Kevin Blake

Leading racing writer, Kevin Blake reflects on the magnificent Tiger Roll winning his second Grand National, labelling Gordon Elliott's horse racing's dream ambassador.

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TIGER ROLL – NATIONAL HUNT RACING’S DREAM AMBASSADOR

Witnessing a truly special moment in sport is a rare wonder, but what we saw in the Grand National on Saturday was special in the very truest sense of the word. National Hunt racing has waited over 40 years for a horse to win the great race twice and that wait came to an end courtesy of Tiger Roll. The diminutive nine-year-old joined just four others in history that have won consecutive renewals of the race since it began in 1839. In doing so, he became the first horse to do so since the great Red Rum in 1974. 

Of course, their feats aren’t directly comparable, as the Grand National was a very different test in the 1970s to what it is now. No doubt many feel Tiger Roll wouldn’t have prospered in the old race, with his low-jumping style likely to have been more heavily punished by the much less forgiving fences of old. 

However, it must also be said that Tiger Roll has now won two consecutive Grand Nationals in what is by far the most competitive era of the race. While Red Rum had to shoulder 12 stone when winning his second National, there was significantly less strength and depth in the race back then. It was routine for a fair proportion of the field to be made up by proper no hopers that were racing from a long way out of the handicap. 

By comparison, from the 2005 renewal onwards, just six horses have taken part in the Grand National from out of the handicap. Over the span of those 15 renewals the average rating of the bottom weight has risen from the mid-130s to the low-140s. The race has never had the depth of quality that it has now. 

Thus, while the modern Grand National may not the niche test of jumping that it once was, it could readily be argued that the higher completion rate brought about by the more conventional test of jumping combined with much higher-quality fields makes it a harder race to win these days. In that context, it could be argued that to win the race twice in the modern era is even more impressive now than it was in Red Rum’s day. 

For all that it is different to what it once was, the modern Grand National remains an extreme test of a thoroughbred and Tiger Roll has it down to a tee. His low-jumping style is ideally suited to the structure of the modern fences, but his history-making successes in the race are down to far more than that. It is his constitution, his heart and his seemingly ever-growing enthusiasm for his job that has led him into the pantheon of Grand National greatness. 

Red Rum went on to finish second in two more renewals of the race before winning it a third time in 1977 to secure his legacy as an icon in the sport. Thus, the question will now be can Tiger Roll possibly win it for a third time. Despite Michael O’Leary’s protestations to the contrary, have no doubt that this is the only thought in the minds of everyone involved. 

As incredible a day as last Saturday was, it is impossible not to let the mind wander to imagine what next year might be like. It goes without saying that it is often ill-advised to look too far ahead with these brilliant but fundamentally fragile stars of our sport, but if Tiger Roll makes it back to Aintree again next year, it will be an occasion like few others in the modern history of horse racing. 

Given it had been so long since a horse had won two Grand Nationals, it was only natural for most people to just hope rather than expect that Tiger Roll might be able to do what so many before him had failed to do. However, now that he has burst through the glass ceiling that had gradually been reinforced with each passing year since the time of Red Rum, no one can be in any doubt that this is a horse that is uniquely equipped to achieve what was widely considered the unachievable and win a third Grand National. 

Should he get there in top form next year, the level of expectation and hope that followed him into this year’s renewal will be made look miniscule. Just the thought of it as I sit hear writing these words is turning my stomach with nerves and excitement. 

What we witnessed on Saturday was Tiger Roll’s arrival into the hearts of not just the racing world, but the wider world. This is a story with the power to lift racing back into the public consciousness in a way it hasn’t been for many years. It is only true stars that can transcend a sport and Tiger Roll is just that. Everyone that has played a role in his journey from start to finish can be very proud of what he has become. As a sport, we couldn’t have wished for a better ambassador. 

THE GRAND NATIONAL IS THRIVING

As can always be expected, the ignorant sensationalism and clickbaitery from certain media outlets and outrage junkies on social media could be seen in abundance after the Grand National. However, by the time you read this article, 99.9% of those that seemed so enraged by everything to do with the Grand National will have moved onto whatever the new issue of the day is. That’s the nature of our social media-driven world and as annoying as it can be, it isn’t worth getting riled up about. 

By all meaningful measures, the Grand National is thriving. ITV posted excellent viewing figures and the betting industry reported stronger-than-ever interest in the race. It will never be perfect, nothing ever will be, but this is a contest that National Hunt racing can be proud to have as its most iconic event. 

DON POLI AND OUTLANDER SALES HIGHLIGHT UNSATISFACTORY LOOPHOLE 

The sale of Don Poli and Outlander for a total of £335,000 two days before they ran in the Grand National highlighted an issue that should be addressed going forward. There was of course nothing wrong with what transpired. Indeed, it was a stunning piece of business by the Gigginstown team to sell the horses for literally five times what they would have sold for if going through a sale ring a week later. It was how the change of ownership was handled that didn’t sit right. 

In the event that Don Poli or Outlander had won the Grand National, the winning trainer would have been Phil Kirby or Richard Spencer, despite the fact that the horses had literally never stepped foot in their yards. This is clearly the wrong way to deal with these situations. While there is of course no problem with the ownership and colours being changed for the race, it would be wrong for those trainers to go down in the history books as Grand National winners in the circumstances. 

While it isn’t a situation that arises very often, a small rule change that requires any horse that changes hands after the final declarations have been made to run in the name of and under the care of the trainer that made the declaration would remove the scope for such an unsatisfactory result.  

STANDING START FOR THE GRAND NATIONAL

Standing starts are an abomination that are to the detriment of everyone. The sooner they are done away with, the better.

Kevin Blake
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