Donn's Articles » Davy Russell

Davy Russell

Davy Russell had three rides at Punchestown on New Year’s Eve: Rogue Angel, Un Beau Matin and Halling’s Treasure, all three for his boss Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown House Stud.

He set off in front on Rogue Angel in the opener, the beginners’ chase. He allowed his horse the time and space to measure his fences down the back straight, squeezed him around the home turn with Ruby Walsh and Touch The Eden in pursuit, and kept his horse going over the final fence and up to the winning line, seven lengths clear of his closest pursuer.

That was the 49th winner of the season for Russell, and the 1,003rd winner of his career. He didn’t know it at that moment, but it was to be his last as Gigginstown’s retained rider. Directly after the race, he had a cup of tea with Michael O’Leary, over which the owner informed him that his tenure would finish after he rode for them the following day at Tramore.

It was just over six years since Russell had stopped off at Ryanair headquarters at Dublin Airport on his way to Downpatrick to meet with O’Leary and his brother Eddie. He actually turned down the job offer initially. He was happy as a freelancer at the time, he had said. He had formed such good relationships with so many good trainers that he didn’t want to lose them. It wasn’t until he was a half an hour up the road to Downpatrick, that he changed his mind and called Eddie to say that he would be delighted to accept the job, if they would still have him.

While it was a big job then, while Gigginstown was a serious operator with lofty ambitions, it was not the behemoth owner that it is now, six years later. Twenty winners in Ireland during the 2006/07 season grew to 28 in 2007/08, and has grown every year since then to a high of 101 last term, more than any other owner in the country.

There is no doubt that the association between owner and rider has been a mutually beneficial one. The Gigginstown horses have played a vital role in allowing Russell to become champion jockey in Ireland for the first time in 2011/12, and to retain his title last season.

By the same token, the rider has ridden some of the top Gigginstown horses to win some of the top National Hunt races in Britain and Ireland. Weapon’s Amnesty, First Lieutenant and the now sidelined Sir Des Champs are the three that the rider singles out for special mention. Even so, memories of glories past did not cushion the body-blow of Tuesday’s news.

“I was shocked,” says Russell. “I nearly fell down on the ground. Honestly. There was nothing I could say though. There was nothing to say. Michael already had his mind made up.”

The timing of the decision was not ideal for the rider; right in the middle of the season. There was no contractual conclusion at the end of the calendar year, no reason why it needed to end on New Year’s Day. Perhaps Gigginstown were anxious to secure the services of 21-year-old Bryan Cooper – confirmed as the new man for the job on Friday – before somebody else snapped him up. But you believe Russell when he says that there is no animosity between owner and rider.

“I like Michael, and I appreciate all that he has done for me. But life is life and things change, these things happen. I’m just going to have to do things a little differently now, work a little harder. But I’m not worried about that. I have never been afraid of hard work. I have never refused to ride a horse work, regardless of whether or not I was going to ride him in a race.

“I couldn’t ride out for as many trainers as I used to, simply because Gigginstown have so many horses and I had to get around them. I will be able to go to other trainers now. And I am not worried about my riding. I am happy that I am riding as well as I have ever ridden.”

The stats back him up. He has ridden more than 100 winners in each of the last two seasons, and his strike rates in the last three seasons of, respectively, 20%, 19% and 20% so far this term, are the best of his career.

“Someone said to me that I will miss having Gigginstown as a safety net, and I suppose that, such is the quality of the horses that they have, if you had four or five rides for Gigginstown on one day, it would be a bad day that you wouldn’t come home with at least one winner. But this is not really a sport for safety nets. If you’re looking for a safety net in racing, you’re in the wrong game.”

The landscape for the freelance jockey looks a little different now compared even to six years ago. Willie Mullins is even more prolific now than he was then, and some of the top owners in the country, JP McManus, Barry Connell and Alan Potts, all have their own riders.

To put it into context, in the 2006/07 season, the top five owners in the country had 104 winners between them. Last season, the top five owners (Gigginstown, McManus, Susannah Ricci, Connell and Potts) had a collective total of 274 winners. The tastiest morsels are in a small number of pots, and most of those pots have names on them.

That said, Russell has strong relationships with some of the top smaller trainers in the country, trainers like Charles Byrnes, Pat Fahy, Arthur Moore, Jim Culloty, all of whom have high-class horses. It’s all about getting on good horses.

“When I was looking at entries, I used to go down through the owners’ column to see what horses Gigginstown had entered. Now I’ll be going down through the trainers’ column to see who I can ride for. Frosty Kelly (agent) is the man I feel most sorry for now, he’s going to have to go and do some work now.

“I have had huge support from people in the sport, and from my friends and family. At the end of the day, I still have a saddle. All I’m missing is a set of colours. There are new challenges ahead, but I’m ready for them.”

Russell does not shirk a challenge. He has come across several already in his career, and he has risen to every one of them. This one should be no different. He remains one of the most talented National Hunt riders in the country. That hasn’t changed.

“I keep thinking of a line in a song called Closing Time by Semisonic. It keeps going around in my head: ‘Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end’. That’s me. New beginning.”

© The Sunday Times, 5th January 2014