Cheltenham: Is Tiger Roll primed to deliver a mighty last stand?
Four-time Festival winner has plenty to prove again with no National bid in 2021
Tiger Roll is bidding for a fifth victory at Cheltenham. Photograph: Francesca Altoft/Inpho
In the midst of the furore surrounding his trainer the fact Tiger Roll was ruled out of a shot at history in next month’s Grand National was comparatively overlooked.
A story that ordinarily have been centre-stage - Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary pulling the plug on an unprecedented three-in-a-row in the world’s most famous steeplechase - got consigned to the wings.
The upshot is Tiger Roll lines up in Wednesday’s Glenfarclas Cross-Country with his racing future apparently on the line.
Admittedly O’Leary’s Gigginstown Stud team have pointed to the possibility of the sport’s most famous four-legged star getting a go at a third National next year.
But recent evidence that a week is a long time in more than just politics looks likely to make that a distant consideration if the ‘Tiger’ doesn’t roar today.
With four previous Cheltenham victories already to his credit, including twice in the Cross-Country, the festival looks the ideal test of whether the little star’s heart is still in the game.
Finishing a tired and distant runner up to Easyland in this race last year was no disgrace.
But November’s return to the Cross-Country challenge saw Tiger Roll pulled up and last month’s return to action over hurdles at Navan resulted in him being tailed off.
Blinkers are back on now but it’s what’s inside Tiger Roll’s head that will perhaps be the most important thing.
“If Tiger tells us he’s sick of it, that’ll be it. But we will listen to him. We’re not going to be forced into retiring him,” insisted the Gigginstown spokesman, Eddie O’Leary.
By that criteria a repeat of the lacklustre effort in November is likely to see stumps being drawn on one of the most unlikely success stories in modern racing history. But you never know with Tiger Roll.
The diminutive star who seven years ago looked to have had his moment in the sun with a Triumph Hurdle victory has made a career out of rubbishing presumptions.
He was a 16-1 outsider when landing the four-mile National Hunt Chase under Lisa O’Neill at the 2017 festival before appearing to be reinvigorated by the cross-country challenge a year later.
That teed him up for a first National and the remarkable Cheltenham-Aintree double was completed again in 2019.
All of it has secured a position for O’Leary’s ‘little rat of a thing’ in public hearts, a status not dented in the slightest when he couldn’t cope with the emerging French star Easyland in this race last year.
The pandemic subsequently scuppered a chance at a National hat-trick in 2019 and the British handicapper’s estimation, as well as O’Leary’s follow-through on the threat not to run at Aintree over what he sees as unfair weight allocation, has done for the National this year.
All of which looks to leave this supremely accomplished athlete back in a position of having something to prove.
“Red Rum won the National at 12. Tiger is 11. We’re not saying he’ll definitely go on next year. But if he’s enjoying life, it will be different. If it looks like he’s sick of it then it will be different again.
“Even during the summer he’s miserable out in the field but he loves where he is. He enjoys what he’s at and he’ll be retired a long time hopefully.
“Every horse is different and it depends on mileage more than years. But if he tells us he’s sick of it, that’ll be it,” O’Leary said.
Since no one knows the little horse more than those close to him O’Leary’s satisfaction with his last run over hurdles is strikingly different to some other perspectives.
“He travelled great and showed great enthusiasm. I thought he ran great, jumped great, big smile on his face. Once they quickened up after the second he was never going to catch them and he wasn’t asked to,” he added.
At some point today he will have to be asked, and the response is going to be fascinating.
Should Tiger Roll summon another vintage festival performance it might be the supreme example of him confounding expectations.
It might also leave connections with a conundrum: persevere or take it as a cue for the Tiger to have performed one final perfect victory roll.
Either way there’s unlikely to be any elbowing the little star from centre-stage this time.