O’Leary and Elliott could have battle of wills over Tiger Roll’s shot at history
Gordon Elliott says Aintree Grand National is ‘the race I’m training him for’
Horses and jockeys on the gallops at Gordon Elliott’s yard in Co Meath. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Michael O’Leary professes to not giving “a shite about history” or Tiger Roll’s chance of an unprecedented Grand National hat-trick at Aintree in April, although his trainer Gordon Elliott is preparing for a potential date with destiny anyway.
The Grand National is a handicap, and inevitably many suspect O’Leary of playing a long psychological game with the handicapper ahead of the weights being announced in February.
Any idea of the sport’s best known horse not even trying to secure a historic three-in-a-row if he is fit and healthy to race is enough to get racing’s PR-types very sweaty indeed.
Since topweight for the Aintree spectacular carries 11-10, and Tiger Roll roared to back-to-back Nationals under 11-5 last season, O’Leary’s argument seems as curious as his justification for not running on the basis of welfare.
Two wins in a row suggest a horse that has mastered the National challenge better than anyone since Red Rum.
O’Leary has said his family love Tiger Roll, and he is not prepared to risk him under a huge weight. However, a counter-argument might be that if it is an unreasonable ask for Tiger Roll to tackle the famous four miles and 30 fences then it might be for everyone else too.
It’s a quandary that looks oven-ready for opponents of the sport’s most famous race to heat up next spring.
Nevertheless it took until only a few days after O’Leary’s declaring history to be bunkum for the fragility of even the toughest thoroughbred to be underlined once more. Tiger Roll had to have a small chip in a joint removed and has been confined to box rest ever since.
That means the earliest he is likely to be seen in action again is in February’s Boyne Hurdle at Navan, a race he won last year on route to a fourth Cheltenham festival success in the Cross-Country and more National glory.
So when Aintree officials and the National sponsors descended on Elliott’s Co Meath stables on Tuesday the star attraction was confined to a corner box with the best view of the second most powerful yard in the country.
A sign of that power was how Elliott could parade up to 14 other legitimate National contenders in front of the throng. They could not hope to compete for attention, though, with their stationary stable companion.
Elliott predicted Tiger Roll’s bandages would come off next week, followed by three weeks just walking before starting to canter again.
“It’s not ideal. We’d love to go to the Boyne Hurdle, but if we don’t there’s a fair chance he could go straight to Cheltenham,” he said.
Given O’Leary has suggested he will be more than happy to retire Tiger Roll on the spot should he win again at jump racing’s biggest festival, that could be the last we see of the little superstar.
Quizzed about his owner’s forthright views and reputation for getting what he wants, Elliott said he never second-guesses anything O’Leary says, before appearing to have a go at doing just that.
“The Randox Grand National is the plan,” he said. “Michael O’Leary owns him. He makes the final decision. In my mind it’s the race I’m training him for.
“He carried 11-5 last year. We know he’ll be topweight. We’re not stupid. It’s just how much the weights are compressed. The handicapper has got his job to do, and I’m sure he’s going to be fair with everyone.
“He had 11.5 last year. Would he have won with 5lb more then? He probably would,” Elliott added.
O’Leary has already been quoted as saying he has no problem with Elliott aiming Tiger Roll at the National except that any decision about running will be taken out of his hands when the Aintree weights are released.
It makes for a potential heavyweight battle of wills between two men who have enjoyed their best days in racing with each other.
Elliott can seem truculent enough sometimes to make even a billionaire step warily. In terms of Tiger Roll and Aintree, however, there is surely a bigger context in terms of wider public appeal.
“He’s a great horse, and we’ve very lucky to have him. He has a great name and a great character. He’s almost two weeks standing in his stable now but still loves people to go up and pat him,” the trainer said, giving just a glimpse of the affection in which Tiger Roll is held.
“The dream is to get this horse back to the Randox Health Grand National. It would be some atmosphere at Aintree if he’s in there with a live chance on the second circuit.”
In the shorter term, Elliott tops this season’s trainers’ table with 91 winners in Ireland already, and will have a first Grade One of the campaign in his sights at this weekend’s “winter festival” in Fairyhouse.
Samcro and Envoi Allen are likely to start favourites for the Drinmore Novice Chase and Royal Bond Hurdle respectively.
However, his biggest challenge could be to get O’Leary’s star mare Apple’s Jade back to peak form for her own shot at a historic fourth Hatton’s Grace Hurdle victory.
Beaten at 1-4 on her first start of the season, the 10-time Grade One winner goes into her favourite race with something to prove. “She looks better and is working better, but I just don’t know,” Elliott admitted.
Getting that singular accomplishment with Apple’s Jade might help in future negotiations about another slice of racing history.