Kevin Blake: What might have happened in the 2020 Grand National

Grand National at Aintree
Kevin Blake tells us what might have happened in this year's Grand National

Following a far-from perfect preparation, Tiger roll being denied his chance of winning a third Grand National this year might just turn out to be a blessing in disguise says Kevin Blake...

"Tiger Roll will have other days and Elliott might well be glad that he didn't have to run him in a Grand National off the back of such a rushed preparation."

There are clearly far bigger problems in the world right now than anything related to horses running around fields, but within our horse racing bubble it is hard not to feel the disappointment of not getting the chance to see Tiger Roll bid for a truly historic third Grand National this weekend.

He had already secured legendary status by becoming the first horse since Red Rum to win the race twice and looked to have a great chance of doing what was previously unthinkable by matching that legend's feat of becoming just the second horse to win it three times. Alas, it wasn't to be.

If Tiger Roll had run and been beaten, that would have been a disappointment that could be stomached. But for him not to get the opportunity to be the master of his own destiny through no fault of his own is just pure sporting cruelty. The likes of this hasn't been seen in racing since Istabraq was denied his opportunity to become the only horse in history to win a fourth Champion Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival due to the meeting being cancelled because of foot-and-mouth disease.

Mind, as sporting feats go, I would be much more inclined to bet on the possibility of seeing a four-time Champion Hurdle winner in my lifetime than another three-time Grand National winner other than Tiger Roll.

A more competitive race than Red Rum's days

It is all purely academic at this stage clearly, but with the pace of life having slowed down greatly for many of us in these unprecedented days of self-isolation, the mind is inclined to wander. What would have happened had the Grand National taken place this Saturday and Tiger Roll had his chance to emulate Red Rum?

It is well established at this stage that Tiger Roll is a very unusual type of horse. Bred for the Flat, medium-sized at best and precocious enough to win a Triumph Hurdle, he isn't what would be expected to make up into a Grand National horse.

Aintree runners at fence inc Tiger Roll right 1280.jpg

The modern Grand National may not be remotely comparable to the race that Red Rum contested in terms of the jumping test it presents, but the reduced emphasis on jumping and the far greater depth to the 40-runner fields mean that it is a much more competitive race than was the case back in those days.

For that reason, many had resigned themselves to the conclusion that a horse winning such a competitive and attritional race twice would be too much of an ask, never mind three times. Then came Tiger Roll.

Ability and jumping technique key factors behind Tiger's success

The factors that have allowed Tiger Roll to achieve what seemed so unlikely are two-fold.

Firstly, he is a very talented equine athlete. While he has been primarily contesting unorthodox races over cross-country and Grand National fences in recent years, he gave a strong hint in the Boyne Hurdle in 2019 that he has the talent to be a top-class performer in more orthodox pursuits if given the chance.

Most importantly for his Grand National credentials, Tiger Roll's jumping technique is perfectly suited to the modern fences at Aintree. Regardless of how big or small the obstacle in front of him is, Tiger Roll has figured out that he only needs to jump high enough to brush through the top of them.

Such a technique would have been mercilessly punished by the old Grand National fences, but being able to get away with such a technique over the modern fences allows him to save a significant amount of energy and ground over the fences compared to his rivals who generally give them far more respect and air.

Rushed preparation might have been his downfall

The above two factors made a significant contribution to Tiger Roll winning the last two renewals of the Grand National, but would he have won a third on Saturday? Carrying top weight of 11-10, he would have raced off an 11lb higher mark than he won the race off in 2019 and 20lb higher than he won the 2018 renewal off.

However, a bigger concern would have been his preparation for the race.

Back in mid-November it was revealed that Tiger Roll needed to have a chip removed from a joint. That put Gordon Elliott on the backfoot with regard to how he could campaign him and this season has been a rush with him as a result. When he eventually returned to the racecourse in the Boyne Hurdle in mid-February, he ran well for a long way, but ultimately shaped like a horse that was badly in need of the run.

Gordon and Tiger.jpg

With that run coming just over three weeks before the Glenfarclas Cross-Country Chase at the Cheltenham Festival, Elliott will have had to have pushed plenty of buttons in between those runs to bring him forward enough to compete at Cheltenham. Tiger Roll duly did improve from Navan, but not enough to deal with the exciting Easysland who beat him by 17 lengths.

Tiger Roll was visibly tired after the race and was brought straight back to the racecourse stables rather than back to the parade ring as a result. Though, it should be said that he was similarly treated after winning the 2018 renewal of the race and that didn't hold him back from winning the Grand National a few weeks later.

However, finishing that tired off the back of an interrupted preparation would have been a significant concern for Tiger Roll just over three weeks later this Saturday. Elliott had been pushing to try to make up on lost time all season and the Grand National is the biggest test of them all. Could he have delivered a peak effort on the day that mattered most, or might his rushed preparation have caught up with him?

We will never know for sure.

A blessing in disguise?

Mind, one wouldn't be surprised if Elliott, once he gets over the initial disappointment of the cancellation of the race, might consider this a blessing in disguise.

Tiger Roll is a 10-year-old. Red Rum was 12 when he won his third Grand National in 1977. Tiger Roll will have other days and Elliott might well be glad that he didn't have to run him in a Grand National off the back of such a rushed preparation.

After a long and well-deserved break over the summer months, Elliott will regroup with Tiger Roll and look to get him back to Aintree in 2021 for his belated bid for history. It might seem like a long way away right now, but when it comes to Tiger Roll, anything is possible and it would be a brave person that suggests he couldn't do it.

Watch Betfair's Tiger Roll documentary below

Kevin Blake,

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