In crossing the post just a head in front of his nearest challenger last year, Tiger Roll became the Aintree Grand National champion as the smallest horse in the race, ridden by the oldest jockey.
In this, Tiger Roll has cemented his reputation as a horse that no one expected to rise to the National Chase elite but, time after time, has proven he is far more than he appears on paper. Described by his owner Michael O’Leary as “a little rat of a thing”, the diminutive nine-year-old now enjoys a trophy cabinet never anticipated for him: three separate Cheltenham victories topped off by last year’s Grand National crown.
“He is the complete over-achiever” remarked O’Leary’s brother, Eddie, after his 2018 Aintree triumph.
It was thought he may be a minor success with hurdles when he was purchased by the O’Leary stables in 2014. In just his second race for them, he won the Cheltenham Grade One Triumph Hurdle.
Even with this, O’Leary remained doubtful of his capacity to make a mark on the hurdle scene. When he switched to steeplechasing in 2017, Tiger Roll again decided to prove his owners wrong with two successive Cheltenham victories, first at the National Hunt Chase in 2017 and then the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase a year later.
“We never thought he’d make a chaser” said O’Leary “But as he’s got older and the longer he goes – this is part of the phenomenal training performance – the better he has become.”
By a standard assessment, O’Leary’s doubts should have been proven correct. At just under 16 hands, Tiger Roll is nearly always dwarfed by his significantly larger and sturdier rivals.
Yet he carries a nimbleness about his jumping that allows him to retain stamina across the lower, more forgiving fences before drawing on these reserves across the ones that others may fall at – something which he has yet to experience himself.
“He’s not a good horse, he’s not got class, he’s just a complete over-achiever” chuckled Eddie O’Leary as Tiger Roll’s trophy was presented at Aintree last year “He’s an amazing horse, a fantastic horse. He has a heart bigger than himself. We’ll never find another like him.”
— Dave Keena (@davekeena1) February 18, 2019
It is that bravery, that unwillingness to concede to his expected limitations, that has made Tiger Roll such a consistent favourite amongst racegoers.
In trying to defend his title at this year’s Grand National, however – in the process being the first horse since Red Rum to do so – Tiger Roll is presented with an altogether new challenge: the weight of expectation. He has consistently been the favourite in the Grand National winner odds, despite trainer Gordon Elliott declaring it would be a “very hard task” for him to retain his crown.
Yet, despite a rather relaxed finish to 2018, he has begun his new year with a confident victory in the Group 2 Ladbrokes Ireland Boyne Hurdle at Navan. His jockey that day, Keith Donoghue, declared that he was performing better than ever.
“It was a nice surprise” added Elliott “He’s a great horse and never lets us down. He’s paid himself for the year again”
He may well end up earning significantly more than that in the coming weeks. For Tiger Roll, 2019 may be the year when over-achievement becomes the new expectation.