This is a story of self-belief, stamina, serendipity, shelves groaning with championship silverware — and two very unlikely heroes. Pictured is Tiger Roll and his trainer Gordon Elliott
This is a story of self-belief, stamina, serendipity, shelves groaning with championship silverware — and two very unlikely heroes.
The first is a nine-year-old bay gelding with a bright white flash on his face, a tendency to nip, kick and buck and a penchant for top-of-the- range hay imported specially from Canada. He has suffered injury and long-term depression and, for years, was disappointingly slow on the flat.
The other is a chubby chap called Gordon Elliott, who is 40, single — but open to offers — would live on steak and chips if he could (and I suspect mostly does), still struggles with literacy but is a genius when it comes to anything equine and, when I met him this week, was so tired and hung over he could barely speak.
Both were late developers. Both disappointed in youth. Both struggled to find their way. And both are now on top of the world.
Because, as everybody knows, last Saturday Tiger Roll, trained by Gordon and owned by Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary, won the Grand National for the second consecutive year — the first horse to do so since Red Rum in 1974 (Red Rum also won a record third time in 1977).
And he did it in considerable style.
So while the other runners’ sides were heaving and nostrils were flaring, Tiger made the most gruelling horse race — 4.5 miles over 30 fences almost as big as him — look really rather easy.
He is a supremely intelligent horse who needed neither coaxing nor guiding. As jockey Davy Russell, who rode him in both Nationals, said: ‘He’s not a horse I would interfere with as a jockey . . . for starters, he wouldn’t listen!’
Tiger seemed to gain power in the final mile, sweeping past the winning post with what looked suspiciously like a grin on his handsome face.
Jockey Davy Russell, who rode Tiger Roll in both Nationals, said: ‘He’s not a horse I would interfere with as a jockey . . . for starters, he wouldn’t listen!’
Gordon, meanwhile, was yelling and shouting and praying. ‘From fence to fence, you’re, ‘‘Oh Jesus, I hope he makes the next one!’’ ’ he says.
And when Tiger finally romped home, he shed a tear or two and patted him so hard and excitedly on his shiny neck that several over-zealous animal rights campaigners complained he could have knocked his head off.
‘I was very excited. It was so emotional,’ he says. ‘Unbelievable. The stuff you dream of.’
Today, in the sun in the yard of his 78-acre training stables near Dublin, Gordon is hoarse, very pink of cheek and clearly struggling. Of course he is. He’s been celebrating pretty much non-stop since Saturday. Quite right too.
Trainer Gordon describes Tiger Roll (pictured with Jane Fryer) as ‘very much not a child’s horse — he’ll kick and bite, but that just gives him more character’
‘We started at the racecourse. Champagne — I don’t know what kind, but whatever it was it was expensive and I wasn’t buying! Then beer. Then vodka and lemonade till late,’ he says. ‘I can’t remember if we drank out of the trophy — it was quite a big night.’
Tiger, meanwhile, couldn’t look better. Every inch of him — from his short fringe to his glossy flanks — gleams. Muscles ripple as he prances and he rolls his inky eyes sternly at me.
However much the grooms insist he’s treated the same as all Gordon’s other equine guests — a scoop of nuts for breakfast, followed by a quick sprint up the gallops and a good wash, a stint in the mechanical horse-walker, more nuts for lunch, perhaps a swim in the equine pool in the afternoon, followed by three more scoops of nuts for tea — he clearly has something extra.
Gordon describes him as ‘very much not a child’s horse — he’ll kick and bite, but that just gives him more character’. His groom, Louise Magee, says he’s ‘a lovely ride if a bit cheeky, throwing the odd buck’.
The stable lads talk of charisma, an aura, a sense of entitlement.
Perhaps he knows about the fan mail piling up in the yard office, the cards, the drawings of him by schoolchildren, the emails, the Facebook messages. There are even carrots and a pack of his favourite Polo mints that, like Red Rum, he devours by the tube.
He certainly has the swagger — and some of the prima donna tendencies — of a superstar.
Albeit a very teeny one. Because in the flesh, he’s not just small but slight, too. Not that this bothers him because, according to Gordon, he knows he’s the best. ‘Red Rum was a legend but so is Tiger,’ he says. And he’s right. As well as two Grand Nationals he has won four times at the Cheltenham Festival and in umpteen races, and has never fallen.
His prize money tops £1.3 million and, other than Rummy, no one can remember a winner as gutsy and diminutive. Or as unlikely.
Because Tiger was never supposed to run the National, let alone win it twice, back to back. Like Red Rum, he wasn’t even expected to jump.
He’d been bred from top stock to be a flat racer (his sire was Authorized, 2007 winner of the Epsom Derby) and sold to racing stable Godolphin for 70,000 guineas, but showed so little early promise that, aged three, he was sold ‘unraced’ for the knockdown price of £10,000.
His prize money tops £1.3 million and, other than Red Rum, no one can remember a winner as gutsy and diminutive. Or as unlikely. Because Tiger was never supposed to run the National, let alone win it twice, back to back – he wasn’t even expected to jump
Former Grand National winning jockey-turned Devon trainer Nigel Hawkes spotted his jump potential, bought him, entered him in an easy race (which he won) and sold him three months later to O’Leary for a tidy £70,000 profit.
