There are many people out there who would argue that Tiger Roll is already a Cheltenham legend, regardless of what happens in the future. However, talk is mounting that the dual Grand National winner will aim to win his third Cross Country Chase at Cheltenham in 2020, which would be his fifth victory at the festival from six appearances. His only failure was when he was thrown in at the deep end as a five year old in the 2015 Stayers’ Hurdle, since then he has been foot perfect at this famous venue.
To those who are not hugely invested in the sport of racing, they are likely to see this horse as a dual Grand National winner, and nothing else. After all, that is the race that captures the attention of pretty much everyone in the UK, and it is seen as the biggest race of them all to win. However, purists will know and understand what it takes to win at the festival, never mind to win five times across three different races.
His success in the 2019 Cross Country Chase will go down as one of the best moments of the most recent festival, and seeing him come away from the field to win by 22 lengths on the bridle is something that many people will not forget for a long time. The scenes after the race showed just how much this horse means to both those who look after him on a daily basis and the fans who turned up in their thousands to watch him perform.
The one thing that could make next year even more special is retirement. After winning the Grand National in April, owner Michael O’Leary said that he would love for this horse to go and win the Cross Country Chase for a third time, before announcing his retirement in the Cheltenham winners enclosure. Those betting on horse racing at the Cheltenham Festival next year are sure to be placing bets on Tiger Roll to win again, knowing that it could be the last time we see the horse on a race track if O’Leary’s comments are to be believed. This may be a case where there is no strategy required, and people will simply bet with their hearts.
Bowing out at Cheltenham would be fitting for two different reasons. The first is that this horse would go out at a place that was special to him. Win or lose, this horse has won multiple races at the Cheltenham Festival and to retire after running their would be a great farewell for him. The second would be to see him go out at the top, running in a race at the biggest and best horse racing festival over jumps.
We all want to see superstars run for as long as possible, but there is a fine line between going out on top when there is more to give and running them for too long and seeing them decline. After giving us so many happy memories over the years, it would be great to see Tiger Roll do his thing one more time for us, before we allow him to leave for a very happy retirement.
Following the retirement of Sir Anthony McCoy in April, 2015, Richard Johnson finally emerged from the shadow of the perennial champion jockey to claim the leading jockey title for himself in 2015/16, 2016/17 and 2017/18. Johnson is also the fifth most successful jockey in the history of the Cheltenham Festival – behind Ruby Walsh, Barry Geraghty, McCoy and Pat Taafe – with 22 winners.
His first success at what has become known as the ‘Olympics of horse racing’ came aboard Anzum, trained by David Nicholson, in the Stayers’ Hurdle in 1999, but Johnson wasted little time in completing his set of the championship races that headline each of the four days. He won the Cheltenham Gold Cup on Looks Like Trouble, trained by Noel Chance, in 2000, the Queen Mother Champion Chase on Flagship Uberalles, trained by Philip Hobbs, in 2002 and the Champion Hurdle on Rooster Booster, also trained by Hobbs, in 2003.
After riding at least one winner at five successive Cheltenham Festivals, Johnson finally drew a blank in 2005. He managed just one winner in 2006 and 2007 and was, again, winnerless in 2008 and 2009, before winning the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle on Menorah and the Centenary Novices’ Chase on Copper Bleu, both trained by Philip Hobbs, in 2010.
Although finding Festival winners harder to come by in recent years, Johnson has also won the Arkle Challenge Trophy, the Weatherbys Champion Bumper, the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase, the Pertemps Network Final and the Triumph Hurdle on Hobbs-trained horses. In 2017, he also won the Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle on Flying Tiger, trained by Nick Williams and, in 2018, the Cheltenham Gold Cup, for the second time, on Native River, trained by Colin Tizzard. After the latter success, Johnson said, “I’m speechless. He’s been a fantastic horse for me and I was lucky to pick up the ride on him.”
Not many owners can say that their first success at the Cheltenham Festival came in the blue riband of the National Hunt season, the Cheltenham Gold Cup, but one who can is Michael O’Leary, the proprietor of Gigginstown House Stud. His maroon and white colours were first carried to victory by War Of Attrition, trained by Michael “Mouse” Morris, in 2006 and, since then, O’Leary has recorded 25 more wins, making him the second most successful owner in the history of the Cheltenham Festival, behind J.P. McManus.
O’Leary won the Cheltenham Gold Cup again in 2016 with Don Cossack, trained by Gordon Elliott, but it was seven winners at the Cheltenham Festival in 2018 – far and away the best year, so far, for Gigginstown House Stud – that caused him to remark, “When I die, this is the week I’ll remember.”
Despite the defeat of one Irish ‘banker’, Apple’s Jade in the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle, his seven winners included another, Samcro in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle and, finally, after 15 years of trying, he won the Ryanair Chase – the race he sponsors, as chief executive of the Irish low-cost airline – with Balko Des Flos, trained by Henry De Bromhead. Unsurprisingly, Gigginstown House Stud won the Leading Owner Award at the Cheltenham Festival, beating J.P. McManus into second place for the second year running.
O’Leary still has some way to go to catch McManus, but Gigginstown House Stud is, undoubtedly, a dominant force in Irish National Hunt racing. Principal trainer Gordon Elliott – who has saddled 11 of the 19 winners owned by Gigginstown House Stud at the last five Cheltenham Festivals and won the Leading Trainer Award in 2017 and 2018 – continues to flourish, so there appears no reason why O’Leary cannot make further inroads into McManus’ lead in the years to come.
On the eve of the 2018 Cheltenham Festival, Nicky Henderson was still the most successful trainer in the history of the annual National Hunt showpiece, with 58 winners, and was due to saddle the favourite in three of the four main championship races. Buveur D’Air, of course, defended his title in the Champion Hurdle, Altior was an impressive winner of the Queen Mother Champion Chase and Might Bite failed by 4½ lengths to complete an unprecedented treble in the Cheltenham Gold Cup after an epic duel with Native River. To make matters worse, Henderson was displaced as the most successful Festival trainer by Willie Mullins, whose seven winners took his own career total to 61 successes.
Nevertheless, although the Master of Seven Barrows last won the Leading Trainer Award at the Festival in 2012 that was, in fact, his ninth win and he remains one of a handful of big-hitters at Cheltenham when March rolls around. His impressive track record stretches back to the victory of The Tsarevitch, ridden by John White, in the Mildmay of Flete Challenge Cup in 1985 but, since then, his performance in the four main championship races alone would be enough to make him the envy of lesser trainers.
Henderson is the leading trainer in the history of the Champion Hurdle, with seven wins, courtesy of See You Then in 1985, 1986 and 1987, Punjabi in 2009, Binocular in 2010 and Buveur D’Air in 2017 and 2018. He has won the Queen Mother Champion Chase five times, with Remittance Man in 1992, Finian’s Rainbow in 2012, Sprinter Sacre 2013 and 2016 and Altior 2018, the Stayers’ Hurdle twice, with Rustle in 1989 and Bacchanal in 2000 and the Cheltenham Gold Cup with Long Run 2011 and Bobs Worth 2013. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, Henderson is also the leading trainer in the history of the Arkle Challenge Trophy and the Triumph Hurdle, with six wins apiece.