AS a sportswriter, you’re often stopped by people wanting to know your opinion on something. “Is Rafa staying?” seems to be the number one question at the moment, closely followed by “Is Pulis going?” and “Are Sunderland going to get promoted?”

On Sunday morning though, as I strolled to pick up the papers, three different people wanted to talk about the same topic of conversation. “What did you make of Tiger Roll then?”, “Is he the best horse ever?”, “I told you 4-1 wasn’t a bad price”.

Every now and then, what is effectively a niche sport breaks into the wider public consciousness. Saturday’s Grand National, truly a race for the ages, was one of those moments. The greatest race in the world produced one of the great sporting moments.

Tiger Roll shouldn’t be winning Grand Nationals. He shouldn’t really be jumping fences given that his sire, Authorized, was a Derby winner on the Flat, and he certainly shouldn’t be triumphing in four-mile chases given that the first major victory of his career came in a two-mile juvenile hurdle race at the Cheltenham Festival.

He is a tiny little thing, standing at just 15 hands two, but like all the best sporting underdogs, he has achieved what no one thought possible. As a result, the nation has taken him to its heart.

As the first multiple Grand National winner since Red Rum, Tiger Roll has rewritten the record books. In the last couple of decades, we have grown accustomed to Grand National winners disappearing without trace. Plenty failed to make it to the track again; very few went on to win another race. Aintree was their moment, and their career tailed off from the moment they passed the winning post.

Tiger Roll is different. Not only has he come back from last year’s victory, he has returned as an even better horse. His warm-up win in February’s Boyne Hurdle was the best hurdling performance of his career, his romp to a fourth Cheltenham Festival victory in last month’s Cross-Country Chase was the best cross-country performance of his career, and Saturday’s cruise to victory over the National fences was the best performance of his career full stop. So much for a National win ushering in an inevitable retirement.

Where does he stand in the pantheon of Aintree champions? Right at the top alongside Red Rum.

There will be some who attempt to play down the scale of Tiger Roll’s achievements by arguing that the Grand National has become a completely different race to the challenge that was posed in the 1970s and 80s. It is, but that doesn’t make it any easier to win.

It is certainly much less of a jumping test, with the pressure applied by the animal rights lobby having resulted in major modifications to the National fences. Horses can get away with things now that would have ended their race two or three decades ago, indeed the mistakes Tiger Roll made at the fifth last and fourth last at the weekend would almost certainly have resulted in him falling had the fences not been changed. Magic Of Light, who finished second, walked through the Chair, previously one of the most imposing fences in racing, but emerged unscathed.

However, while jumping errors can go unpunished nowadays, the modern-day Grand National is much more competitive than the races Red Rum was winning in the 70s. Back then, the race often lacked quality and depth, with up to half of the field comprised of complete no-hopers. The best horses swerved the National because it was too much of a test – as a result, Aintree specialists were able to make hay.

Today’s Grand National is the most competitive handicap on the calendar, with 40 horses lining up who are all within a couple of stones of each other in the handicap. Since 2005, only six horses have raced in the National from out of the handicap, and the average rating of the bottom weight in the race has risen from the mid-130s to the low-140s. That is quite a leap.

Better horses run in the National nowadays, and more horses finish. So it goes without saying that it should be a much harder race to win once, let alone in back-to-back editions.

Tiger Roll has done just that, and while his low-jumping style is clearly suited to the modern fences, it is his heart, commitment and relish for the unique test of the National that has made him so successful.

Thoughts inevitably turn to the future, and the tantalising prospect of what he might achieve if he lines up again in 12 months’ time.

A lot of water has to flow under the bridge before then. Racehorses are notoriously fragile, there are no guarantees Tiger Roll will still be as effective once he turns ten, and his owners at Gigginstown Stud have intimated he might swerve the National altogether next year to focus his undivided attention on another Cross-Country win.

Let us hope they can be persuaded to change their mind. This year’s scenes were incredible, but just imagine what would happen if Tiger Roll was to complete the hat-trick next April. I, for one, will be spending the winter salivating at the prospect.


FROM Sandpapergate to Framwellgate, Cameron Bancroft spoke impressively as he was introduced to the media as Durham’s new captain on Wednesday afternoon.

Having served his suspension for his part in the Australian ball-tampering scandal, the 26-year-old deserves a chance to rebuild his career. He knows what he did was wrong, and seems determined to make amends and rebuild his reputation.

Given there is an Ashes series looming at the end of the summer, some cricket fans have criticised Durham for providing a potential Australian Test batsman with the chance to become acclimatised to English conditions. It is not Durham they should be criticising though, it is the ECB.

Had the ECB not imposed such a draconian set of punishments on Durham in 2016, the county might not have had to turn to Bancroft to help lift them out of the Second Division.

Durham have to adhere to strict salary restrictions, and the harsh reality is that Bancroft’s back story means they have been able to recruit a world-class batsman without having to pay his full market value.

If Bancroft stars for Durham and then goes on to cart England’s bowlers all over the park in the Ashes, it will serve the ECB right.