Gordon Elliott was the new name on the block when he won his first Grand National with Silver Birch in 2007. But his name now rolls off the tongue when it comes to the biggest races in Britain and Ireland.
And the County Meath handler is now a dual winner of the Randox Health Grand National after Tiger Roll roared first, under Davy Russell, and then managed to cling on to victory in the world’s greatest steeplechase at Aintree Racecourse in another pulsating contest.
In a dramatic finale the eight-year-old, fresh from a third victory at the Cheltenham Festival last month in the Cross Country Chase, went clear of his rivals after the final fence and coming to the elbow held a clear advantage.
But just as it looked like he would power to a wide-margin victory, Pleasant Company – trained by Elliott’s rival for the Irish trainer’s title Willie Mullins – got a second wind and slowly whittled his lead down.
Slowly but surely Pleasant Company, under Davy Mullins – who had won a first National for Tiger Roll’s Gigginstown House Stud owners two years ago on Rule The World, wore down the tiring leader. The duo flashed past the winning post together and a photo-finish was called.
Tiger Roll was given the verdict by a neck for a jubilant Russell – who was the oldest rider in the race at 38 – to celebrate a first success in the Aintree showpiece on his 14th ride in the contest.
Grand National 2018
Elliott, who had won the Irish Grand National earlier this month with General Principle, also saddled the third home, teenager Bless The Wings (40-1), who had been pulled up in the same race at Fairyhouse but ran superbly on Merseyside.
He was 10 lengths adrift of the first two home, with fellow Irish raider, the Tony Martin-trained Anibale Fly (10-1) – who had been third in the Cheltenham Gold Cup last month – a neck away in fourth bringing home a clean sweep for Ireland
Elliott admitted that when he won his first Grand National with Silver Birch as a fresh-faced 29-year-old, when he hadn’t even saddled a winner in his homeland, he didn’t appreciate the success. But now, as he joined Nigel Twiston-Davies as the only current trainer to have won the National more than once, he would savour it.
Elliott has made giant strides in the 11 years since. And in the last few weeks he has claimed the top trainer award at the Cheltenham Festival for the second successive year, gone through the 200-winner mark for the season in Ireland and won a first Irish Grand National with General Principle.
He looks set to take the Irish trainer’s title but he was just delighted to have a second National win.
He said: “I was nervous. I thought I had it, but you’re so nervous watching it.
“I said I didn’t appreciate the first time round. I’m definitely going to appreciate it now.”
Tiger Roll had won for the third time at Cheltenham in March, this time landing the Cross Country Chase having previously won the Triumph Hurdle and the four-miler.
Elliott added: “He’s an unbelievable horse. I was fighting with Michael O’Leary (owner) telling him to keep this horse at Gigginstown when he retires and he said he wasn’t good enough.
“He’d better keep him now!
“I’m going back on the boat tonight, I can’t afford Ryanair flights, but it will be some party.”
Tiger Roll’s owners Gigginstown House Stud, led by Ryanair supremo Michael O’Leary, won the National two years ago with Rule The World.
And having won the race his company sponsors at Aintree – the Ryanair Stayers’ Hurdle – with Henry De Bromhead’s Identity Thief (14-1) in the race before the Grand National – he was delighted to add to their burgeoning success on both sides of the Irish Sea.
But O’Leary was keen to pay tribute to his trainer after providing him with a second National success.
He said: “We won this race two years ago, when I thought, ‘Great, we might win another in 10 or 20 years’ time’. We waited 15 years to win a Ryanair Chase, which we did last month at Cheltenham, and today we won the Ryanair Stayers’ Hurdle, so we’ve won two Ryanairs in a month, and now two Nationals in two years.
“I think it’s an incredible feat by Gordon to buy a horse that can win a Triumph Hurdle, who is only 15.2 or 15.3 hands high – he’s a little rat of a thing – and while he won the Cross Country Chase at Cheltenham, these fences are much bigger. It is a massive training performance.
“When Gordon first won the National I thought ‘Who the hell is he?’, and it was only when he started racking up lots of winners at places like Ayr and Perth that I thought, ‘This is something different’. We send horses to lots of trainers, and those that train winners get more horses, those that don’t get less, and Gordon is setting different standards. To be champion trainer in Ireland in the past you needed to win 50 or 60 races, but now you need to win 100-plus, and he’s doing that.
“There are now a number of seriously stupid people in Ireland like myself, J P McManus and Rich Ricci who are spending lots of money to keep the better horses at home, and that helps the trainers, too.
“It is also a wonderful day for Davy Russell, one of the best jockeys in Ireland for the last 10 to 15 years. It’s known we’ve had our ups and our downs, but he has always come back better than ever. It is not the end of his career, but I think it is marvellous that he can now add the greatest steeplechase to his CV.
“It is my second National, Gordon’s second, but Davy’s first and a wonderful occasion for him, his family and his kids.
”It was a second major reverse at the hands of an Elliott horse in the space of a fortnight for Mullins, having seen his Isleofhopendreams beaten just a head in the Irish National.”
Jockey Russell continues to roll back the years. Although for the dual Irish champion jockey, it has has not always been plain sailing in the saddle. He was famously informed that he had lost the job as number one jockey for Gigginstown House Stud over a cup of tea with Michael O’Leary late in 2013.
But after landing the leading jockey award at the Cheltenham Festival for the first time last month, Russell secured his biggest career success.
He said: “I’ve tried not to think about the race, to be honest. I heard some golfers last week saying you could over-prepare – I’m not sure if you can do that, but I came here thinking I was just going to go down the middle and to hell with everyone else.
“This is the race. As a kid, when you got the first cut of grass, we always used to gather the cuttings and pretend they were Grand National fences, it was the only time I liked collecting the cuttings, but all those people saying this is my first National – I’ve won it thousands of times in my head!
“As a jockey this is the one you want to win, especially for someone like me having 14 goes. On the way down the commentator said I was the oldest in the race so I thought ‘I’d better not come back next year”’.
“The Gold Cup is the Gold Cup and I’ve been lucky enough to win that (aboard Lord Windermere in 2014), but the National is so hard to win.”
Russell’s mother Phyllis died at the beginning of March, while his close friend Pat Smullen, a multiple Irish champion Flat jockey, was diagnosed with a tumour last month.
And in his greatest hour he dedicated his success to Smullen, saying: “This one is for Pat Smullen. I was speaking to him the other morning and he’s as tough as nails.”
Meanwhile all the jockeys and horses came back safe and sound despite the screens being put up for I Just Know at Becher’s Brook – which wasn’t jumped on the second circuit.
Saint Are was set to remain at Aintree racecourse overnight after taking a fall.
The Tom George-trained 12-year-old, who has finished second and third in the National in the past, came down at the Chairand after initially being treated on the track, he was taken back to the stables for further assessment.