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Tiger Roll – the pint-sized horse blessed with the huge heart

Tiger Roll was the pint-sized scrapper bred to win a Derby but more at home over the Aintree fences, where he established himself as a true National treasure.

As a son of 2007 Epsom hero Authorized and a half-brother to classy Flat types like Ahzeemah and Austrian School, John Ferguson would hardly have had Aintree in his mind when he bid 70,000 guineas for him as a foal in 2010.

Tiger Roll never made it to the track for Godolphin, going through the ring again in August 2013 when trainer Nigel Hawke forked out a mere £10,000 for the gelding, who more than recouped that outlay when changing hands again for £80,000 at the end of the year following a hurdles win at Market Rasen.

Sent to Gordon Elliott, he made his debut for Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown House Stud in Ireland in Grade One company and just came up short behind Guitar Pete. But he turned that form around when winning the Triumph Hurdle in 2014 – a precursor to what lay ahead.

While he did return to Cheltenham for his first run the following season and left successful, a spell in the doldrums followed and like several Triumph winners before him, he appeared to have completely lost his way.

A well-beaten 50-1 chance in the 2015 Stayers’ Hurdle, connections would have been forgiven for sending him back to the sales.

However, they persevered, sending him over fences and he was soon off the mark, eventually bolting up in the Munster National at 20-1 that October, his eighth run since May but his first over three miles and fences, suggested he could excel in staying chases.

Two outings later he was a Cheltenham Festival winner once more in the National Hunt Chase when it was still over four miles, ridden by Lisa O’Neill, proving once and for all that stamina really was his forte.

Jockey Lisa O’Neill and Tiger Roll celebrate winning the National Hunt Chase
Jockey Lisa O’Neill and Tiger Roll celebrate winning the National Hunt Chase (David Davies/PA)

The following season Elliott had two races in mind, the Cross Country Chase at the Festival and the National and given he had been beaten at Cheltenham’s November meeting, he was a relatively easy to back 7-1 chance when he pulled off the first objective.

Then it was on to Aintree where, as a three-time Festival winner already, he was among the favourites at 10-1 but the heavy ground was not supposed to be in his favour.

When Davy Russell cruised into the lead before the last fence he looked like being one of the easiest National winners ever, but having gone by the Elbow with five lengths in hand, the petrol gauge was suddenly on empty and Willie Mullins’ Pleasant Company got to within a head at the line.

No longer would Tiger Roll be just another horse. If he never won again he would always have his name on Aintree’s famous roll of honour. Not since Red Rum, though, had any horse won the National more than once.

The following year would clearly be built around going back to Merseyside and the signs were ominous for the rest when he had his prep for the Glenfarclas Chase in the Boyne Hurdle – and won at 25-1.

It therefore should not have surprised anyone when he fairly bolted up at Cheltenham, by 22 lengths, and he headed to Aintree as a strong favourite.

This time, on better ground, Russell just had to avoid trouble and even off a 9lb-higher mark than 12 month earlier, he comfortably accounted for Magic Of Light to write his name into folklore.

Tiger Roll (right) had to see off Magic Of Light to win a second Grant National
Tiger Roll (right) had to see off Magic Of Light to win a second Grant National (Nigel French/PA)

A third Aintree win and the chance to do something Red Rum could not in winning three successive Nationals was the 2020 aim and while Tiger Roll came up short in a soft-ground cross country, it appeared as though a new record could be on.

However, fate intervened and as the coronavirus pandemic paralysed the world, the National was cancelled and with it went Tiger Roll’s hat-trick hopes.

O’Leary had not been totally convinced about an Aintree run, thinking the handicapper’s assessment of his star was harsh, and that has been the running theme since with neither party willing to meet the other’s expectations in what became a tiresome sub-plot.

Tiger Roll with trainer Gordon Elliott (left), and owner Michael O’Leary
Tiger Roll with trainer Gordon Elliott (left), and owner Michael O’Leary (Brian Lawless/PA)

Handed a mark of 166 for the 2021 renewal, O’Leary had already ruled out the National as Tiger Roll stormed round the cross-country course to claim a fifth overall Festival success and exact his revenge on Easysland by 18 lengths.

He eventually did appear on Merseyside as connections seemingly sought to prove a point by running him in the Grade One Betway Bowl – an outing which unsurprisingly ended in abject defeat on his first run over conventional fences for four years.

A further reverse over park fences at Aintree in the Many Clouds Chase, when Tiger Roll never went a yard, resulted a marginal move from the handicapper for this year’s National. But just a few hours after Elliott expressed his hopes of taking up the challenge, O’Leary had vetoed the idea calling his rating “absurd” and announcing the gelding would sign off at Cheltenham.

Tiger Roll jumps the final fence of his career
Tiger Roll jumps the final fence of his career (Mike Egerton/PA)

And so to the Festival once more, where Tiger Roll so nearly managed a perfect end to the fairytale, battling stablemate Delta Work, who clearly did not get the memo, all the way to the line, with the pair both returning to the winner’s enclosure for a rapturous welcome.

Tiger Roll may have been beaten in the race, but he has certainly won the hearts of the public – the Godolphin cast-off who found his niche and secured his place in the racing Hall of Fame.

It will be quite some time before we see his like again.

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