ran her hand up behind his ears in a perfect maternal touch.
Up above her Davy Russell’s raised his arms together to salute the massed banks of cameras and leant down to give his talented partner a loving and grateful hug. Davy will be 40 this autumn and while there have been some setbacks along the way, this golden autumn of his career has seen a full appreciation of the skill and verve and balance with which he can set a horse up to jump a fence. Two races before the Grand National he shown every one of these qualities to make all the running in the Novice Chase on a horse called Ornua, who had fallen at Cheltenham in its previous outing. The man with the scythe may be closing on Davy but he will have to quicken to catch him.
The massive police horses were moving in behind Tiger Roll to escort him back under the grandstand to the acclamation of the winners’ enclosure. It is all very smart and new these days. The sun was shining and Liverpool and the world was a happy place. It has come a long, long way from the Aintree of 45 years ago when Red Rum became the last horse to win two Grand Nationals in a row. Of course, yesterday’s little hero has now to rank up two seconds and another Grand National triumph to equal the most astonishing legend of them all. But the feeling Tiger Roll gave was so similar to what Red Rum inspired back in 1974. As he was coming in trainer Ginger McCain held him for one glorious moment and said the simple words – “what a horse.” For next year, the dream lives on.