Eamonn Sweeney: 'Battlers' battler who engaged us all'
Tiger Roll's Grand National triumph seemed like the ideal Irish sporting victory. The central combination of four larger-than-life characters resulted in a perfect storm which lent the moment a kind of supreme emotional rightness.
Foremost among the quartet was Tiger Roll himself. It's just as well that horses can't read or he'd surely have been overcome by the hype preceding his Aintree assignment. The hoopla was all justified because winning successive Grand Nationals is one of the equine world's supreme challenges.
You could argue it's up there with English flat racing's Triple Crown, last won by Nijinsky in 1970 and by Bahram in 1935 before that. The dates are strikingly similar: Tiger Roll was striving to emulate Red Rum's two on the trot in 1974, which was the first since Reynoldstown's in 1936.
The achievement is remarkable enough in itself. So much militates against a repeat win: the huge exertion required, the difficulty of the fences, the large numbers, which always hold out the possibility of being brought down or a rival having the race of its life.
But Tiger Roll would seem to be further handicapped by his stature, small for a chaser at just over 15 hands. A glorious future looked unlikely when the Goldophin operation, who'd bought him for 70,000 guineas as a foal, decided to cut their losses and offloaded the unraced three-year-old for £10,000 to the Devon trainer Nigel Hawkes.
His debut could hardly have been more unheralded. On November 10, 2013 Tiger Roll was one of five entrants in the 1stsecuritysolutions Juvenile Hurdle at Market Rasen. Only one of the other horses was at a longer price than the 12/1 shot but our hero took the lead coming to the second last and won by three and three-quarter lengths to earn the princely sum of £3,899.
Gigginstown Stud sensed something and bought him for £80,000. It seemed a masterstroke when their new arrival won the Triumph Hurdle at Cheltenham the following March. But then came an extremely rocky two years. Pulled up at Down Royal and Punchestown, beaten favourite at Punchestown, Killarney and Galway, where he unseated his rider, last at Punchestown, second last at Leopardstown, 13th of 16 at Cheltenham, 14th of 19 at Aintree, Tiger Roll looked a horse with a great future behind him by October 2016.
Due to run in a novice chase at Tipperary that month, he suffered a stone bruise and was sent instead to the Munster Grand National in Limerick the following week, where odds of 20/1 were no surprise. But when Donagh Meyler sent him to the front before the second last Tiger Roll just eased away from the opposition to come home seven lengths clear.
It was a turning point for the little battler. The following March at Cheltenham, with Lisa O'Neill on board, Tiger Roll won the National Hunt Chase at 16/1. All was not plain sailing after that - a tilt at the Irish Grand National saw him pulled up after the 12th fence - but in 2018 he won the Cross Country Chase at Cheltenham and the rest is history. Right now there is probably no more popular horse than this also-ran turned legend.
For one terrible split second, as Tiger Roll's nose neared the ground after the 26th fence, the dream looked in danger. But Davy Russell righted him and when he took the lead coming to the last it was one of those moments when you sensed the presence of the hand of history. By the elbow it was clear that reality was about to surpass the wildest of the hype.
We were able to enjoy the moment because we knew that if Davy Russell was making his move then it was being made at the right time. Russell is the most patient of jockeys, Zen calmness and perfect timing his trademark. How often he pounces with the ruthlessness of Lancey Howard revealing the final winning hand to the Cincinnati Kid.
Russell is a man whose profession you could not mistake were you to meet him a thousand miles from a racecourse. The hunger, both spiritual and physical, central to the jockey's calling is etched on a face that looks plucked from some medieval altarpiece depicting the passion of Christ.
In a tough trade, few men seem tougher. Yet in the immediate flush of victory Russell was all tenderness as he dedicated the victory to his friend Kieran O'Connor and spoke of the Aghada man's brave battle with illness. At the moment of perhaps his biggest ever victory, Russell's thoughts were of someone else.
You felt great pride in the way he informed the interviewer that his friend had played for Cork as if everyone watching should know what this meant. I half expected Francesca Cumani to observe that the Rebels could certainly have done with O'Connor in this year's National League and Brough Scott to add that they're just not producing defenders like him, Noel O'Leary and Paudie Kissane this weather.
If it was hard not to feel emotional when Davy Russell spoke, Gordon Elliott put the tin hat on things. There's something different about Gordon Elliott. He inhabits a world full of fascinating and appealing characters. There is the almost aristocratic cool and calmness of Willie Mullins, the Cary Grant of Irish sport. There's the Elizabeth Bowen heroine dignity and decency of Jessica Harrington. And the dark-glassed unknowability of Aidan O'Brien.
