Has the Tiger lost his roar? It is a question that must be asked after what, by the ordinary standards of Tiger Roll, was a tame display in the cross-country race here, in which he ceded his crown to the French raider, Easysland, without much of a scrap.
There were excuses, as there always are, but the hard realities are that he finished a tired horse and has just over three weeks to reach peak condition if he is to make history as the first to win three consecutive Grand Nationals. Having seemed so afraid of him, some bookmakers have recovered enough of their courage to push his odds for the Aintree race out to 8-1 from 5s.
Those who made him an 8-11 shot for this race would have been content for the first two or three miles, the cross-country being a slow-burning contest. Tiger Roll loped along in eighth place, within easy reach of the leaders, looking as menacing as a diminutive steeplechaser can.
As everyone in Prestbury Park was aware, the danger was in front, where Easysland was placed from about halfway by Jonathan Plouganou, ensuring the gallop did not slacken. Keith Donoghue, who always rides Tiger Roll here, sent his famous mount in pursuit from the third-last and there was brief hope at the home bend when he had perhaps three lengths to make.
That was as close as he got. While he powered up the final climb a year ago to humiliate his rivals, this time he was drunk with fatigue and Donoghue nursed him home 17 lengths behind.
“He ran his heart out,” the jockey said. “We were always afraid of the ground and that’s what got him beat. Every time he hit heavy patches, we’d just struggle. When he came back out onto a bit of nice ground, he’d come back on the bridle again. That just told in the end. I thought, going over the last three hedges, I had every chance but the winner was very good on the day and we were beat fair and square.”
So tired was Tiger Roll that he did not make the walk back to be unsaddled with the other placed horses, but was instead led straight to the racecourse stables. This, Donoghue said, was not unusual for a horse who leaves it all on the field; he was similarly exhausted when he won the cross-country in 2018.
Gordon Elliott, the trainer who must now teach the Tiger to be fearsome again, said: “Listen, you’re always disappointed when you don’t win but we said it before the race, the ground was the big worry. In fairness to the jockey on the winner, he gave his horse a very good ride, he took the sting out of us.”
Tiger Roll is into the veteran stage, as a 10-year-old, but Elliott felt the horse’s late return to training was to blame, rather than advancing years. “He’s come a long way. In January, we were only back cantering him, so we’re happy.”
“We’re battered but we’re not out,” was the similarly sanguine verdict from Eddie O’Leary, representing Tiger Roll’s owner, his brother, Michael. The Ryanair boss has not made the journey to Cheltenham this week, reportedly preferring to deal with the difficulties caused to his business by the coronavirus. Had he been here, he would undoubtedly have said something vociferous to the effect that a horse running second is hardly a real problem compared to a pandemic infection.
Pressed as to whether this was a satisfactory prep run for a Grand National, Elliott replied: “We’ll have to see how he is,” before rushing off to greet his winner of the next race. He could have retorted with an allusion to his first National winner, Silver Birch, who also warmed up for Aintree by running second in the cross-country, but had an extra week in which to recover because of the way the racing calendar panned out that year.
French success at the Festival provided regular frissons in the 1990s, but the pioneering trainer Francois Doumen did not inspire his countrymen to emulate his exploits. Easysland is the first cross-channel winner for 15 years.
“Everybody in France knows this is the temple of jump racing here in England,” said the tactful Plouganou. “I know Tiger Roll is a real champion, so I’m thrilled to beat him.”
Plouganou was wearing the green and gold of JP McManus, having perhaps his best Festival yet, thanks in part to buying Easysland at great expense this winter. “It’s a Rich Ricci kind of day,” the cheerful owner joked after this success, his third of the afternoon.
Then, alluding to Tiger Roll, he added: “Do you know what, it didn’t give me as much pleasure. Still, if he was to get beat, I’m glad that I had the winner. I hope he’s OK and gets to Aintree.”