Patience pays off for Russell as veteran breaks National duck
Davy Russell, the oldest jockey in the race, capped a magnificent riding career when he rode Tiger Roll, one of the most accomplished little horses of the last few years, to a dramatic, last-gasp victory in the 171st Randox Health Grand National at Aintree yesterday.
Tiger Roll was a second National winner in three years for Michael O'Leary, Ryanair's chief executive, and a second for trainer Gordon Elliott, who won it with Silver Birch in 2007 before he had ever saddled a winner in Ireland.
But they had to wait for a photo finish to confirm that their horse, number 13, had triumphed in the world's greatest race by a fast-diminishing head.
The eight-year-old, who has won the Triumph Hurdle, National Hunt Chase and Cross-Country at the Cheltenham Festival, swept past the gallant runner-up Pleasant Company with such ease under Russell at the last, with the jockey merely riding him out with hands and heels, that he was six lengths clear at the Elbow with a furlong to run.
Had you stopped the race there, Tiger Roll would have been one of the race's most comfortable winners of recent times. But Aintree's famously long run-in, so often the undoing of horses that have led over the last, had one more twist in store when, 150 yards from the line, Tiger Roll began to tire while, from somewhere, Pleasant Company found a second wind and, scenting victory, began to fly.
In the last few desperate strides the winning post must have seemed like it was moving away from Russell but it arrived just in time as the pair flashed past the line together. Two strides later and Pleasant Company, ridden by David Mullins who had won the race two years ago on O'Leary's first winner, Rule The World, would have won by half a length such was the speed with which he was finishing.
Initially Russell's biggest worry was whether he would miss his plane back to Ireland to make it in time to ride at Tramore today, although the owner will probably put one on especially for him. "It's unbelievable," said Cork-born Russell, 38. "I've had such a spin. He jumped from fence to fence and the one thing he did was come for me when I gave him a squeeze.
"I went on when I did because I was afraid he was going to fall asleep behind Pleasant Company, he was going that well. I wanted to get upsides David. It was early enough but that was the reason behind it. I didn't get stuck into him until after the elbow but he really did tire and was very brave. For sure I was aware of David coming back at me and I had a big fear I'd lost the photo - there'd probably be no consoling that one."
Russell added that his most immediate thoughts as he crossed the line were for Pat Smullen, the leading Irish Flat jockey who is facing a fight against cancer, his mother who died shortly before Cheltenham, where he was leading jockey with four winners last month, and his four kids, the most recent of which arrived a fortnight ago.
"I was thinking of all the times my dad used to cut the grass and I'd collect them grass cuttings up to make National fences to jump over on my feet in the garden," he continued, emotionally. "I won the National a thousand times in the back garden but never like that! My father reared six kids and he'd take me hunting every Saturday when he had other better things to do."
He added: "When we were going to the start I heard the commentator say I was the oldest jockey in the race - I was joking to myself that maybe I should think about giving up if that was the case and that it might be my last.
"But this is right at the top. The Gold Cup is the Gold Cup but now I've won the Gold Cup and Grand National. I grew up with Gordon, driving to point-to-points, and we'd dream about these things, looking on admiring the people riding in it and now we're touching it."
O'Leary, a huge supporter of Irish jump racing, said: "It means so much for jockeys and it's great for Davy. He is 38 and this is his first Grand National. Tiger Roll is extraordinary. I did not think he would handle those fences here because he is very small." Asked how his heart was at the finish, O'Leary said: "My heart is wonderful - though some people don't think I have one!"
Elliott was almost lost for words. "I was nervous when they announced a photo finish. I can't believe it. I didn't appreciate it first time round with Silver Birch - I'll definitely appreciate it now."
Two years after his greatest day, Mullins had to settle for second: "You hope and pray but in my heart I knew I was beaten," he said. "In a war of attrition like that all you want is another stride. That's racing and I'm lucky I won it two years ago."
The 13-year-old Bless the Wings, also trained by Elliott, ran the race of his life to finish 11 lengths back in third with Anibale Fly a neck back in fourth to complete an Irish 1-2-3-4.
Sunday Indo Sport