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Gordon Elliott: Tiger Roll finished fifth but that was as good as winning

He did not win, nor was he second. He was not even placed. The result was irrelevant, yet the performance could hardly have been more significant at Navan on Sunday.

Tiger Roll finished fifth, beaten over 14 lengths by his less esteemed stablemate Cracking Smart, but the enthusiasm he showed before fatigue kicked in soon after the second-last suggests that becoming the first horse to win three Grand Nationals in a row is definitely possible.

Ladbrokes, who sponsor the Boyne Hurdle, left Tiger Roll unchanged at 5-1 for the Grand National and make him a 13-8 shot to win the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase for a third year in a row. Victory at Cheltenham next month would be a fifth festival success for the legendary ten-year-old.

"He finished fifth but for me that was as good as winning," said a chuffed Gordon Elliott afterwards.

The trainer added: "I'm absolutely thrilled. Keith [Donoghue] said he just blew up. I couldn't be happier. That's not the ground he wants, but anyone could see how well he travelled, and you couldn't be anything but happy with it.

"I thought there were a lot of pluses to be taken out of it. Keith said he pulled the arms out of him the whole way around. We can really look forward to the cross country at Cheltenham with him now."

So, what is the plan between now and March 11?

Elliott replied: "He will go to Cheltenham next week or the week after to have a pop around the course and then have another racecourse gallop somewhere and that will be him ready."

Donoghue, who knows Tiger Roll better than anyone, was just as thrilled and even thought he might win the race for a second year in a row at one stage.

Donoghue said: "He showed some amount of enthusiasm out there. I actually thought I was going to win two out, but he just got tired. You'd have to be delighted with that."

Seldom has the spotlight shone away from a winner as much as Cracking Smart. The 16-1 outsider had to wait patiently for his picture to be taken as Tiger Roll posed for snap after snap.

Cracking Smart was a one-time leading Albert Bartlett fancy, but a late injury ruled him out of the 2018 running. His four starts over fences this season had been a tale of woe, but he recaptured his old sparkle with a relentless display of galloping which was four lengths too good for 2018 Stayers' Hurdle winner Penhill.

Last year's Grand National runner-up Magic Of Light faded tamely up the home straight and trailed in last of the the eight runners. It was a rare blip from a mare who is usually as consistent as they come.

"To be fair Gordon said he had him [Cracking Smart] in tip-top shape and he felt very good the whole way through the race," said winning jockey Davy Russell.

"He was very talented as a novice but he didn't reach the heights we thought he was capable of afterwards, which we were all bemused by. He travelled quite well today but you just weren't sure what would happen when he came off the bridle, but he was very good."

Cracking Smart surprised Elliott too, and he could have a crack at one of the handicaps at Cheltenham now, especially if the ground came up soft. 

Elliott added: "He will be entered in some of the handicaps at Cheltenham – maybe the softer ground could be the key to him too.

"It is great for Cracking Smart to win it but he is probably going to be overshadowed by Tiger Roll."

You can say that again, Gordon. Cracking Smart might have won this battle but the biggest war of all is edging ever closer and Tiger Roll is shaping up for it very nicely indeed. 

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