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Will we be left to imagine what might have happened in the Grand National?

By Andy Stephens@StevoGG
Tue 11 Feb 2020

Tiger Roll was never far from the lips of anyone when the Randox Health Grand National weights were revealed at the majestic St George’s Hall in Liverpool on Tuesday afternoon.

The first back-to-back winner of the race for 45 years was all most of the guests wanted to talk about, but everyone left none the wiser as to whether he would run or not. By all accounts it's 50-50; a flip-of-the-coin job.

Laura Wright, the soprano, gave a stirring rendition of Imagine, the John Lennon classic, but perhaps that’s all we will be able to do on April 4. Imagine what it would have been like had the Tiger been in the line-up, seeking to emulate the three National triumphs that Red Rum achieved in the 1970s.

They say weight stops trains, and perhaps it will still stop the Tiger even taking part.

Trainer Gordon Elliott is hoping it does not come to that. "If it is left down to me, Tiger Roll will definitely be running in the Randox Health Grand National,” he said. “He is a household name, and this is the most famous race in the world. I am very keen to run him.

 Grand National-winning trainers Oliver Sherwood, Gordon Elliott, Paul Nicholls, Nigel Twiston-Davies, Sue Smith, Jonjo O'Neill and Willie Mullins were in Liverpool
Grand National-winning trainers Oliver Sherwood, Gordon Elliott, Paul Nicholls, Nigel Twiston-Davies, Sue Smith, Jonjo O'Neill and Willie Mullins were in Liverpool

"He gets quite low [over his fences], he just measures them. In his early days you would not have said that he is going to be a Grand National horse. As Donald McCain says, "He might not have got around in Red Rum's day," but as long as Donald is alive, Ginger will never be dead!”

Twenty-time champion jockey AP McCoy nominated him as the horse he would most like to ride, plus seemed sweet on Burrows Saint, but don’t let that put you off backing any of JP McManus’s eight entries. After all, AP was not exactly sold on the notion of riding Don’t Push It ten years ago, was he? How time flies.

The bookmakers, perhaps still bruised by Tiger Roll’s exploits for the past two years, are united in making him a short-priced favourite. But what do they know?

The people whose opinions really matter, owners Michael and Eddie O’Leary, were not at lunch (although I’m sure they were invited) and were no doubt analysing the weights without any distractions around them. The latter did not like what he saw and says Tiger Roll's participation remains in the balance.

"The handicapper has his job to do and he's done it,” he said. “We wanted more (compression in the handicap). The decision is now in our hands whether we run or not. Tiger is invaluable to us and we have to look after him.

 Laura Wright sang in the company of The Liverpool Signing Choir
Laura Wright sang in the company of The Liverpool Signing Choir

"He was definitely going to be entered in the Betway Bowl and probably the Punchestown Gold Cup. Hopefully he comes through the Navan test [on Sunday], he's coming back after a setback - he won't win, obviously, but if just pulls up with a smile on his face that will do us and then go on to Cheltenham and hopefully show us more there.

"Then we'll decide, but at the moment it's 50-50. The Betway Bowl is definitely coming into calculations now."

By contrast, Joe Tizzard seemed to capture the positive spirit within St George’s Hall and suggested the owners of Native River were “coming around to the idea” of running – just 24 hours after they had said it could wait for another year.

"If he was mine right now, I would perhaps skip Cheltenham and go straight to Aintree, but fair play to the owners, they own the horse and he has every right to line up in the Gold Cup,” Tizzard said.

Native River has a lot of the attributes required for the National and it would be quite a story if he won, given that his regular rider, Richard Johnson, currently on the sidelines with a broken arm, has the unwanted record of having ridden in the race more times than anyone else without a win in it.

Johnson first rode in the race in 1997 and has suffered 21 defeats. On 15 occasions, he has failed to complete, include last year when brought down. He wasn't at the lunch but was on a beach in Barbados, so I doubt he minded too much.

If Tiger Roll does not run, then we will all have to find another story to write about and there are plenty of Plan Bs in the pipeline – Johnson being among them and Nicky Henderson another.

Henderson is a maestro and thought training a National winner would be a formality after Zongalero, his first runner in the race, finished runner-up in 1979. Four decades later, he is still waitng to break his duck but he believes he has two credible challengers this time in Beware The Bear and OK Corral.

I can see plenty of people putting Tiger Roll and Beware The Bear in a reverse forecast. There's also a Spider (Spider Web), Bull (Roaring Bull), Dingo (Dingo Dollar), Lion (Viuex Lion Rouge; although I'm not sure he counts) and Fly (Anibale Fly) engaged, for those who like bets on that kind of thing.

A female jockey has still yet to win the race, although, in fairness, the first to take part was only in 1977. Men have been falling off in the race since 1839.

Paul Nicholls went out of his way to mention that Bryony Frost would probably be aboard recent Taunton winner Yala Enki, and nominated him and Give Me A Copper as his best chances.

“He is very much like a Neptune Collonges,” Nicholls said of Yala Enki. Nicholls was sitting on the Neptune Collonges table and no doubt would have smiled when he saw that grey beauty greeting guests as they arrived.

Now 19, he looked in rude health and is apparently enjoying an active retirement.

No doubt Gigginstown will also find a ride for the brilliant Rachael Blackmore, but probably not Tiger Roll, although that really would be a great story.

How about a 17-year-old riding the winner?

Jack Tudor guided Potters Corner to victory in the Welsh Grand National over Christmas and trainer Christian Williams suggested he was in the running to keep the ride.

"It is exciting to have a horse like him in the race, but Jack firstly needs to have three more winners over fences [to meet a riding criteria] between now and then before we can even decide if he can ride him,” Williams said.

“We will see if Jack can ride the winners and we will see what is best and who is available at the time of the race. Jack is a special talent and it's been brilliant to share a victory like that in the Welsh National with him."

It has been 30 years since an amateur rider, Marcus Armytage, last won the race aboard Mr Frisk. The bubbly David Maxwell is hoping to try and emulate him aboard Saint Xavier.

Maxwell got a bad draw at lunch – he was sat next to me - but was great company, as anyone who has seen him interviewed on Racing TV can probably imagine.

He was full of colourful tales and gossip (what is said at the Grand National weights lunch stays there) but, unlike just about everyone else, he is hoping Tiger Roll does not get the green light to run because otherwise he will have to sacrifice some evening meals to make the weight of 10st 4lb.

Maxwell regarded sitting on the Auroras Encore table with Sue and Harvey Smith as a good omen. His mount is among the outsiders, but then so was 66-1 chance Auroras Encore when he won in 2013.

Rest assured, he will make the weight if he has to. It’s the Grand National, after all, and you have got to be in it to win it.

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