Top 10 Most Popular Horses: The Tiger Rolls into 8th
Our countdown of the top 10 most popular horses of the 21st century continues, and we return to National Hunt sphere…
As we move onto the 8th on our list we look back to a National Hunt hero that has cemented his name into the history books of this great sport, achieving a feat many thought we’d never see again. Despite recent controversy surrounding the horse and his connections, there is no denying that Tiger Roll is a horse for the ages and widely loved by all those in - and in some cases out - of the sport and for that is richly deserving of a place in our top 10.
The Grand National, the toughest race in world racing. Prior to 2018 the the words ‘Grand’ and ‘National’ were synonymous with two other words, those being ‘Red’ and ‘Rum’, after the Ginger McCain trained superstar made the race his own with three wins in the 1970s including two back-to-back. Many have since tried to win two consecutive Grand National’s, but such is the nature of the race that it has proved a hopeless task and all have failed - or so was the case until a little horse originally bred for the flat, and once described as a ‘little rat of a thing’ by owner Michael O’Leary stormed clear at the elbow in 2019 to bring up his second National win.
Before touching on his Aintree success which is of course the reason for notoriety and popularity, it’s worth mentioning that he was no stranger to racing fans prior to his stamina sapping success on Merseyside, with the little Tiger winning at the Cheltenham Festival way back in 2014 in the Triumph Hurdle, over 2m1f. Now, the Triumph isn’t recognised as the greatest Grade 1 at the Festival, but to win at any form of Graded race over near minimum distance and then also win the Grand National is quite astonishing, but such is the quality and heart of the horse that it’s something he has managed, and further Festival success would only boost his popularity.
Having gone a bit astray over Hurdles post Triumph win, he was shown a fence in May 2016 and immediately it was obvious that, despite his small stature, he was a natural over the larger obstacles and another Festival win in the Grade 2 National Hunt Chase in 2017 backed this up. He returned to Cheltenham in 2018, this time winning the Cross Country Chase, which he then repeated in 2019, and once again in incredible fashion in 2021 - taking his Cheltenham tally up to a staggering five wins spread over three different races - including handicaps and Grade 1s.
His latter victory was one that certainly tugged on the heartstrings, not least mine. Most, if not all, had written the ageing Tiger off. 11-years-old, form reading 6P6, trainer embroiled in controversy, owner kicking up a fuss about his weight, all and everything was against him. But the way he led from the front, giving them a merry dance bowling along as if he was a four-year-old again was just a sight to behold and it got everyone off their seat. It’s rare in racing you have a scenario where all want one horse to win (vested interest aside), but that truly was one of them, and I don't think there was a single person who begrudged that success.
Tiger Roll holds the accolade of being one of the only ‘household names’ of our sport. Sure, he’s not on Red Rum levels of popularity - though neither is the sport in general compared to then - but the chances are if you were to ask a non-racing fan to name a current racehorse, you’ll hear Tiger Roll before you hear any other, and that alone is enough for him to be considered one of the greats and one of the most popular horses of the 21st century.
Most Iconic Performance
I was toying with the prior mentioned Cross Country success at the 2021 Cheltenham Festival due to the incredible ‘redemption’ aspect of it all, but it just has to be the second Grand National win doesn’t it? Having narrowly won the toughest race of the year in 2018 by a short head, he was immediately targeted at the race for 2019 and having had only two runs that season - a win in the Cross Country at the Festival and a win in the Grade 2 Boyne Hurdle over 2m5f - he arrived at Aintree in tip top shape at a staggeringly low 7/2. Although he was all but unbackable at that price, there truly was a sense of ‘this horse could really do it’. Sure that’s been said before, and the likes of Many Clouds have returned to Aintree as short as 8/1 for that elusive double success, but there seemed to be something about Tiger Roll, the bookies clearly thinking it to.
Although not top weight - Anibale Fly and Valtor were burdened with more - the horse measuring up at 15.2 hands had a weight of 11st5lb to carry, with the tank-emptying, slow motion finish of 2018 when 6lb lighter providing the only doubt that he may fall short of a place in history. But this was a different Tiger Roll, one that had already learned and conquered Aintree, had been there, done that, and had gone via the Cheltenham Festival on the way.
Immediately it was obvious Tiger Roll was tuned in and Davy Russell had him in a brilliant position at the middle front, just behind the first row of leaders as to provide plenty of cover, but also just away enough from the rest of the pack and any potential trouble that may have hampered him - as is often the case in the National. After the first circuit he had shuffled up a little bit to hold a share for eighth and by Bechers Brook Russell had played him into a brilliant position on the inside battling for fifth. This gave him a clear path for the remainder of the race and with any trouble dodged, stamina assured and class in abundance, it was a matter of letting the Tiger do his thing, which he duly did.
Approaching the last he had pulled clear of the field and had only Magic Of Light for company, but his rival got in too close and lost valuable ground. No such problem for Tiger Roll who jumped it like a stag, and began to stretch clear on the run in, Davy Russell still with a double handful. It never looked like it would be in doubt coming round the elbow but with last year still in mind everyone held their breath, but there was no need, the Tiger with a heart of a Lion just kept running and recorded a truly magical memory.
Although sadly denied of a third attempt due to the race being cancelled, and age probably now ruling him out of a third win, his success not only at Aintree but at Cheltenham also will live long in every racing fans memory, and the way he has captivated those involved in the sport is more than worthy of earning him a place in 8th spot.
Ranking so far:
10 - Native River
9 - Sea The Stars