Tiger Roll is fast becoming one of the most popular racehorses in the land. While being bred for the flat and winning an Aintree Grand National is not unique – the last multiple victor of the Liverpool feature more than 40 years ago, Red Rum was a dead-heat winner on his debut over five furlongs – but the versatility and sheer breadth of achievement of the Gigginstown House Stud-owned and Gordon Elliott-trained nine-year-old takes some beating.
Even as a jumps horse, winning the Triumph Hurdle for juveniles was not an obvious indicator of Grand National success.
The way he won the National Hunt Chase over four miles from that background was astonishing. He followed up last year with the Cross-Country Chase/Grand National double.
Even Elliott was astounded though when his very burly-looking charge bolted up in the Grade 2 Boyne Hurdle over two miles and five furlongs at Navan on Sunday, in his first appearance over the smaller obstacles in almost three years and what was supposed to be a sharpener prior to the season’s priorities.
Breeder Gerry O’Brien is watching from the sidelines with absolute pleasure and not because the feats of the wonder he reared on the banks of the Tipperary Lough Derg in Portroe earned him an Irish Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association Award for national hunt achievement last month.
It isn’t even that his initial opinion that the youngster might be very good has been proven right. It is just joy for the horse himself.
The whole family have improved with age, he reports, but for Tiger Roll to be appearing to continue that trend now, more than five years after winning his maiden juvenile hurdle at Market Rasen, where they have since named a bar in his honour, is quite rare.
“There’s no chink in the family. They try and they give everything” O’Brien declares. “The Tiger’s dam, Swiss Roll won twice and was second in a listed race but one of her wins came in Galway. She loved the hill and when you see that The Tiger has won four times in Cheltenham overall, three times at the Festival, that trait has clearly been passed on.”
The story starts with the purchase of On Air from a Wyck Hall Stud dispersal in November 1993.
“She’d won a maiden but didn’t go in foal in her first year at stud. She didn’t do that well initially but then I sent her to Entrepreneur and Swiss Roll appeared. She was such a nice individual I went back to Entrepreneur a second time and that produced Berenson.”
In those days, O’Brien raced the progeny. Berenson finished second to the mighty Dubawi in the Group 1 National Stakes before being sold but never ran again due to injury. Pollen was a Grade 3 and Irish Lincoln victor.
Once Swiss Roll finished racing, O’Brien, himself retired too after 27 years as a vet at Coolmore Stud, mated her with Oratorio and Aussie Rules with little success. Next up was an alliance with Dubawi that produced Ahzeemah, a Lonsdale Cup victor and twice Goodwood Cup runner-up.
Then, introductions were made to Derby winner Authorized and Tiger Roll was born.
“When he was a foal, he was well balanced and very light on his feet. He’d a great presence about him, was a good-looking horse but he had an invincible air about him. Not in an arrogant way. He was a very kind horse.”
O’Brien got 70,000 guineas from Sheikh Mohammed’s right-hand man John Ferguson, who had also bought Ahzeemah. But Tiger Roll never ran on the flat, probably needing time to develop. He was sold to Nigel Hawke for just £10,000.
“I couldn’t believe it. I thought he was such a good-looking horse he’d make 40 or 50 thousand. I was really disappointed and thought that was it for him.
“Then a solicitor friend of mine, who’d be reading the Racing Post before he’d be reading legal documents, called me and said ‘Your horse is running at Market Rasen.’ I was thrilled and went into the bookies to watch it.”
Tiger Roll hacked up and a couple of days later, O’Brien called Hawke to congratulate him.
“He said to me, ‘This could be anything.’ He said there was nothing done with him but he was jumping so beautifully that rather than go the bumper route, he went for the juvenile hurdle.”
Gigginstown buyer Mags O’Toole snapped the then three-year-old up for £80,000 that December and three months later, he was registering the first of his Cheltenham wins.
The Mark Johnston-trained Austrian School (by Teofilo) and an unnamed Teofilo filly that former Coolmore colleague, Eamon Phelan bought two years ago and is in training with Joseph Murphy, are two more Swiss Roll has produced that O’Brien suspects will get the adrenaline flowing. It would be hard to beat the “poetry in motion” that was last Sunday though.
O’Brien believes that he is the ultimate debunker of notions that you need a history in horses to be successful with them.
“My father traded meat at Smithfield Market in London. He did that for 20 years but when he came home, he opened a butcher stall. My background is cattle. I had no horsey background at all but my father was a stocksman.
“You don’t have to be imbued or embedded in this horse business. A lot of people are inhibited going into it because they feel they don’t have the dynasties, the heritage – it’s a load of rubbish.
“It’s an advantage if you haven’t got that history because you’re coming in with a fresh look and you’re not bogged down by the myths and old wives’ tales of ‘what my grandfather did’. If you’re a stocksman with sheep, goats or cattle, you’d be good at anything. You’d be good at horses.”
A natural raconteur, O’Brien, who admits only to “playing on the back nine” in terms of age, reveals that that it was the doomed pursuit of a woman that ultimately brought him to horses.
“I failed my exams because I fell in love with this Belgian girl and instead of going to vet college, I started going to the Alliance Francaise to learn French. And she ditched me after! As I was persona non grata at home for losing the year, I headed for the Curragh and John Oxx Snr gave me a job. I got it through John Jnr, as we were friendly from being in college together. I learned so much about horses from John Oxx.
“After I qualified then I got a job with Stan Cosgrove. Stan was the guru of veterinary. Anything I learned in veterinary all came from him.”
There were spells grape-picking and studying the history of art too, as he felt he needed to balance the science in his life. Veterinary was only ever a means of having an outdoor life but it brought him to horses and he will be forever thankful.
The now 19-year-old Swiss Roll is in foal to Teofilo again and has an Exceed And Excel filly at home.
“This breeding, I can tell you, is a total inexact science. There’s an awful lot of luck. If there was a certain formula to it, we’d all be doing it.
“All the credit for The Tiger must go to Gordon Elliott – his prowess is unbelievable – the girl (Louise Dunne) looking after him who got him sweet again after he went off the boil for a little while and the jockeys riding him: Lisa O’Neill, Keith Donoghue and Davy Russell.
“I love my horses and dogs. They’re like pets now. The Exceed and Excel filly would nearly walk into the house. That family all very gentle and mannerly. There’s no bad bone in them. Interestingly though, I could do anything with The Tiger out in the field but if you tried to bully him, you’d lose that battle. You see that in his races, the riders know to let him have his way because he would do absolutely anything for you when it comes down to it. He always had a lovely way about him, Lord of all he surveyed. But no arrogance whatsoever.
“He’s a special horse and he’s captured the imagination of everybody. I get a great kick out of seeing him do so well. He’s certainly at this stage well up in the Pantheon now, in spite of the denigrating adjectives used by the O’Leary brothers in the past.”
There’s no-one denigrating him now.