If you’ve never been to a Grand National and are approaching an age when it is appropriate to list ten things to do before you die, then put Aintree near the top of your list. The Cheltenham Festival provides a glorious championships to test the best in our sport but the Grand National, the People’s Race, remains a very special experience. On the wall of the Legends Bar at the home of the National a cluster of plaques commemorates those who have been inducted into Aintree’s Hall of Fame and last Saturday a short ceremony marked the inclusion alongside horses like Red Rum, jockeys like AP McCoy and trainers like Vincent O’Brien of a disc celebrating the late, great sportswriter Hugh McIlvanney.
McIlvanney, the man who bridged the previously perceived division between penetrating and popular writing, was revered for his words about football and boxing — he wrote famously that heavyweight Joe Bug-ner ‘had the physique of a Greek statue but with fewer moves’, and described George Best as ‘gracefully riding tackles that would have derailed a locomotive’ — but he loved the racetrack too. He called the National ‘an annual blood-quickening blend of the epic and the personal’ and said of horseracing that ‘it doesn’t just generate excitement. It creates lore.’ More than any other race the National does that.
The 2019 Grand National was one of the special ones with nine-year-old Tiger Roll, once described by his adoring owner Michael O’Leary as ‘a little rat of a thing’, defying the statistics to repeat his 2018 success in the race and become the first horse since national treasure Red Rum in 1973 and 1974 to win back-to-back Nationals. The previous year Tiger Roll had won by a head. This year, allotted an extra 9lbs by the handicapper, he skipped economically over the 30 spruce fences and won comfortably by nearly three lengths in front of an ecstatic crowd. He was ridden again by Davy Russell, the 39-year-old with a craggily lived-in face, which reflects the ups and downs of a not always easy racing life but whose big race temperament should be bottled and sold in anxiety clinics. He was trained by Gordon Elliott, the man who came from nowhere to win his first Grand National with Silver Birch before he had won a single race in Ireland and who over 11 years since has built a formidable racing operation across the water, second only to that of the genius Willie Mullins. The only time Elliott and O’Leary fell out was when Gordon wanted to train a horse he had recommended to O’Leary’s Gigginstown Stud to buy and it was sent to another yard. He was sent two horses instead: ‘One won a race or two and the other was Tiger Roll.’ The horse he had wanted to train ended up being no good.
Ryanair tycoon Michael O’Leary might not win Most Popular Businessman of the Year too often but on the track he is a proper racing man, fully tuned in to humanity and sportsmanship. Questioned immediately about going for a third National next year with Tiger Roll he resisted temptation, saying that his little horse might be allotted too much weight and he loved him too much to want to impose such a burden on him. Tiger Roll’s main target next year is to be the Cross Country race at Cheltenham he has won the past two years. ‘If he wins that a third time we’ll retire him. In business you can be greedy. In racing you shouldn’t be greedy.’ Was Tiger Roll the best purchase O’Leary had ever made? Standing next to his wife he earns the quick-thinking award too for his reply, ‘Yes — after the engagement ring.’
Deciding that Tiger Roll’s price of 4-1 was not a fair reflection of his chances I had over two days of poring over small print narrowed my choice to three: Willie Mullins’s Rathvinden, Rock the Kasbah, ridden by champion jockey Richard Johnson (who had ridden in 21 Nationals without a win) and Gordon Elliott’s Jury Duty, one of this column’s Twelve to Follow last season who then went off to America and won their so-called Grand National, a hurdle race worth $450,000, just like his Silver Birch had done in 2007. Rathvinden finished a respectable third but Jury Duty unseated his rider and Rock the Kasbah was brought down. There was, however, no sympathy at home.
I had called in the morning to inquire if Mrs Oakley was having her once a year wager, somewhat nervously since establishing her selection from a restaurant menu can take 40 minutes. ‘No doubt about it,’ she said instantly. ‘It’s a fiver on Tiger Roll.’ Davy Russell said the nice thing about his win was the thought of all the folks back home, the taxi driver, publican and local baker who would have had their annual bet and won on the Tiger. One effect of his and Tiger Roll’s exploits he hadn’t anticipated is that Mrs Oakley is now threatening to come racing.