Davy Russell won the Grand National at his 14th attempt (The Jockey Club)
By Andy Stephens at Aintree
If Davy Russell needed any additional motivational before the Randox Health Grand National it was provided as he headed to post and heard the commentator make reference to him being the oldest jockey in the race.
The 38-year-old said to himself, “Jeez, I’d better not come back next year,” but his experience counted for plenty as he guided the smallest horse in the race, Tiger Roll, trained by Gordon Elliott, to a pulsating head victory over the rallying Pleasant Company in an attritional renewal where only a dozen of the 38 runners completed.
With Bless The Wings, a stablemate of the winner, in third, and Anibale Fly fourth it was a spectacular 1-2-3-4 for Irish-trained horses. An exultant Bryony Frost flew the flag for Britain, and the two other female riders, aboard fifth-placed Milansbar.
Grand National winners aged eight who have already won three races at the Cheltenham Festival are a rare breed and, in that respect, the Gigginstown-owned Tiger Roll and Russell are a perfect match.
The County Cork rider has had his ups and downs during an eventful career – including at one time being fired by Gigginstown supremo and owner Michael O’Leary – but there are few better in the weighing room and perhaps none with such a sharp mind or quick wit.
As he savoured winning the £1 million showpiece for the first time his mind drifted back to his childhood and Aintree “victories” in his back garden.
“The only time I enjoyed cleaning up the grass when Dad cut it was this time of year when you get the first cut,” he said.
Tiger Roll carried 10st 13lb and the last winner to carry that weight was Maori Venture in 1987 (The Jockey Club)
“There was no such thing as lawnmowers with collecting buckets on them in those days. I enjoyed raking up the grass and would make the piles into Aintree fences.
“We would have races over them and kick the grass into the air like the spruce flying. I have actually won the Grand National a thousand times, in races with my cousins, friends and siblings.”
A sequence of 13 previous National defeats, stretching back to 2003, has never dimmed his affection for the biggest jump race in the world.
“This is a wonderful, wonderful event – I love it so much,” he said. “I’ve been coming here for years hoping. It’s amazing I’ve finally done it.
“It’s great that my (four) children can sit back and watch this and be part of this. This event takes in more than one person. I’m from a town in County Cork, Youghal, and I’m sure everyone who has been with me since I was a child can feel the magic of this.
“Winning maiden point-to-point races used to satisfy me and now I’ve won this. It’s fantastic. I’ve had a brilliant career and I hope everyone that has supported me along the way will enjoy this as much as I will.”
Then, there was a poignant moment as he spoke of his late mother, who died last month.
“She was a marvellous woman. What would I give to be sharing this with her,” he said.
“She got me out of bed at six o’clock every morning to drive me around the country.
“They (his mother and father) always knew it was worthwhile for their child.“
The first half of the race revolved arounds incidents and accidents at just about every fence, with Russell intent on “minding my own business”.
Nine runners had exited by the eighth of the 30 fences and Total Recall, the 7-1 favourite after bookmakers had been betting 14-1 the field in the morning, had lost all chance with a bad blunder at the third.
It seemed the first heavy ground renewal of the race since 2001, when memorably Red Marauder and Smarty were the only horses to complete without mishap, was taking its toll but the second half was less eventful, if no less compelling.
By two out it was evident that Pleasant Company and Tiger Roll more or less had it to themselves. Willie Mullins versus Elliott. Again. The theme of the whole season.
The Irish dominated the Grand National at Aintree (The Jockey Club)
Russell kicked on and Tiger Roll looked set for a five or six-length success at the elbow but then his petrol gauge began to flicker and Pleasant Company, partnered by Danny Mullins, began to reduce the deficit.
He never looked like quite getting there but in another stride he probably would have.
“I was very worried,” Russell admitted. “I saw an awful lot of Pleasant Company on my outside – usually you don’t see that much of a horse in a tight finish. I think the line saved me.
“I got there a bit early, but he was getting a little bit sleepy in behind the Mullins horse and I wanted him to wake him up a little bit going to the second last and he nearly overdone it.
“I could have delayed it a bit longer. If I’d got beaten a short head I would be a long way out of here by now.”
Tiger Roll is about 15.2 hands high and O’Leary delicately described him as “a little rat of a horse” in the post-race interview on Racing UK.
Russell drew a more flattering comparison, saying: “He’s a little fella, but Ferraris are smaller than Range Rovers and are still very good. It’s the size of the engine that counts.
“He’s very economical with his jumping – he hurdles his fences – but the one thing when I gave him a shove into a fence he jumped them; he didn’t back off or go through them.
“I put no thought into today’s National. The one I wanted to win was on Petit Mouchoir (who finished second). I was a little sore in the shoulder after a fall a couple of weeks ago, and while having a bit of physio before today’s race nearly talked myself out of winning it.”
For the sixth year in succession there were no equine fatalities and Charlie Deutsch, who needed some medical attention, escaped serious injury after a fall from Houblon Des Obeaux.
In addition to Frost, Katie Walsh also completed on Baie Des Isle, who was last of the 12 finishers. Rachael Blackmore fell at The Chair on Alpha Des Obeaux.
The wait for a female to win the race goes on another year, then, but Russell will ride at Tramore tomorrow knowing he has achieved his ultimate ambition.
“Today’s win exceeds everything else I’ve won because it’s such a hard race to win,” he said.
“Thousands of things have to happen in your favour to win the race.”
Will he be watching it again, sometime soon? “A million times,” he said.