Kevin Blake

Kevin Blake has reflections on the 2018 Grand National from Aintree, a race which saw Gordon Elliott’s Tiger Roll fend off the late charge of Pleasant Company.

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Reflections on a magnificent Grand National

In life, different is good. Different engages and stimulates the mind. The Grand National may be less different than it once was, but last Saturday’s renewal showcased why it remains one of the greatest and most thrilling of sporting events.

When one discusses what makes the Grand National so different, thoughts tend to turn to the unique fences and huge number of runners, but it goes deeper than that. The build-up and expectation is obviously significant and for those fortunate enough to be in the parade ring prior to the race, the atmosphere truly is eerily unique.

The excited chatter of typical big-race preliminaries is largely absent, with it being replaced by a palpable sense of nerves, excitement and even fear of what is about to unfold on the track. For a parade ring that is chock-full with people, it is incredibly quiet within it.

Owners, trainers and jockeys wish each other luck in a manner that doesn’t strike as being the usual platitudes, but delivered with a sincerity that acknowledges how high the stakes are in the 10 minutes of action that lay ahead. This is one of the few events in our sport that can be a genuine life changer and everyone knows it.

Once all the build-up had finally ended on Saturday and race was underway, the action on the track illustrated that while the Grand National fences have changed a lot in recent years, they still represent a notable test of jumping. Eleven of the 38 runners fell or unseated their riders with another two being brought down. While it was a tough watch at times, it was a thrilling spectacle that all the horses and riders came home safe and sound from.

Where can one start but with the winner Tiger Roll. The diminutive eight-year-old described by his owner Michael O’Leary as a “little rat of a thing” had already put together one of the most eclectic CVs in recent National Hunt racing history prior to Saturday, but his tendency to get notably low at his fences had everyone involved with him and many outside observers worried about how well he would take to the Grand National fences.

As it transpired, while he was low enough at many of his fences, he managed to part the spruce without notably interfering with his momentum in the main. That said, his journey around Aintree was anything but without incident.

Indeed, Tiger Roll had a notable scare when meeting Becher’s Brook for the first time, as while he jumped it well himself, I Just Know fell when directly in front of him, and Tiger Roll showed incredible athleticism and reaction speed to sidestep him. In addition to that, he hit the 19th fence quite hard which resulted in Davy Russell losing his iron, but he was able to get it back in a matter of strides.

From there, Tiger Roll’s supporters would only have been encouraged by pretty much every step he took, as he was always moving strongly. When he flew the final fence, and surged away from Pleasant Company, the race looked in the bag. Davy Russell didn’t need to think about picking up his stick until he had reached the elbow, but for whatever reason, Tiger Roll began to flag late on and Pleasant Company came within a head and perhaps just one stride of nabbing him on the line in what was an incredibly dramatic finish that had the Aintree crowd in raptures.

Tiger Roll wins the Aintree Grand National
Tiger Roll clears the last ahead of Pleasant Company

Tiger Roll really is a remarkable horse. As well as the unorthodox path he took during his career that led him to the Grand National, it shouldn’t be forgotten that when he won the Glenfarclas Chase at the Cheltenham Festival a month earlier, he was so tired immediately after the race that he was brought straight off the track to the racecourse stables rather than heading to the winner’s enclosure. For him to bounce back from those exertions to win a Grand National a month later shows that he isn’t just versatile, he is exceptionally tough to go with it.

After the result of the photo finish was made official, the emotions started to show. Gordon Elliott was like a child on Christmas morning, just as he had been after Silver Birch launched his training career in the same race 11 years ago, but it was Davy Russell that stole the show. In the heat and mayhem of the minutes after the result was announced, all he could do was thoughtfully thank Tiger Roll’s rider at home Keith Donoghue (who had just finished a respectable eighth on Valseur Lido) and dedicate the win to Pat Smullen.

