An unlikely champion who has captured the public's imagination. Yet his story was nearly over before it began... Anna Joyce introduces the latest must-listen podcast from the Documentary On One team - hear the first episode, A Star Is Born, above.

A few minutes (2.16 to be exact) after you hit play on the series Tiger Roll: The People's Horse, the narrator and creator Liam O’Brien makes a pact with his listener: "You don’t really need to know about horse racing to follow the story of Tiger Roll".

Still, I approached the first episode with trepidation. The daughter of a farmer, I spent the majority of my childhood forced to watch racing on repeat, such was the plight of a one television, two-channel household in the early 2000s. As a tax-paying adult with not one, not two but three streaming subscriptions and high speed broadband, I had no intention of sticking around if Mr. O’Brien’s promise did not carry weight.

Thankfully it did. The series (to be released on podcast first) is brought to listeners by RTÉ Documentary On One. It originally launched in February of last year, but the creators pressed pause after a controversy broke out surrounding Tiger’s trainer, Gordon Elliott.

The Documentary On One team has already built quite the reputation across the airwaves. Former hits include the multi-award-winning true crime series The Nobody Zone and the historical nailbiter GunPlot.

And while this series is void of conspiracy theories and murder, it will likely satiate the needs of the bored millennial (hello), titillate racing enthusiasts, and act as a stand-in bedtime story for tired parents retching at the thought of another episode of PAW Patrol.

If you are not well acquainted with the name Tiger Roll, in 2019 he won the Grand National for the second year on the trot, a race with a viewership of roughly 600 million people. The 2020 meeting was cancelled due to COVID. Tiger Roll did not return to defend his crown in 2021 due to an "unfair weight burden" and a similar challenge looks set to rule him out again this year. But I’m here to review, not explain how weight, ratings and handicap marking schemes work. So click here for the full scoop on that story.

Davy Russell celebrates winning the JCB Triumph Hurdle on Tiger Roll at the
Cheltenham Racing Festival in 2014 (Photo: Getty Images)

The series neatly sets out two paths for Tiger Roll: what people wanted him to do, and what Tiger Roll did instead. Although he was destined to be a racer, his mother Swiss Roll raced on the flat, and his father Authorized won the 2007 Epsom Derby, Tiger Roll would find himself unable to fit the family mould (relatable content). Instead, after three years unraced by owners Godolphin, he would discover a rhythm for jumping hurdles, but that’s skipping ahead a bit. The first episode primarily focuses on his humble beginnings in the village of Portroe in Co. Tipperary.

The listener follows Tiger from his conception right up to the 2010 sales ring at Tattersalls in Newmarket, England, where he was sold to Sheikh Mohammed, owner of Godolphin, the largest thoroughbred operation in the world.

Unlike most of his counterparts, Tiger Roll was not bred in a commercial stud of 100 plus foals but to retired vet Jerry O’Brien, a one-horse, one foal kind of man. During the episode, Jerry walks around Tiger Roll’s first stable, (while doing so) he humanises the horse, and the breeding process. He describes his quirks, temperament, family history, and discards the usual chatter of weights, hands, and pedigree.

Like a nervous parent, he recounts ducking behind the wall of his vegetable garden to avoid detection from Harry, his nickname for a then-unnamed Tiger Roll. Who would jump around "the air like pet lambs", upon seeing his master, risking a possible injury in the process.

Tiger Roll's breeder, Jerry O'Brien,
with one of his latest foals, a relation to Tiger Roll

We learn about the strong female influence on Tiger Roll. His grandmother On Air was also reared by Jerry O’Brien and was, like Swiss Roll and Tiger Roll - "Full of it like, stamina, they’re tough and keep going, the will to win". Jerry even named Swiss Roll, after his own mother "all our mothers were great cook’s and they used to make these Swiss rolls, so I just thought it might be a nice name for her ''.

The first instalment includes exclusive interviews with Joe Hernan, the manager of Castlehyde stud where Tiger Roll was born, as well as John O'Kelly, the auctioneer who sold him in 2010, and Tommy Stack, the Grand National winner who trained his mother Swiss Roll. In upcoming episodes, the team promises soundbites from guests who have never spoken publicly about "the people’s horse".

Music plays an imperative role in this tale - a backing track of string swells and piano chords is juxtaposed against the diegetic sound of animal grunts, live race recordings, and horseshoes clapping; as sources conjure up memories of Tiger Roll. This mix sounds jarring on paper but in reality, it effortlessly creates a sense of liveness and immediacy. The narrative, the setting, and sound arrangement manifest a near cinematic aura for this production. It will remind you less of Punchestown and more of Black Beauty or War Horse.

However, brief moments of a tragedy like the death of Mick Buckley, a friend of Jerry O’Brien’s who helped organise the breeding of Tiger Roll, snaps the listener back to reality. This is a documentary, not a Disney film.

Tiger Roll, as a foal in 2010, a photo discovered during the making of the series

The one reservation I had before undertaking this series was the possibility of nonsensical racing terms and dense historical background. However, you are left with enough tidbits to revitalise stale dinner party conversations, but not enough to require a dictionary of equine terms. My personal favourite: all racehorses today can trace their lineage back to just three stallions in the 1790s. When more technical language is required the narrator concisely explains terms like "broodmares" (gives birth to a foal every year) using accessible turns of phrase.

Suspense is brought to the table by the very nature of this sport. It only takes one bad fall or misstep to take down even the most proficient racer, and suddenly the stakes move from a win or lose to life or death. This uncertainty adds a layer of suspense to an otherwise relatively soothing listen.

Tiger Roll: The People’s Horse is comfort food. It serves to remind us about the brilliance of Irish sport as we try to return to "normal" life after two truly harrowing years.

And if that doesn’t tempt you in the words of Winston Churchill "No hour of life is wasted that is spent in the saddle." I'm sure an audio saddle counts…

New episodes of Tiger Roll: The People's Horse are available weekly - download and subscribe here.