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Cheltenham - Racing: Tiger Roll - The People's Champion

It's not that often that a horse gets labelled as a 'once in a lifetime' champion by owners, trainers, jockeys and racing fans alike, but that's where Tiger Roll's brilliant career has landed him.

This century we've been treated to the wonders of Frankel on the Flat, the unbeaten superstar; while the likes of Kauto Star thrilled the racing public over jumps with his heroic feats.

Around the time he was heading for retirement, the little legend that was to become Tiger Roll arrived in 2010.

He went on to become the torchbearer for jumps racing, the horse that the general public knew all about. He's rewritten the history books and, come 16th March, he'll be attempting to pen one last, glorious chapter.

Tiger Roll is 9/4 to win the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase this year, it would be his fourth win in that race and a sixth overall at the Cheltenham Festival - thus equalling feats achieved only by Golden Miller and Quevega in the past.

Crowds will be back in the Cotswolds in two weeks' time and there's no doubting a victory for Tiger Roll would bring the house down. Here's our look back at his stunning career ahead of his final appearance.

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The unlikely jumps hero

Certainly when Tiger Roll's breeder Jerry O'Brien sent his mare Swiss Roll to mate with Authorized, winner of the Epsom Derby in 2007, dreams of Cheltenham and Aintree were far from his mind.

Originally registered to Sheikh Mohammed, the resulting foal never made the racecourse for Godolphin and was bought instead by trainer Nigel Hawke for £10k. Tiger Roll debuted in a bumper at Market Rasen in November 2013 and he won at odds of 12/1.

A month later, Tiger Roll was back at the sales and he was bought by Gigginstown House Stud for a fee of £80k and sent to Gordon Elliott's yard in Ireland.

From blue-blood breeding, to humble beginnings, the journey of Tiger Roll to the top of the National Hunt game was underway.

Wasting no time in making his mark

Tiger Roll debuted for Elliott in the Grade 1 Spring Juvenile Hurdle at Leopardstown in February 2014 with Bryan Cooper on his back, finishing second to Guitar Pete for Dessie Hughes and Barry Geraghty.

A month later and he caught his first sight of Prestbury Park and the Cheltenham Festival.

At odds of 10/1 and with Davy Russell as his partner for the first time, Tiger Roll went and won the JCB Triumph Hurdle, avenging third-placed Guitar Pete on this occasion.

The Triumph is the Festival race almost denoted for failed flat horses, so this wasn't a major shock, but no one was predicting what a Cheltenham career it was going to herald.

The following season, Tiger Roll failed to make a mark in open graded hurdling company, despite beginning with another Cheltenham success in the autumn. He toiled in Grade 1s at Leopardstown, Cheltenham and Punchestown and missed the winter of 2015 completely.

Lacklustre efforts in handicaps at Aintree and Punchestown in April 2016 left connections pondering their next move as Tiger Roll's career threatened to peter out, and so, as the summer approached Tiger Roll went chasing and the next glorious chapter started.

A rare double to follow

He would win three times as a novice that season at trips from 2m1f-3m, and proved himself consistent as a chaser in the making. He did, however, appear shy of graded level and stamina for anything beyond three-miles was still an unknown factor.

So it was that Tiger Roll rocked up in March 2017 for the National Hunt Chase at Cheltenham as a 16/1 chance.

A race for amateur riders and still a 'four-miler' then, Tiger Roll powered up the Cheltenham hill under Lisa O'Neill to win, recording the unlikeliest Festival double of Triumph Hurdle and the 'Four-miler' in doing so.

The following season, 2017/18, he'd again come up short in graded company in Ireland, prompting Elliott to take a chance with him in a Cross County race at Cheltenham that December. He showed some aptitude but was ultimately well beaten.

Three months later, therefore, he was a 7/1 chance back at The Festival in the Cross Country race, with Keith Donoghue on board now, but he excelled himself and gave further fuel to the notion he was a 'spring horse' as he fended off Urgent De Gregaine for France to win his third different Festival race in the Cotswolds.

The Aintree legend begins

A month later and connections decided to have a pop at the Aintree Grand National with Tiger Roll. He'd been easily beaten in one hurdles run at the Merseyside track as a youngster, but he came to life over the spruce-clad fences of the National Course.

With Davy Russell on his back once more, Tiger Roll excelled in the great race and found himself leading two out.

He maintained the advantage over the last and was five-lengths in front meeting the elbow, but the Willie Mullins-trained Pleasant Company began to bear down on him and they flashed past the winning post almost in unison.

Russell wasn't sure, the cameras could tell, but the photograph showed Tiger Roll had stuck his head out to win and land the most famous jumps race in the world. He was now becoming a celebrity, known across the sporting world.

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Bridging the Red Rum gap

Not since Red Rum in the 1970s had any horse won back-to-back Aintree Nationals but that was the plan Elliott laid out going into 2019.

Held at Cheltenham on his comeback in a Cross Country handicap under top-weight, the mighty Tiger Roll would find time to win a Grade 2 hurdles race at Navan in February 2019 at odds of 25/1 en route to his main spring targets.

He hammered the opposition at Cheltenham to win a second Cross Country by 22-lengths and all roads were for Aintree again.

He incredibly went off a 4/1 favourite to win a second Grand National and, truth be told, it was never in any doubt.

Russell picked his way around and Tiger Roll did everything that was asked, cruising into contention and picking up the lead at the last before galloping home strongly to win by nearly three-lengths from staying on mare Magic Of Light in second.

History was made in the glowing Aintree sunshine. Russell was emotional on board, insisting he 'couldn't believe it had happened' while adding that the city of Liverpool had a sporting event that 'touched the world'. It truly was Tiger Roll's world on that day.

Hat-trick hopes dashed

Of course, we didn't know it then but off-course factors would ruin Tiger Roll's hopes of three-in-a-row when the 2020 Grand National was cancelled.

By then, he'd surrendered his Cross Country title to Easysland at Cheltenham too, finishing second behind the exciting young French horse.

Tiger Roll was not done, however. He was brought along gently in 2020/21 when racing resumed and come March, he roared again in the Cotswolds, turning that 17-length second to Easysland into an 18-length win over the same rival as he made it five Cheltenham Festival wins at the age of 11.

We'll get to see him bidding for No.6 on 16th March and then that will be that, Tiger Roll will be off into retirement.

The noise in the background

Of course, both the 2021 and 2022 Grand Nationals were preceded by 'will he, won't he' debates on Tiger Roll's participation, owing to the charge of owner Michael O'Leary that the British handicapper was being heavy-handed in his treatment of his horse.

It was all just noise, ultimately. The handicapper had a job to do and he did it in a fair fashion.

As owner, O'Leary is entitled to run his horse where and when he chooses, but his aggressive tactics in looking for a reduced mark were unbecoming. If there's one thing Tiger Roll has never required, it's sympathy from anyone.

He's amongst the toughest and most durable of jumps horses that we've seen in the modern era. His story has been told in documentary and in hardback book, it is recorded for posterity.

He is truly a horse for the ages. Even now, in 2022, as he prepares to sign out, a six-part podcast on his life has been released by Ireland's public service broadcaster, RTE.

Tiger Roll was a gift from the thoroughbred gods. Though never bred to become what he did, his storybook career as a jumper surely has surpassed anything that might have been expected on the Flat when he came into this world in 2010.

Let's hope he powers into the sunset with one more spine-tingling success in front of a packed and adoring Cheltenham grandstand this month.

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