Gordon Elliott promised to appreciate his second Randox Health Grand National success far more than he did his first after Tiger Roll clung on in a thriller at Aintree.
When Silver Birch passed the post in front back in 2007, Elliott was a fresh-faced 29-year-old still making his way as a fledgling trainer. At the time, he had remarkably not even saddled a winner in his native Ireland.
The progress he has made in the 11 years since has been nothing short of astonishing. In the last five weeks alone the master of Cullentra has taken the top trainer award at the Cheltenham Festival for the second successive year, gone through the 200-winner barrier for the season in Ireland and won his first Irish Grand National with General Principle.
He is long odds-on to dethrone Willie Mullins and claim his first Irish trainer’s title later this month and while his great rival pushed him all the way on Merseyside, with the boldly-ridden Pleasant Company going down fighting, it was Elliott who won the day once more.
He said: “I was nervous. I thought I had it, but you’re so nervous watching it.
“I said I didn’t appreciate the first time round. I’m definitely going to appreciate it now.”
Tiger Roll was already firmly established as a yard favourite, having won for the third time at Cheltenham in March, this time landing the Cross-Country Chase. The 10-1 chance looked like he had just started when cruising ominously into contention crossing the Melling Road under Davy Russell.
The Mullins-trained Pleasant Company staged a dramatic late rally, but the judge confirmed Tiger Roll the winner by a head.
Elliott added: “He’s an unbelievable horse. I was fighting with Michael O’Leary (owner) telling him to keep this horse at Gigginstown when he retires and he said he wasn’t good enough.
“He’d better keep him now. I’m going back on the boat tonight, I can’t afford Ryanair flights, but it will be some party.”
Russell, 38, dedicated his victory to leading Flat jockey Pat Smullen, who was diagnosed with a tumour last month, and said: “As a jockey this is the one you want to win, especially for someone like me, having 14 goes.
“On the way down the commentator said I was the oldest in the race so I thought ‘I’d better not come back next year’.
“The Gold Cup is the Gold Cup and I’ve been lucky enough to win that, but the National is so hard to win.
“This one is for Pat Smullen. I was speaking to him the other morning and he’s as tough as nails.”
Leading owners Gigginstown House Stud, led by Ryanair supremo Michael O’Leary, won the National two years ago with Rule The World.
O’Leary was keen to pay tribute to his trainer after providing him with a second success. He said: “Coming here I genuinely didn’t think he’d handle the fences – he’s a little rat of a thing, only 15:2 or something.
“It’s been an unbelievable training performance from Gordon to turn him from a Triumph Hurdle winner into a National winner. There was no real lightbulb moment that we realised Gordon was going to turn himself into what he has done, when he won the National first time I was like ‘who is he?’”
“He’s so driven and determined, he started out taking horses to places like Ayr and Perth, winning little races, and look where he is now.”
It was a second major reverse at the hands of an Elliott horse in the space of a fortnight for Mullins, having seen his Isleofhopendreams beaten just a head in the Irish National.
He said: “That’s twice Gordon has done that to me, he did it in the Irish National too. He (Pleasant Company) seemed to get a little bit tired and then get a second wind.
“I never actually thought he’d get back up, but he ran a fantastic race. He jumped from fence to fence and you couldn’t ask for any better.
“I’m really proud of him, he jumped fantastic and he’s one for next year.”
Elliott also saddled the third home, the 13-year-old Bless The Wings, while Tony Martin’s Cheltenham Gold Cup third Anibale Fly completed an Irish-dominated finish.
Hopes had been high of a second consecutive Scottish success, following One for Arthur’s victory last year, but it was not to be. Seeyouatmidnight, trained by Sandy Thomson near Kelso, ran a mighty race but became tired late on and eventually finished 11th.
The other Scottish runner, Captain Redbeard, trained by Stuart Coltherd near Selkirk, unseated his rider at the seventh.
Bryony Frost, riding in the race for the first time, fared best of the three female jockeys, coming home fifth aboard the Neil King-trained Milansbar.
She said: “It was just an amazing feeling. He gave me the best first spin I could ever ask for.”