The fairytale ending was not to be. Tiger Roll could not sign off his fabulous career with victory in the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase at Cheltenham, yet he went out on his shield in typically, utterly valiant fashion, with a gallant second-place finish behind stablemate Delta Work.
The Gordon Elliott-trained Tiger Roll, a dual Grand National winner, was attempting to win the three-and-three-quarter-mile race for a fourth time and was sent off the 3-1 second-favourite.
Yet with the ground officially changed to heavy after the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase, the chances of emulating Quevega’s record six Cheltenham Festival victories diminished with every drop of rain.
The Aintree and Cheltenham great, who was having the 45th and final run of a career which started in 2014 and earned owner Michael O’Leary over £1.4 million in prize-money, failed to read the script, however.
Davy Russell’s mount was travelling so well when taking it up at the 24th of the 32 fences and the 12-year-old former Triumph Hurdle winner looked to briefly have the 5-2 market leader in trouble jumping the second-last.
But Delta Work, on his first try over the cross-country fences, was always close enough under Jack Kennedy, and slowly, with every stride, inched closer and eventually put his head in front 200 yards from the line to go score by three-quarters of a length. Plan Of Attack was a further 21 lengths further back in third.
To an almighty cheer, both Both Delta Work and Tiger Roll were led in together.
An emotional O’Leary said: “I really would have loved to see Tiger go out on a win. It’s hard not be disappointed. You’ve a winner at Cheltenham and I’m disappointed.
“It’s just a magical fairytale on ground that doesn’t suit him. He’s gone out on his shield, he’s a warrior and that’s a Gold Cup horse that has beat him and only just on ground he wouldn’t like.
“I’m actually upset – I would have loved to see him win it.”
He added: “This is his send-off – he owes us nothing. He’s been wonderful to come back here for the six, seven, eight years.
“He’s been the horse of a lifetime and in many ways Cheltenham has been his spiritual home. He’s won five times here in Cheltenham. I know he’s won two Grand Nationals, but he started here in Cheltenham.
“To start off winning the Triumph Hurdle here as a four-year-old, then win the National Hunt Chase and three cross-country races, it’s incredible.
“He’s a legend.”
There were boos from the crowd as Delta Work passed the line in front, but Kennedy said: “It’s understandable (the boos). Obviously everybody would have loved to see Tiger Roll win, but you can’t take away from my horse either.
“I thought I was always going to get there. I knew I could be the most hated man in Cheltenham on Wednesday evening if I won.
“I’m delighted to win, his schooling had been brilliant. I thought the ground would be gone for him (Tiger Roll), I was surprised with how well he was going. I suppose it was in my head that he might not get up the hill as well as my lad on that ground.
“It would have been a great story for Tiger Roll to win.”
Reflecting on the race, Elliott said: “Of course I wanted Tiger to win, but once I won the race I didn’t mind especially because it was Gigginstown who are massive supporters of Cullentra. Seeing them come into the ring (together) is what it’s all about.
“Tiger has been the horse of a lifetime and he’ll have a brilliant retirement now with Gigginstown and Michael.
“He’s been with us nine years and he’ll be impossible to replace. To be honest I had a tear in my eye at the reception he got, if he’d won it would have been unbelievable but I’m still delighted with him.
“Tiger has been a big part of my life, we love him. The reaction didn’t surprise me, it was very nice, but imagine what it would have been like had he won. He got the reaction he deserved. It was a great race and we’re very happy.
“The ground came to suit Delta Work and he’s going to enjoy being in these races over the next few years.”