Racing the biggest loser if Tiger Roll doesn’t line up at Aintree
Michael O’Leary has taken the welfare genie out of the bottle and there’s no putting it back
Ever since Tiger Roll emulated the legendary Red Rum by winning the race back-to-back, 2020 has been about whether or not Michael O’Leary’s diminutive star can become the first horse ever to win the National three years in a row. Photograph: Alex Livesey/Getty Images
The long-running psychological drama – or giant weeing contest, if you prefer – between Michael O’Leary and British racing’s handicapper over how much weight Tiger Roll will concede to his rivals in April’s Aintree Grand National has its big reveal tomorrow.
Liverpool’s St George’s Hall is where the British Horseracing Authority’s Martin Greenwood announces what weight each horse will carry in the world’s most famous steeplechase.
It is always a keenly anticipated event. The old racecourse line about weight stopping trains means no one’s under any illusion about the difficulty of humping too hefty a burden over the 30 most famous fences in sport.
Usually the focus of all this calculus is on identifying runners who through a mixture of luck, shrewdness, and maybe even a dollop of good old-fashioned roguery, haven’t tipped their full hand for the handicapper to identify.
It’s different this time. Ever since Tiger Roll emulated the legendary Red Rum by winning the race back to back, 2020 has been about whether or not O’Leary’s diminutive star can become the first horse ever to win the National three years in a row.
Traditionalists might argue that Red Rum’s overall Aintree record will always be unparalleled. He followed his first two wins with a pair of runner-up places before an iconic third victory in 1977 which prompted commentator Peter O’Sullevan’s line – “You’ve never heard the like at Liverpool!”
It’s true the National fences aren’t as fearsome anymore but nevertheless the National’s hold on the public imagination is undimmed. A Tiger Roll hat-trick means we might just hear that like once again.
That’s because National day is when untutored once-a-year pin-stickers suddenly fancy themselves betting shrewdies and tune in en-masse. As such it is always the old game’s greatest shop window.
So the priceless prospect of Tiger Roll catapulting himself to racing immortality is one guaranteed to make Aintree on April 4th the focus of global attention. Or at least it will if his owner lets him run.
Tiger Roll had barely pulled up last year when O’Leary started insisting he wouldn’t risk his hugely popular little star in the race again if it meant conceding too much weight to the other runners.
As the finest National champion since Red Rum, no one disputes Tiger Roll will have topweight of 11.10. However, a “compression” policy introduced to encourage better horses run in the race means the handicapper has discretion when it comes to reducing weight margins in the National.
It’s an arid subject far removed from the guts and glory of the racecourse but Greenwood’s sums hold the key to either a shot at racing history or the sport inflicting a mammoth self-inflicted injury on itself.
A statistical puzzle has become a battle of wills rooted in the Ryanair boss’s threat not to run Tiger Roll in the National unless the handicapper is generous.
Since the handicapper has to be seen to be impartial, and fair to everyone else in the race, the charge against O’Leary is that he’s trying to intimidate Greenwood into compressing more than he otherwise might.
After all, when the difference between winning and losing is cigarette-paper thin, 1lb either way can be critical.
O’Leary’s team has indicated they have an acceptable compressed figure in their heads which, if it isn’t met tomorrow, will see Tiger Roll have his career swansong at Cheltenham rather than four weeks later in Aintree.
That this magic figure has not been made public inevitably has led to a presumption about O’Leary simply playing games to try and get as much of an edge as he can. Lurking under all of it is a belief that ultimately no owner could resist the lure of history.
Reluctance to reveal the figure also strikes many as preserving the sort of political wriggle room that will ultimately allow everyone save face. Ordinarily it might be a safe enough bet. One thing O’Leary has never been accused of, however, is ordinariness.
He has already professed to not giving “a shite about history”. Instead he has insisted Tiger Roll means too much to his family to risk saddling him with an unfair task and, crucially, he has placed his argument in an animal welfare context.
To back that up O’Leary has referenced the 2009 National and how his runner, Hear The Echo, suffered a heart attack metres from the National finish.
The average rating reduction for National topweights in the last four years has been just 2.5lb. O’Leary’s camp have spoken about a much bigger cut than that.
If the BHA slash more than the recent average they are open to the accusation of blinking in a high-profile game of bluff. If they don’t they run the risk of a giant PR gaffe that robs the sport of a rare opportunity.
Ultimately it comes down to O’Leary and if, after months of talking the talk, he is stubborn enough to walk away from this once in a lifetime shot at history.
Presuming he can’t, or won’t, is a big presumption of someone with a track record of continually wrong-footed expectations. There’s also history between O’Leary and the British handicapping system which adds a dog-whistle Anglo-Irish element to an already combustible mix.
Ultimately, however, the wider context is that racing will be biggest loser if Tiger Roll doesn’t line up at Aintree in April over this.
That’s because having taken the welfare genie out of the bottle there’s no putting it back. If the Aintree challenge isn’t fair for the greatest National champion of the last 40 years then the inevitable if misguided charge from opponents of the race will be that it is unfair to all runners.
Once all the posturing is over with what could remain is a pyrrhic sense of winning a battle at the expense of a much wider war. That’s surely worth bearing in mind tomorrow on both sides of the Irish Sea.