Tiger Roll breeder bursting with pride despite aiming for Flat success
Martin Stevens speaks to Gerry O'Brien, the man behind the Grand National hero
This article was first published in April 2018
It might not have been Gerry O'Brien's intention to breed a Grand National winner when he sent his mare Swiss Roll to Authorized in 2009 – “I thought the resultant foal would win a few Gold Cups,” he says wryly – but he is nevertheless bursting with pride at having produced this year's Aintree hero, the tenacious Tiger Roll.
After dabbling in several different careers, including a stint grave-digging, O'Brien was a long-time member of the Coolmore veterinary team until he retired to his farm near Portroe in County Tipperary in the noughties.
“I worked for Stan Cosgrove on the Curragh and anything I profess to know about veterinary is due to Stan,” he says.
“Subsequently I left for France on a grape-picking expedition and then worked in New Zealand and South Africa, as the rugby ethos in both countries fascinated me. Next it was on to Trinity College, where I studied History of Art for a year.”
History of Art might sound a strange diversion for a former veterinary student, but as O'Brien explains: “For better or worse I practised the art of veterinary medicine rather than the science as I found the science bewildering.
“The technology nowadays is fantastic, but over-reliance on it can sometimes cloud one’s innate commonsense judgement.”
The instinctive approach must have served O'Brien well at Coolmore as he enjoyed a long spell there, from the stud's inception in the 1970s until 2005.
“I joined 'Coolmore Cares' initially for one year,” he says. “Twenty-seven years later after some wondrous times it was a case of, as the bookies say, when the fun stops, stop. In college terms, I dropped out. Non, je ne regrette rien.
“My brief at Coolmore was reproduction. It's not rocket science. If you moved with nature, most would get pregnant in spite of you.
“It gets a bit tricky if you have 15 for the one sire and you can only cover three or four but, like kicking penalties, if you do it often enough one gets proficient and after working for four or five seasons for Stan Cosgrove you could do it in your sleep.”
O'Brien has given up the veterinary work since leaving Coolmore because “practising after Coolmore would be a total anti-climax: it would be like going from a five-star hotel to a B&B," he says.
“With the facilities we had we were able to dot the i's and cross the t's. I had a great team of people at various stages in the car with me – Bill Magner, Michael Andree, Bill Dwan, Tom Lynch, Brian O’Neill, Padraig Dolan, Eric Ward and my great mate Christy Grassick, who gave us free rein. They were blokes you could scrum down with every day. I couldn’t have performed or survived without them.”
O'Brien was bitten by the breeding bug while at Coolmore and among the broodmares he bought was one who would give him most of his success, and is indeed the granddam of Tiger Roll. That was On Air, a daughter of Chief Singer who was a useful middle-distance handicapper on the Flat and also won a Haydock novice hurdle and finished fourth to Berude Not To in the Grade 2 Kennel Gate Castle Novices' Hurdle.
On Air produced four winners for O'Brien, including Berenson, a son of Entrepreneur who took a Curragh maiden and finished second to Dubawi in the National Stakes on his only two starts; Pollen, an Orpen mare who carried the breeder's silks to victory in the Park Express Stakes; and Khachaturian, a Spectrum gelding who won on the Flat, over hurdles and over fences.
Tiger Roll's dam – Swiss Roll, a sister to Berenson – completed the quartet of winners for On Air. She scored in two races and claimed second in the Vintage Crop Stakes before she joined her dam on O'Brien's stud.
The daughter has matched the mother's feat of producing four winners, headed by the Lonsdale Cup winner and Irish St Leger runner-up Ahzeemah (to Dubawi) as well as Tiger Roll (to Authorized).
Her three-year-old colt, Austrian School, is held in high regard by trainer Mark Johnston with the son of Teofilo, bought by the trainer as a yearling for just 20,000gns, having won two of his four starts last year.
The mare has a two-year-old filly and yearling colt, both also by Teofilo, and she is in foal to Exceed And Excel.
Authorized and Teofilo are by sons of Sadler's Wells in Montjeu and Galileo, while Entrepeneur was also by Sadler's Wells, so Tiger Roll and Austrian School are inbred 3x3 to the late Coolmore great.
O'Brien explains the rationale behind the matings that led to Tiger Roll's birth.
He says: “On Air came in season so I asked Tom Lynch at Coolmore, who the best-looking stallion on the stud at the time was. He replied Entrepreneur, so I said 'put the blue tag on her, Tom'.
“Swiss Roll arrived as the result and she was sent to Tommy Stack, who did a marvellous job training her to win and get black type. She was a nightmare – a bad traveller, who worried a lot and ate very little. But she gave everything.
“Tiger Roll would not have come into existence but for being a foal share that the late Michael Buckley at Kildangan Stud generously offered to me in Authorized. He was a little concerned about the close inbreeding to Sadler's Wells but I said, 'Mick, let's take the mystery out of it', as I thought you can't have enough Sadler's Wells in a pedigree.”
And what was the Grand National and triple Cheltenham Festival hero like when he was merely a tiger cub?
“He was a most correct foal, with a wonderfully intelligent head,” O'Brien says. “He would willingly do anything for you, but I learned at an early stage that if I took him on I'd lose that battle.”
Tiger Roll was a beneficiary of the same natural approach to husbandry that O'Brien implemented during his veterinary career.
“I try to wean as late as possible, a month before the mares foal or a month before they go to the sale – basically endeavouring as much as possible to replicate nature,” he says. "In fact, Berenson was weaned as a yearling as On Air was running late.
“I keep it simple. The foals receive no supplements, no vitamin injections and so on. Tiger and his Mum were fed on the cooked mix. In the last year, I switched to 14 per cent pellets as somebody told me the crows won’t eat the pellets, and they were right.
“I haven’t manured the land since my Dad died 26 years ago but limed it once. A friend runs a flock of sheep over it which greatly helps. I used to keep a few cattle, but they created too many divots.”
If anyone was not convinced of O'Brien's delight at breeding a winner of the most famous jumps race in the world when Classic success was the aim, his passionate defence of Tiger Roll in response to perceived slights about the horse's diminutive stature should put the case beyond doubt.
“Michael O’Leary's choice of the word ‘rat’ to describe the horse is very much misplaced,” he says. “Tiger is anything but. He is endowed with perfect conformation, balance and a unique presence. Indeed, he is an artist’s dream to paint or sculpt.
“Northern Dancer and Lyric Fantasy, the 'pocket rocket', were smaller than the Tiger were and they were never denigrated by their owners, but rather extolled.”
O'Brien has the ultimate riposte to those who do not afford smaller horses the respect they deserve.
“Where were they when Tiger’s half-brother Austrian School – a colossus, a giant – was sold for just 20,000gns at Tattersalls in October 2016? He's already a dual winner at two.
“Perhaps the O’Leary brothers should go to Specsavers. They do two for the price of one.”
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