Once Russell had cooled down and had the time to gather his thoughts, his words reflected those of a veteran that had long dreamed of winning the Grand National and had met plenty of bumps along his road to getting there. Having waited so long to win it, he seemed all too aware of the significance of winning a Grand National and the humble reality that he couldn’t have got there without the help of so many others along the way.

He spoke incredibly well and his words acted as a better advertisement for what the Grand National is than any ad agency come ever conjure up. Russell would be the first to tell you that he is far from perfect, but in the half hour or so he spent around the Grand National on Saturday, he was pretty close to it.

There is nothing more to be said about Gordon Elliott that hasn’t already been said. He is a fabulous trainer and the job he has done with Tiger Roll has been brilliant. While there is still a few more rounds to go in the fight for the Irish trainers’ championship, there is surely no one in National Hunt racing that would begrudge him if he manages to hold off the inevitable strong challenge of Willie Mullins.

For the winning owner Michael O’Leary, one could tell that it meant a lot. Some still fail to realise that his tongue is buried in his cheek when he refers to his horses in derogatory terms as he has with Tiger Roll and others over the years, but that is just his sense of humour. The levels of investment that his Gigginstown House Stud make in National Hunt racing coupled with the value that O’Leary brings as a source of personality and colour with his antics make him one of the most valuable assets that National Hunt racing has.

Gordon Elliott and Davy Russell win the Grand National
Gordon Elliott and Davy Russell continue to impress

In terms of side notes, there are plenty to pick through. The measures that Aintree introduced to reduce the possibility of loose horses becoming a danger to the remaining runners really are a fine addition, with the very clever rail configuration that funnels loose horses into retaining pens working well again.

As well as that, the protocols in place for corralling loose horses past the winning post with officials using lengths of tape to confine them until they were caught did a fine job too. There will always be a risk that loose horses will stay with the field and cause problems, but these measures really have helped reduce it.

There was a train of thought before the race that testing ground could result in Irish-trained horses holding an edge given that the last two times the ground for the Grand National had been called soft by Timeform in 2006 and 2016 had not only seen an Irish-trained horse win, but also saw them fill three of the first four places and five of the first six places respectively.

That is duly what transpired, with five of the first six places once again being filled by Irish-trained horses and that remains worth bearing in mind on any future occasions such ground prevails for the Grand National.

There was some controversy after the race with jockey Danny Cook having to answer to the stewards regarding his decision to step out onto the track and help direct the runners around the omitted Becher’s Brook after his mount had fallen at that fence a circuit earlier.

In the end, he was just warned of his responsibilities to not become involved in such procedures, but the clearly well-meaning and indeed helpful nature of his actions resulted in no shortage of stick being thrown in the BHA’s direction.

While I am all in favour of greater communication of what goes on in the stewards’ room to the general public, one can’t help but think that this is one of the very rare occasions where it may have been better for everyone for the stewards to simply have a quiet word with Danny rather than a public enquiry.

Inevitably, as there always will be with the Grand National, there was great focus from both inside and outside the sport on horse welfare. Despite the jumping-related drama, all the horses came home safe which made it the sixth consecutive renewal of the race without an equine fatality.

This is the longest fatality-free run that the race has had since the 1960s, though with the reporting of such matters unlikely to have been as detailed back then, there is every chance that this is the longest such run that the race has ever had.

However, while the Grand National has never been safer or better run with regard to equine welfare, it is all-but-inevitable that the day will come when there is another equine fatality in the race. As was shown by a frankly disgraceful article that was published online by the Daily Mirror in the immediate aftermath of the race (which has since been removed), there are still plenty in the mainstream media and public that will not let six fatality-free years soften their keenness to seize upon and sensationalise such incidents when it comes in the Grand National.

Everyone involved with the Grand National should be very proud of what it has become. Yes, it’s different than it used to be, but it has never been safer for all the participants in it and still hasn’t lost the magic that makes it so special. Long may it prosper.

Kevin Blake
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