Donn's Articles » Davy Russell

Davy Russell

Davy Russell had three rides at Leopardstown on Hennessy day 2006. He didn’t have a ride in the Hennessy itself, but he did have a ride in one of the other Grade 1 races on the card, the Dr PJ Moriarty Chase. The Railway Man for Arthur Moore, a 16/1 shot. Russell had never ridden for Moore before and, in this game, as Russell has learned, you take what you are given.

As he walked in the gate that morning at Leopardstown, the first person Russell met was Arthur Moore.

“You’ll ride a winner for me today,” Moore told him.

They had moved the inside rail in on the chase track, so there was a fresh strip of ground down the inside, just about five horse-widths wide. They had a chat about the race there on the spot. Arthur suggested that Russell stay on the fresh strip for as long as he could, just hunt along out the back, creep and creep, make his move on the run to the last, the horse would take him there and would see out the trip.

The race panned out exactly as Moore had said it would. Russell delivered The Railway Man on the run to the last, he jumped the fence well and stayed on up the hill to provide the jockey with his first Grade 1 win, his first win for Moore, and spawn a relationship that still thrives today.

“I’m lucky that I work for and with so many good people,” says Russell now from behind a cup of tea and a sandwich, fresh from riding out at Arthur’s this morning. He goes through some of them. There’s Arthur, obviously, and Charles Byrnes, Tom Mullins and Paul Duffin, Philip Rothwell, Mouse, Eddie and Michael O’Leary, Paul Nolan, Liam Burke. And Frosty, Andrew Kelly, his agent, although if you called him Andrew he might have to think twice before he realised you were talking to him.

“I messed up a bit on the Troytown, a couple of weeks ago at Navan,” says Russell. “It was my fault. Paul Nicholls rang and asked me if I would ride Officier De Reserve in the race, and I said I would. I didn’t think. Ruby was injured, and Paul Nicholls maybe panicked and rang me, and I said yes straight away without thinking that Chelsea Harbour might have been in the race. I should have told Paul that I would check with Tom Mullins and Paul Duffin and come back to him. Fair play to Tom and Paul Duffin, though. They weren’t happy initially, but they understood. I messed up, and I am lucky that I am dealing with such good people. I was lucky that I was able to get back on horses like Chelsea Harbour and Made In Taipan.”

The end of that particular story was that Chelsea Harbour dived to his left over the fifth last fence, unseating Tom Doyle and forcing Officier De Reserve and Russell out through the rail. This game is stranger than fiction sometimes.

It was a rare reversal for Davy Russell. His march to the very pinnacle of his profession has been relentless, his progress in the last three years exponential. To put it into context, in the entire of the 2004/05 season, he rode 49 winners. This season already, he has ridden 48. Last season, he rode 126 winners in Ireland, enough to be crowned champion in a normal season, and almost 50 more than his best previous total. He shrugs his shoulders, not the shrug of cockiness or self-assuredness, but one of near embarrassment. Things are going well, he has good people around him, good horses to ride. He feels that he is riding as well as he has ever ridden, he is as content within himself as he has ever been, and with that contentment comes success. The talent flows.

It has not always been thus. When Russell was an amateur riding in point-to-points, he was happy. He didn’t have to waste, he was riding at his natural body weight, and he was much in demand. Actually, he didn’t really think that he was good enough to turn professional. He would have been happy to continue riding in point-to-points for the rest of his career. All he ever wanted to do was ride horses, and he was living the dream.

A couple of trainers suggested that he should consider turning professional, Noel Meade and John Queally among them. Russell wasn’t sure. He was riding a lot of winners for a lot of different trainers between the flags, Liam Burke, Robert Tyner, Pat Doyle, top men in point-to-point circles. He and JT McNamara dominated the point-to-point fields in the early years of the millennium.

He was walking the track at Boulta point-to-point in November 2002 when Tom O’Mahony pulled up beside him.

“We must have a chat,” said Tom.

Adrian Maguire had just announced his retirement from riding, and it was well known that Ferdy Murphy was looking for a replacement.

“I kind of have a feeling that I know what it might be about,” said Russell without thinking.

“Well, maybe you do,” said Tom.

