Talking Horses: weights furore threatens Tiger Roll hat-trick attempt

Greg Wood
The Guardian
<span>Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA</span>
Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA

As anyone who has tried to board a Ryanair flight with a cabin bag a centimetre too wide will confirm, Michael O’Leary is a stickler for rules. If you don’t do things his way, you don’t get on the plane. It has made O’Leary very rich and Ryanair immensely successful, and if neither the CEO nor his airline get much love from their customers, it’s a price he is willing to pay.

When it comes to his horses, though – and the dual Grand National winner, Tiger Roll, in particular – O’Leary’s attitude to rules seems a little more flexible.

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Related: Talking Horses: in defence of the Gigginstown racing operation

Almost from the instant that Tiger Roll crossed the line at Aintree last April, O’Leary and his brother Eddie, the racing manager for his Gigginstown Stud operation, have been engaging in mind games with Martin Greenwood, the handicapper responsible for setting the weights for this year’s race. The line has been consistent. We want him to run in April and go for a Red Rum-equalling win number three. So, for that matter, do Aintree and millions of racing fans. But if he’s going to turn up, you’ll have to cut us some slack in the weights.

Eddie O’Leary’s most recent, none-too-subtle nudge was to remind the handicapper that the top weight in the race has been “compressed” – or let off, in plain terms – by “8lb on average for the past 10 years”. He added: “I have a figure in my head but I’m not going to mention it. If he hits that figure, he runs, and if he doesn’t, he won’t be running.”

On Tuesday, at the official weights luncheon in Liverpool, we should discover whether the O’Learys have succeeded where so many Ryanair customers have failed, and managed to talk their way on to the plane. So too will all the other owners and trainers who are also eager to run their horses in the world’s most famous steeplechase and will feel, quite fairly, that a horse with enough talent to win the race twice already should not require any special favours.

Spare a thought for Greenwood, who has been asked to perform a ferociously difficult balancing act. If he goes too far in terms of Tiger Roll’s compression, he will be accused of caving in to O’Leary’s demands. Not far enough, and he could get the blame for potentially robbing the sport of its biggest moment in half a century.

My guess is that Tiger Roll will get 4lb at most, and certainly nothing close to O’Leary’s 8lb “average”. There are fair averages and bogus ones, and the 8lb figure falls into the latter category, since it includes the exceptional 11lb which was handed to Tidal Bay a few years ago. As someone once pointed out, if Bill Gates gets on to a crowded bus in LA, the passengers suddenly have an average annual income in the 100s of millions, but it doesn’t make their lives any easier. O’Leary also overlooks the fact that all the favoured horses were prospective National debutants, not dual winners.

<span class="element-image__caption">Davy Russell and Tiger Roll clear the final fence in 2019 on the way to back-to-back Grand National wins.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Alex Livesey/Getty Images</span>
Davy Russell and Tiger Roll clear the final fence in 2019 on the way to back-to-back Grand National wins. Photograph: Alex Livesey/Getty Images

That would kick off some full and frank exchanges of views, and quite possibly some pithy lines to add to the lists of “Top 50 Outrageous Michael O’Leary quotes” dotted around the internet. But what we will need most of all on Tuesday, once the results of Greenwood’s many weeks of effort are published, is some certainty. The National is, by far, the most popular betting race of the year, and Tiger Roll will, compression or not, be a short-priced favourite when the lists go up. Without a firm commitment from the O’Learys, one way or the other, the race could be pitched into a “will-he-won’t-he” limbo for weeks to come.

It promises to be a fascinating and possibly fractious afternoon in Liverpool on Tuesday. Meanwhile, in Gordon Elliott’s stable in Ireland, Tiger Roll himself will be munching oats and exercising daily ahead of his scheduled return to action at Navan this weekend, blissfully unaware of the furore he is causing. Good for him.

Monday’s best bets

Catterick’s meeting on succumbed to Storm Ciara, Ayr’s scheduled card on Tuesday has gone the same way and Wetherby on Wednesday is looking long odds-against. Plumpton, though, survived an early inspection and will stage the only jumping in Britain for the next two days.

Shaw’s Cross (3.15) has winning form on heavy ground, ran well at this track last time out and remains unexposed at today’s trip, while The Flying Sofa (2.45) showed plenty of grit to win at Fakenham last time and should follow up against three rivals.
The best race of the day, though, is on the all-weather card at Wolverhampton, where a £12,000 prize for the feature handicap over 9.5 furlongs has attracted six runners with a live chance. Felix is the morning favourite but Kaser (7.40) has run to a similar level and won with something in hand over today’s track and trip last time out. Thawry (7.10) should also go well on the same card while Jorvik Prince (8.10) went off much too fast over six furlongs last time but is still well-handicapped on his old form as he drops back to five today.

Plumpton 2.15 Fraser Island 2.45 The Flying Sofa 3.15 Shaw’s Cross 3.45 Le Coeur Net 4.15 Velvet Cognac 4.45 Lady Chartreuse

Wolverhampton 4.35 Festive Love 5.05 Sound Mixer 5.40 Mamillius 6.10 Clap Your Hands 6.40 Cat Royale 7.10 Thawry 7.40 Kaser (nap) 8.10 Jorvik Prince (nb)

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