Summerhill, a village in County Meath north of Dublin, usual population around 800, was full to bursting yesterday with enthusiastic well-wishers welcoming home the latest winner of the Grand National.
Nothing out of the ordinary here, it’s a scene that is played out every April in racing outposts all over the British Isles. But this was special. This was rock’n roll. This was Tiger Roll, the new Prince of Aintree.
It was a victory parade 24 hours after the Liverpool procession when Tiger Roll won the hearts of all in the racing community and the gratitude of a few million punters besides with a stunningly straightforward second straight success in the world’s most difficult-to-win steeplechase.
Now he is famous, not quite as famous as Red Rum, the last horse to win back-to-back Nationals in the mid-Seventies before later winning a third, but he’s getting there.
Accolades came thick and fast, not just from the expected quarters of Tiger Roll’s close connections, but from trainers like Jessie Harrington, whose game mare Magic Of Light chased him home.
“He is the most gorgeous little horse, a joy to watch over those fences,” she said, while Donald McCain, son of Ginger, who trained the legendary Red Rum, was also unstinting in his admiration.
“It was a pleasure to be there to see it,” said McCain, who won the National himself in 2011 with Ballabriggs. “I never thought I’d feel like this. Growing up, I was always hoping that last year’s Grand National winner didn’t win it again, but I think Tiger Roll’s the right horse to do it, I really do.”
And there was official affirmation of Tiger Roll’s high standing from the BHA handicapper Martin Greenwood, who reckons that Tiger Roll will now be rated in the low 170s, which, to put into context, is in the same ball-park as recent Cheltenham Gold Cup winners. “It could go down as the greatest performance in the history of the great race,” he told the Racing Post.
But how on earth has he done it? How has this tiny Tiger achieved so much? Four Cheltenham Festival wins to go with his double Grand National heroics? – just writing that down makes me tingle again at what this little marvel has achieved.
Clearly, size isn’t everything. Tiger Roll is living proof that a horse doesn’t need to be a burly, big-arsed bruiser, bred specifically for purpose, to make it big as a chaser.
Red Rum, also Flat-bred, was also on the small side, but both were blessed with a good enough leap in them to get over the highest of obstacles, the nimbleness to adjust their pre-jumping strides when necessary and the agility to stay out of trouble.
Jockey Davy Russell, pictured inset, says that Tiger Roll isn’t one for giving fences a lot of air, but will jump just high enough, brushing through the top of each fence and always getting away with it (he has never fallen).
Keith Donoghue, who rides him when Russell doesn’t, says he does the same even when jumping the smaller hurdles, a perfect economy of effort.
So what now? Owner Michael O’Leary is telling everyone that a third Grand National bid next year isn’t on the agenda. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime horse and a twice-in-a-lifetime experience,” he insisted. This might turn out to be baloney but we can understand where he’s coming from.
Neither Russell, nor trainer Gordon Elliott were born when Red Rum became a household name, but O’Leary was a teenage fan and so will know how crazy it will get if (and it’s always a big if in this sport) Tiger Roll lines up for the hat-trick next April.
But he must know that attempts to control the hype, however sensible, are futile. Like “Rummy”, Tiger Roll has become a racing icon, public property and the pressure will become almost unbearable once a tilt at sporting immortality is declared. So why bring that on now, before he has to?
There will never be another Red Rum, who did more than any other horse or human to resuscitate this great sporting institution when public interest had waned. The old stands were falling to bits and property developers were circling the famous old Aintree acres like vultures.
But Tiger Roll is the next best thing.