It was too good an opportunity to turn down, first jockey for Ferdy Murphy. Russell turned professional, moved to England and settled in for life. He was just 22. Only it wasn’t for life. Russell thought that he would ride for Ferdy during the week and on Saturdays, then come home and ride in Ireland on Sundays. It made sense. Sunday is a low-key day in the UK and is usually the biggest day of the week in Ireland.

There was a downside, however. All the wasting was having an effect. Try to squeeze an 11st 7lb body down to 10st dead and something has to give. Every fall he got, every time he hit the deck, he hit it hard. He felt every bone, every muscle in his body.

Murphy had some good horses without perhaps having the strength in-depth that he would have two or three years later. Tribal Venture, Ballinclay King, Historg were there, but the shining beacon was Trucker’s Tavern. Russell won the Peter Marsh Chase on the Phardante gelding in 2003, then rode him to finish second to Best Mate in the Gold Cup.

Trucker’s Tavern was on track for the 2004 Gold Cup. He was being trained specifically for the race, and Murphy and Russell both fancied him quite strongly to go one better. In February that year, Ferdy issued an ultimatum: no more going home to Ireland at the weekends.

“There was nothing wrong with England,” says Russell. “I loved it. I was riding every day and I was riding some good horses. But it wasn’t home, and I loved coming home to ride at weekends.”

It all came to a head later that month. Russell had six rides booked at Fairyhouse, Murphy told him that if he went home, he needn’t bother coming back. Davy felt that he couldn’t let down the trainers who had booked him at Fairyhouse, so he did go home, and he didn’t go back.

A stint with Michael O’Brien followed, which was short-lived, before Russell teamed up with Edward O’Grady in the autumn of 2004. That was a season of highs and lows, both zenith and nadir provided by Back In Front. Russell rode the Bob Back gelding to win the Bula Hurdle at Cheltenham in December, but was replaced by Ruby Walsh for the Champion Hurdle in March.

“At the time, I thought I was a bit of a jockey,” says Russell a little ruefully. “I was taking things for granted a bit. I had decided that I was going to give the O’Grady job 110%, and I did, but I was wasting again, trying to do light, too light, and I wasn’t riding well. Edward knew it. Then the whole Back In Front thing happened in the Champion Hurdle. I was disappointed to lose the ride, and I was fairly public about it. I didn’t think that I had done a whole lot wrong on the horse but, looking back on it, I probably wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t riding well enough. My mind wasn’t in the right place, and my body wasn’t in the right place. I was riding good horses and I wasn’t doing the job right on those horses. Then in April at Punchestown, Edward suggested that we’d probably be best going our separate ways.”

The following winter, he stopped wasting hard. He had no big yard behind him, but he was still riding for plenty of trainers and riding plenty of winners. He started riding for Charles Byrnes and for Arthur Moore and things began to click. His agent’s phone began ringing with the right men on the other end, he started riding better horses, which bred confidence, which bred success.

After riding his first Grade 1 winner in February 2006, he landed his first Cheltenham Festival success on Native Jack for Philip Rothwell the following month. Last season, he rode two more, Tiger Cry for Arthur Moore, and Naiad Du Misselot for Ferdy Murphy. Full circle.

Next week will be a busy time for Russell. His agreement to ride the Gigginstown House horses means that he will be going to Kempton on St Stephen’s Day if War Of Attrition goes in the King George, and he will be staying put if the 2006 Gold Cup winner goes in the Lexus instead.

“He gave me some feel in his three races this season,” he says. “He’ll probably go wherever the ground is best, and he’d have a right chance wherever that is.”

Reading the body language, you get the feeling that the rider hopes that Mouse Morris allows the Presenting gelding run in the Lexus, simply because Russell would like to be in Leopardstown on St Stephen’s Day when Made In Taipan goes in the Durkan New Homes Chase and when Tharawaat runs in the juvenile hurdle. Later in the week, he may ride Siegemaster in the three-mile novices’ chase, Mansony or Thyne Again in the Dial-A-Bet Chase, Chelsea Harbour perhaps in the Paddy Power.

It’s an exciting week ahead for Russell, full of optimism, full of promise. Try to listen in if you see him talking to Arthur Moore on his way in the gate.

© The Sunday Times, 21st December 2008