Donn's Articles » Davy Russell

Davy Russell

It was in September 2007 that Davy Russell received a phone call from Eddie O’Leary, asking him if he would be able to call out to Dublin Airport to meet with him and his brother Michael to have a chat. Russell was riding at Downpatrick the following Wednesday, so he told Eddie that he could call in on the way.

Things were going well for the jockey at the time. He wasn’t retained by a high-proofile yard, his Ferdy Murphy and Edward O’Grady days were behind him, and it can be tough for a freelance National Hunt rider in Ireland, when all the big yards with the big horses have their regular riders. But in his two years as a freelance, Russell had formed strong bonds with good trainers, Colm Murphy, Arthur Moore, Charles Byrnes, Liam Burke, and things were ticking along.

He was well aware of Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown House Stud, he had ridden a few horses in the now ubiquitous maroon and white silks in the past, but he didn’t really think about his impending meeting too deeply. He certainly wasn’t aware of the extent of Gigginstown’s plans or the depth of Michael O’Leary’s ambition.

So when he sat in the office at Ryanair headquarters in Dublin Airport that Wednesday morning, and when Michael and Eddie told him that they were looking for a regular rider and asked him if he would be interested, all he could think about was the trainers for whom he was riding, how good they had been to him, how long it had taken him to build up solid relationships. He thought about the good horses he was riding, Thyne Again and Farmer Brown and Mansony, and about how reluctant he would be to give all of that up. He did his best to communicate his thoughts to Michael and Eddie. They said fine, they understood. They all shook hands, and Russell got into his car and set off up the M1, Downpatrick-bound.

He was about a half an hour up the road before the realisation dawned. He nearly crashed his car. What had he done? He pulled into the hard shoulder in a sweat. He didn’t even have Michael O’Leary’s number. He called Eddie.

“I don’t know what I was thinking Eddie,” he said. “Of course it would be brilliant to ride your horses. I’d love to. If you’ll still have me.”


All Davy Russell ever wanted to do was ride horses. School never did it for him. He railed against authority. Probably still does, he says with a grin that tells you that he is only half-joking.

“I’ve always loved horses,” he says. “Loved riding. But at no stage was I ever going to be a jockey. I was going to ride in point-to-points, and that was it. But it’s strange the way things work out. I was very lucky to come across some good point-to-point trainers, Liam Burke, Robert Tyner, Pat Doyle. Their horses would make anybody a rider. And I rode in bumpers for John Kiely. When I was riding bumpers, John Kiely was the king. My life has been a case of things just happening and me following on.”

Joint novice point-to-point champion rider in 1999, Russell won the title outright the following season with 36 winners, a record for a novice, which also saw him finish second to JT McNamara in the overall championship. Outright champion twice after that, he was one of the most sought-after amateurs in the business, kingpin in point-to-points and bumpers, and regularly riding against the professionals on the track. Success begets success, and Russell rode many subsequent high-class horses in their point-to-point days, including Beef Or Salmon and Tuco, who, in a strange twist of Fate, would subsequently be the first horse to ever run in the Gigginstown House colours on the racetrack.

“I remember schooling Tuco on the Friday before he was due to run,” recalls Russell, “and he ran out three times. Pat Doyle told me to drop him in and take my time in the race, be sure to get a lead, so I jumped out and made the running on him. We never saw a rival. He was a machine. He was an excellent jumper. I rode four winners that day.”

He loved riding in point-to-points, he tells you, riding in the North on a Saturday, and coming back down to ride in Cork on the Sunday. Riding for good trainers, riding good horses, no wasting, no trying to shave two stone off your natural body weight before you stood on the scales.

Even so, when Adrian Maguire retired, and Ferdy Murphy asked Russell to turn professional and fill the vacancy that Maguire left in the north of England, Russell had no hesitation. He rode good horses for Murphy, he won good races, highlighted by Trucker’s Tavern’s win in the 2003 Peter Marsh Chase, and his run to finish second to Best Mate in the Gold Cup two months later. Returning to Ireland at the end of the 2004 season, he hooked up with Edward O’Grady, but a high-profile disagreement over O’Grady’s stable star Back In Front contributed to the straining of relations beyond sustainability.

“Of course I was disappointed to lose the ride on Back In Front in the Champion Hurdle,” he says. “I had won the Bula Hurdle on him and I didn’t think I had done anything wrong, but I probably should have handled it better.”

Russell has rarely been happier in his career than he is now. Leading the jockeys’ championship on 65 winners so far this season, just 11 fewer than he rode for the entire of last season when he finished second, just four behind Paul Townend. It was the fifth time in a row that he had finished second. Maybe this is his year. He doesn’t dare to think about it.

As Gigginstown House Stud’s rider, he has the pick of some of the best young National Hunt horses in the country. It’s like back when he was riding in point-to-points, he tells you. Top class horses to ride every weekend.

His weight is good and he’s not wasting any more. His boss won’t let him go below 10st 8lb (10st 7lb necessitates a phone call), and he thinks he is a better rider for it.

“People have been telling me that all my life to stop wasting, I just haven’t been listening,” he says. “Michael put it fairly strongly to me though. It’s like, if someone buys you a Ferrari and tells you not to go faster than 140 miles an hour, you’re not going to go faster than 140 miles and hour, are you?”

His position is not without its headaches, mind you. The quality of the Team Gigginstown means that he is regularly going to be riding top class horses in top class races, but the difficulty is that he can only ride one in each. Il Fenomeno was always his favoured ride in the Royal Bond Hurdle at Fairyhouse this afternoon, but the choice between First Lieutenant and Bog Warrior was one over which he agonised since the day that he was told both horses were probably going to run in the Drinmore Chase.

“It’s impossible to know if I have chosen right with First Lieutenant,” he says. “I was very impressed with Bog Warrior when he won his beginners’ chase at Navan, and the times and the figures were very good, but First Lieutenant is all class, a Neptune Hurdle winner who is built to jump fences. You just don’t know by how much they are going to improve, but how could you get off a Cheltenham Festival winner?”

You couldn’t.

© The Sunday Times, 4th December 2011