It may be the nation’s biggest race but at Aintree on Saturday size did not matter as the pint-sized Tiger Roll showed gallons of courage to claim the Randox Health Grand National – but it was mighty close.
In a climax fought out between Ireland’s two dominant jumps stables, the Gordon Elliott-trained Tiger Roll had coasted to the front at the second-last fence, striding clear of a seemingly beaten Pleasant Company from the Willie Mullins camp and who had made a lot of the running.
Yet, as the noise from the stands reached crescendo pitch to acclaim Davy Russell and Tiger Roll up the run-in, their six-length lead began to evaporate. David Mullins and Pleasant Company were not done after all.
Rattling home, the pair finished right upsides Tiger Roll at the post in a finish so close that neither jockey was confident who had won before the photo-finish delivered the verdict to 10-1 Tiger Roll by a head, delivering second Grand National triumphs for Elliott and owner Michael O’Leary, and a first for Russell.
In 13 previous rides in the race Russell, 38, the oldest jockey in the National and soon to be crowned champion of Ireland, came closest to winning last year when third on Saint Are.
But Russell’s first thoughts in his big moment were for others as he dedicated his win to Flat jockey Pat Smullen, who has been diagnosed with a tumour.
“It’s outstanding,” he said. “The only time I enjoyed cleaning up the grass when dad cut it was around this time of the year because I could build my own National fences out of the grass. I’ve won this race a thousand times in my head, in my dreams as a child.
“I’m thinking about my kids at home knowing they can be part of this wonderful event. I’ve been coming for years and been satisfied leaving not winning, because it’s such a marvellous event. It’s just amazing to have finally done it.”
Russell lost his mother Phyllis before the Cheltenham Festival and added: “Mam passed recently and she was a marvellous woman. She got me out of bed at 6am to drive me around the country. She always knew it was worthwhile for her child. I’ve had a brilliant career and I hope everyone that has helped me along the way can enjoy this as much as I will.”
Tiger Roll already had a remarkable career record, having won three times at the Cheltenham Festival, the latest in the Cross-Country Chase.
Russell had been worried the eight-year-old, who at 15.2hh was described by his owner Michael O’Leary as “a little rat of a thing”, would not take to the National fences because by racehorse standards he was small, but there was never any cause for alarm.
Of the major pre-race fancies, Blaklion was brought down at the first, I Just Know came down at Becher’s Brook, which had to bypassed on the second circuit as Charlie Deutsch was being treated after falling from Houblon Des Obeaux, and 7-1 favourite Total Recall pulled up after making a sequence of blunders.
By the time Pleasant Company led a breakaway quintet towards the second-last fence, it was Tiger Roll travelling conspicuously the best.
He helped secure a clean sweep of the first four placings for Ireland as Bless The Wings, also trained by Elliott, hung on for third by a neck from Anibale Fly in fourth, while Milansbar gave Bryony Frost a brilliant Grand National debut to complete in fifth.
Defeat was agony for David Mullins, who at least could console himself that he had tasted victory in the race two years ago on Rule The World.
As the finish unfolded O’Leary, who also owned Rule The World, said: “We were all celebrating, but at the line we were all panicking. Some people don’t think I have a heart but I can tell you it was beating very hard and very fast for the last 100 yards of that race.”
The Ryanair boss, who once sacked Russell as his retained jockey, added: “It’s a wonderful day for Davy, everyone knows we’ve had our ups and downs but he’s always come back better and stronger. It’s fitting that he’s coming to the end of his career and he now has a Grand National on his CV.”
Elliott’s 2007 National win with Silver Birch was to mark the start of what has become a phenomenal training career.
He said: “I probably didn’t appreciate it that much the first time as I was younger, but now I’m a bit wiser. Tiger Roll is unbelievable.
“I’m going home on the boat tonight, Michael probably doesn’t want to hear that but Ryanair flights are too dear. The horse will be paraded tomorrow and there will be a lot of drinking.”