What they all have in common is a quality of reserve, common in horse racing because its ups and downs are extreme enough to constantly punish anyone with their heart on their sleeve. But Gordon Elliott couldn't hide his emotions if you put three pairs of sunglasses on him. He has a lovably boyish inability to suppress delight.
On Saturday he had someone on his mind too, his uncle Willie who died in November. "Without him," said the nephew, "I wouldn't be here." The story of how Gordon Elliott got to 'here' may be the most interesting one in Irish sport right now. Where most of his peers and rivals have had a family connection with the game, Elliott had to start with nothing and work his way up. One of the most attractive things about him is that he still seems hardly able to believe what he's achieved.
In the week preceding the race an English newspaper had bemoaned the fact of Elliott's 11 entrants in the race. It would have been more in their line to focus on the unprecedented logistical brilliance which enabled this achievement. Elliott may seem like an ordinary man but he is in fact a most extraordinary one.
So, of course, is Michael O'Leary, whose gamble in making Elliott Gigginstown's trainer of first resort has paid off handsomely. Few figures in Ireland are more divisive than the Ryanair boss, yet racing brings out the best in his personality, the alacrity with which he deflected the credit to his trainer when asked how it felt to make history being a case in point.
O'Leary is also a man who knows how to build up a large empire from nothing against the opposition of powerful rivals. Full disclosure: he enabled a young me to get forward and back from England to home when money was tight. He's probably saved you a few quid along the line too.
All that caper with the delayed plane and the free drinks for the passengers added a uniquely Irish post-script to the day. That great newspaperman Max Hastings once lamented the foxhunting ban cross-channel by saying that hunting had once given English culture its quality of "dash". I feel that horse racing does something similar for Ireland, bringing out an unbuttoned, joyous, devil-may-care and entirely distinctive side to the national character which perhaps doesn't surface often enough these days. People felt good about this win in a different kind of way.
There were a few souls who felt it important to reveal that occasionally horses die, that Davy Russell once punched one of them, that Michael O'Leary is a very rich man and that somehow this should overshadow the whole carnival. To each their own. It's certainly true that 'woke' horse racing is never really going to be possible because there is a fundamental unwokeness at the sport's heart.
Whether you feel that detracts from, contributes to or makes no difference to the sport is your own business. The no-nonsense quality of racing certainly makes it the antithesis of the social media world with its never-ending desire to complain, to denigrate and above all to ceaselessly, pedantically and tediously correct.
Our relationship with sport changes when we grow older. That's to be expected with anything. I remember Susan Sontag, the great American critic, admit that a lot of the avant-garde stuff she'd become famous for championing left her cold in later life, when only opera really pushed her buttons.
I've always loved most sports. But we all have our favourites. As a teenager I worshipped athletics above all else. That was superseded by League of Ireland football and then by the All-Ireland championships. Lately, although my tastes remain catholic in the best sense of the word, I find horse racing speaking more to me than any other sport.
I'm not entirely sure why. Two decades of rural living surely has something to do with it. Horse racing seems connected with the land and the seasons in a way few other sports are. It's all around you. You bump into a jockey in the pub, hear the man doing a job at the house tell you how he's raising a foal he wants to sell at Goffs, chat with the local hotelier about his bygone adventures in the world of ownership.
There is a rooted feel to racing but not an exclusive one. It may have been an Irish victory but Tiger Roll is a hero in England too. What nationalism there is in horse racing is a mild variety unconnected to the more virulent manifestations currently making a bit of a comeback, at least in rhetorical terms.
Growing older and settling down a bit may also account for my changing affections. The flashier values seem less important as you kick on a bit and the final whistle is closer than the throw-in. More solid ones, like the courage of jockeys who know their job will inevitably involve filling out a kind of pain schedule or the gruelling, unglamorous and unavoidable hard work underpinning every horse that ever runs, come to seem more impressive.
I find something wonderful, for example, in those magnificently implacable young women who led Tiger Roll at Aintree, serious, silent and intense as participants in some hallowed rite. Which is in a way what they are.
There's something else as well. Occasionally in this column I've mentioned a couple of my daughters and their enjoyment of sport. There's one I rarely mention because she evinces an utterly Olympian disdain towards it, whether as participant or spectator. She is autistic and entirely wonderful and I have learned more from her about the goodness of life than from anyone else.
One sport does move her, something visceral about it compelling her attention whether we watch it live at Galway or Mallow or take it in on TV. When Tiger Roll rounded the elbow last Saturday, with a few Sweeney quid on board, she was if anything even more engaged and excited than me and her twin sister. In that moment I was very grateful to racing and what it offers. It was a perfect Saturday. Tiger Roll had come through for battlers everywhere.
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