Tiger Roll, one of Aintree’s – and racing’s – favourite sons, returns to Liverpool on Thursday for what may well be the final time in a truly extraordinary career. From one angle, he is 363 days too late, from another he has turned up two days early – and by 3pm it could be both.
There is an alternative reality in which Tiger Roll is 48 hours away from a possible date with destiny, and the tilt at a record-equalling third Grand National win which his illustrious record deserves. Michael O’Leary, his owner, thought long and hard about the weight his remarkable little horse had been set to carry in Saturday’s big race, came down 51-49 in favour of leaving him in the field in early March, then patted himself on the back for being so clever when Tiger Roll romped home in the Cross-Country Chase at Cheltenham, looking every inch the horse that triumphed at Aintree in 2018 and 2019.
Instead, of course, Tiger Roll was already out of the running for the Grand National when he returned to form in such emphatic style three weeks ago. Now, the faintly surreal alternative to what might have been a National for the ages is a crack at the Grade One Betway Bowl where victory, or even a gallant defeat, will leave many racing fans feeling that O’Leary has been an awful eejit for backing himself into a corner over Tiger Roll’s rating of 166 for the National.
This, remember, is a horse that Eddie O’Leary, his brother’s racing manager, insisted after the Cross Country would “probably prove he is nowhere near a 166-rated horse”, adding “we’ll have to go in a Grade One just to prove he has the wrong rating”.
Well, Thursday’s the day, and while it’s a very long time – 1,239 days, in fact – since Tiger Roll last lined up for a race over regulation fences, he has been such an extraordinarily versatile and willing racehorse down the years that no one – his owner included – should sensibly put it past him to break his Grade One duck over fences at the first attempt.
Tiger Roll has been priced up at around 6-1 to beat eight opponents, including Native River, the 2018 Gold Cup winner, and Clan Des Obeaux, the King George winner at Kempton on Boxing Day in 2018 and 2019. Clan Des Obeaux is the likely favourite, and will bid to give Sir Alex Ferguson, his part-owner, a memorable afternoon on what, in a different sport and a very different time, was once the home turf of his fiercest rivals.
Sir Alex has a piece of the first three favourites on Thursday’s card, all of which are Grade One events, and while the combined odds of wins for Hitman, Monmiral and Clan Des Obeaux would be around 25-1, that other big treble that the locals on Merseyside try not to think about was a much bigger price at the start of the 1998-99 season.
As an owner, the former Manchester United manager will be one of the few non-participants in attendance on Thursday as racing begins the long, slow haul back from the devastating effects of lockdown and racing behind closed doors during the coronavirus pandemic.
Six owners’ badges are available per runner at the meeting, a welcome increase on the two-per-runner limit which was introduced shortly after the Cheltenham Festival.
But it will not, of course, feel anything like it should, and the idea of a National with no paying spectators is, if anything, even more bizarre than Cheltenham with no one in the stands. If you squint at most televised races and use a little imagination, it can almost look like normal. The National, though, will unfold without the long, packed grandstands that now line much of the famous two-mile circuit, as a People’s Race without any people.
But then, we have all become used to situations that would have seemed unthinkable when Tiger Roll won his second National, more than a year since the 2020 Grand National meeting became the first major sporting event to be cancelled because of the pandemic. Whether or not racing’s favourite chaser is returning for the right race, the sport can only be grateful he is returning at all.