AINTREE, England — As a child growing up in Ireland, Davy Russell used to gather up bundles of freshly mown grass in his garden with his brother and cousins in the early spring and pretend they were fences in the Grand National Steeplechase.
“I’ve actually won the Grand National thousands of times,” he says with a laugh.
Now he’s won the real thing — and in the most dramatic style possible.
In his 14th attempt to win horse racing’s most grueling jumps race, Russell rode Tiger Roll to victory in a photo finish over Pleasant Company on a glorious spring day at Aintree in northern England on Saturday.
A 4 1/2-mile (6,400-meter) race ended up coming down to a matter of inches as Tiger Roll faded in the long run to the line. Pleasant Company was as much as 10 lengths behind at one stage but ate up the ground in his late surge.
“I did have a big fear,” said Russell, the oldest jockey in the race at age 38. “I saw an awful lot of Pleasant Company going by. That’s what worried me.”
The mount of David Mullins left it too late, though. Tiger Roll won by a short head and Russell could finally add the National to a growing list of big wins, including the Cheltenham Gold Cup aboard Lord Windermere in 2014.
The first four horses home in the National were from Ireland, with Bless The Wings (40-1) in third and Anibale Fly (10-1) in fourth.
In fifth place was Milansbar, ridden by Bryony Frost — one of three female jockeys in the race. A woman has still never ridden a horse to victory in 171 editions of the National but this was one of the best finishes by a female.
It was the second National victory for both trainer Gordon Elliott, who also won with Silver Birch in 2007, and owner Michael O’Leary, who had 2016 winner Rule The World. O’Leary is chief executive of budget airline Ryanair.
Tiger Roll was one of the smaller horses in the race, but had already showed his resilience and jumping ability by winning the 2014 Triumph Hurdle at Cheltenham, one of three wins at the prestigious festival down the years.
“We bought the horse as a pint-sized hurdler,” O’Leary said, “but he’s got a heart of a lion.”
O’Leary fired Russell as the stable jockey at Gigginstown House Stud over a cup of tea in 2013. Russell returned and is now set to be crowned Ireland’s champion jockey at the end of his best year in the saddle yet, which includes being the jockey with most victories in last month’s Cheltenham Festival.
Total Recall went off as the 7-1 favorite in a 38-horse field on soft ground following rain throughout the week in this part of Liverpool. He was one of 26 fallers.
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80