(Spare a thought here for poor Nigel, who ever since has been reminded of what he let go. Last week, when asked what he’d do if Tiger won the National again, he joked: ‘I’ll jump off that bridge!’)
Meanwhile, Gordon was disappointed.
‘I’d wanted a different horse that day,’ he says. ‘I hadn’t wanted this one. Of course you always buy with hope, but he didn’t stand out.’
It didn’t help Tiger’s cause that, after an early win at the Triumph Hurdle at the 2014 Cheltenham Festival, he suddenly lost form and sank into a long depression.
‘We couldn’t put our finger on it, but he tweaked his back and lost all his form,’ Gordon says.
For the next two years, Tiger languished on a list of horses likely to be sold. But Gordon could never quite bring himself to do it.
‘I don’t know why,’ he says. ‘He was never the horse with the most ability but I just couldn’t give up on him.’
Perhaps in Tiger he saw a kindred spirit. A flash that something great might come from unexpected places. After all, Gordon’s life has taken some unexpected turns.
His childhood, growing up in Somerhill, County Meath, was modest. Mum was a cleaner, his dad a panel-beater and Gordon found school a challenge.
‘I’m not a good reader or writer,’ he says. ‘If you asked me to write a letter to someone, I still wouldn’t be able to do it. I sometimes even struggle with the prescriptive text on my phone. But I’m not stupid.’
At 13, he started work in a stables and became a jockey. Today it’s hard to imagine him making the weight — and he says it was a struggle but he won more than 200 point-to-points and 50 races on the track. It wasn’t enough.
‘If I was a jockey, I wanted to be the champion jockey. If I’m a trainer, I want to be the champion trainer. I’ve never been interested in money or fancy things,’ he says. ‘I just wanted to be the best at what I do. I like winning, winning, winning.’
So in 2005 he took a leap of faith, moved into training and, just two years later, won the Grand National with Silver Birch.
The racing world was in shock and Gordon was on his way.
Since then, his rise has been stratospheric. His yard is now home to 200 horses, more than 40 staff, high-tech equine equipment and has trained more than 1,000 winners. Behind his desk is a sea of silverware, giving even epic Irish trainer Willy Mullins a run for his money. Gordon had 11 horses running in this year’s Grand National, for goodness sake! It would have been 13, but two were sold the night before.
He’s a winning machine and, like Tiger, no one knows how he does it. And he certainly won’t say.
‘If I told you, I’d have to kill you,’ he says. ‘I just keep my eyes open and keep driving on.’
But he works every hour, hasn’t had a day off sick since he left school or a holiday for two years, lives in a tiny apartment in the stables and says the only time he relaxes is watching the Australian soap opera Home and Away.
‘I’m addicted to it,’ he admits. ‘I haven’t missed an episode since I was a boy!’
Back to Tiger, who for several years languished in the doldrums until, in 2017, as a last resort, Gordon entered him in a cross- country race. ‘He came alive!’
Everything changed. He started winning everything. He won at Cheltenham three years running. And he glowed with happiness.
‘He loves his job and he knows he’s good,’ says Gordon. ‘And he’s clever, so clever. You can see that from the way he jumps. He knows how to measure a fence. He’s true class.’ Goodness knows what he’s worth today, but Gordon says it’s irrelevant.
‘How can you put a price on him?’ he asks. ‘Anyway, the man who owns him has so much money he’ll never need to sell him.’
According to Louise Magee, the moment he’s at Aintree, or Cheltenham, or anywhere he’s limbering up for a big race, he ‘sort of swells with excitement, grows in stature and immediately grows two more hands’.
This year at Aintree, the minute Louise started plaiting his mane, she knew he was ready.
‘He was fizzing with excitement, shivering — he knew exactly where he was and he clearly wanted to win it. That was his way of psyching himself up.’ Back in the yard, amid the sweet smell of horse dung, Gordon is still piecing together the celebrations.
He remembers O’Leary offering free drinks for all — just one each, mind — on the Ryanair flight home from Liverpool to Dublin.
He knows that, unlike last year, he didn’t make a rather animated Facebook video with Tiger and Davy Russell, in the former’s loose box, pretending to roar like a Tiger. But the rest is a bit of a blur.
On Sunday there was parading with Tiger, who had travelled back by boat, followed by another late night. Then a half day off on Monday for the yard to celebrate. By 3pm on Tuesday, he was so tired that he slid off to bed. ‘I’m going to wait a couple of days before I start celebrating again at the weekend,’ he says wisely.
Tiger, meanwhile, they all agree, seems unaffected by his exertions as I cuddle him in his loosebox, breathing in his warm smell of saddle soap, leather and musk.
Everyone makes a fuss about Red Rum. But Tiger has already given Rummy a run for his money and everyone here thinks that, aged nine, he’s just warming up.
While Michael O’Leary announced this week that, unlike Red Rum, he won’t enter Tiger for a third National, Gordon’s not so sure. ‘He’ll say that now, to take the pressure off. But who knows what will happen next year…’
As Tiger is turned out into the paddock and I watch him perform jigs of joy before rolling with his legs in the air, it’s clear to me that, if he does run, I know which horse my money will be on.