Michael O'Leary: why I'm not using Tiger Roll hero Russell on my best horses
Michael O’Leary has stated that Davy Russell will ride Tiger Roll if he bids for a historic Grand National hat-trick in the spring – but it could be a big if as he described the chances of running jump racing’s most popular horse in the Aintree showpiece for a third time as between "slim and none".
The Gigginstown House Stud chief was responding to questions after it had become apparent over the last six weeks that Russell is no longer among their favoured riders.
While O’Leary denied there has been a rift, he accepted he has consciously been looking elsewhere while Jack Kennedy is injured, citing the three-time champion jockey’s commitments to other horses as one of the reasons for that.
“I don't have a loyalty to any particular jockey, other than the one we prefer to use most, which is Jack and he is injured,” he said. “That’s not to say Davy won’t be riding for us again. Have I fallen out with him? No. Is he riding many of my horses? No, but there are different reasons for that.
“The reason he wasn’t on Delta Work at Down Royal was because if he turns out to be a Gold Cup horse, Davy will be on Presenting Percy, so why would I put him on him?
“Why wasn’t he on Abacadabras? Well, he will be on Envoi Allen in the Royal Bond Novice Hurdle, and when I was putting Robbie Power on him, I thought I’d put him on Apple’s Jade as well. Robbie is riding out of his skin, so why wouldn’t we use him, and if we take Robbie off Apple’s Jade for Jack, nobody bats an eyelid.
“We put Keith Donoghue on Samcro because he is Jack’s ride, but if we put Davy on him and then take him off, it becomes a big issue because we’ve taken him off. A lot of these horses don't need Davy Russell on them.
“We do everything we can to give every horse the best chance of winning, and I wouldn't be taking Davy off our horses if there wasn't a good reason for it. I’m not wedded to him.”
When it was put to O’Leary that it seemed a harsh policy for a rider who had ridden the Gordon Elliott-trained Tiger Roll to two Randox Health Grand National victories for him, he responded: “Listen, the horse won two Grand Nationals, not the jockey. The horse does most of the work. Is Davy one of the best jockeys in the weighing room? Yes, he is, but there are other issues at play as well.”
Russell’s only two bookings for Gigginstown since he rode Mengli Khan to finish ninth in the Galway Plate have come on Alpha Des Obeaux.
The manner in which he has since been marginalised has led to speculation that there was a disagreement over tactics in the Plate, but O’Leary would not be drawn on the matter.
He saved some of his strongest comments for the issue of Tiger Roll’s participation in the 2020 Grand National, confirming Russell would be back in the saddle should Tiger Roll attempt to become the first horse to win the race three times in a row.
However, he then promptly reinforced sentiments expressed in the immediate aftermath of the £1 million contest this year, adding that he wasn’t trying to call the handicapper’s bluff and that the horse could even be retired after Cheltenham in March.
“If Tiger Roll goes for the Grand National at Aintree, I would be mad to look at anyone else other than Davy to ride him,” said the outspoken Ryanair supremo. “He rides Aintree like a master, but the chances of Tiger Roll going back to Aintree are slim and none.
“He is the fourth highest-rated staying chaser in England and Ireland, which we all know to be complete and utter horses**t.
“Now, does he run around Aintree well? Yes, he does. Is he going to carry 11st 10lb in a Grand National, with Gold Cup seconds and thirds getting six or eight pound off him? No, he is not.
“He will go for the cross-country race at Cheltenham and I would say there is every chance if he won that he would be retired. That’s not certain, but this is one horse I am not going to ask to carry a huge weight around Aintree.
“And I am not trying to negotiate with the handicapper. He barely won it last year off nine pound higher, and he is not going to improve again.”
In September, Elliott appeared to put an end to speculation by declaring that Tiger Roll’s “number one target this year will be the English National”.
“I’ve no problem with Gordon aiming him at the race,” O’Leary said when reminded of that. “But the decision will be taken out of his hands when they release the weights in February.
“I know it makes for a great story, that it would be wonderful if he won three Grand Nationals in a row, but wouldn’t it be terrible if he dropped dead lumping a huge weight around Aintree? I care more about looking after the horse and I am not killing him.
“I don’t give a s***e about history. People forget I lost Hear The Echo there about 100 yards from the finish line with a massive heart attack in 2009. That comes with the territory, I am not soft and accept it happens, but I have a wife and children who are in love with this horse and I am not risking him to lump a humongous weight.”
The Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown on December 28 has been pencilled in for Tiger Roll’s reappearance. He is as low as 5-1 market leader to plunder a third Grand National in the spring, but O’Leary’s comments cast fresh doubt on whether he will get the opportunity to enhance his status as an equine immortal.
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