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Davy Russell

Davy Russell has hardly had a minute to himself since. Riding on Saturday at Limerick, riding at Limerick again on Sunday, riding at Wexford on Monday. Normal service resumed.

He had a mare due to foal on Tuesday night. She had had trouble giving birth in the past, so he was up with her through the night. Every hour he checked her, on the hour. Three o’clock, four o’clock, five o’clock. Then at a quarter to nine on Wednesday morning, she finally gave birth to a healthy colt foal.

On Wednesday evening, the Gold Cup-winning jockey sat down to watch the recording of Gold Cup day. He had managed to catch replays of the big race all right, but he wanted to sit down and watch it all again, take the time to watch it properly, and he wanted to watch Tiger Roll and Savello and everything that had gone in between. He settled into his armchair and watched as the horses went down to the start for the Triumph Hurdle, the first race on the day. Then he fell asleep.

He finally managed to get some time before racing at Thurles on Thursday, and he watched the Gold Cup again, every stride, every fence, every blow. Settling out the back on Lord Windermere, moving closer on the run down the hill, making his ground on the run to the second last fence, striking the front after the last and hitting the line first, a short head in front of On His Own.

He knew the anguish and the torment of the stewards’ inquiry that followed, every minute like a tortuous drop on his head as he waited for those two magical words: result stands. But, as he sat there on Thursday morning watching the replay of that whip-flailing, nostril-flaring run to the line, he was relaxed in the knowledge that the trophy was sitting on the mantelpiece in front of him. He picked up his phone and texted his girlfriend Edelle O’Meara:

“I think it has finally sunk in.”


For how long do you dream before you win the Gold Cup?

“I remember as a young fellow,” recalls Davy Russell now, “my father would go to Cheltenham every year, and every year he would bring me back a present. I remember one year he brought me back a jeep and a trailer. I loved that jeep and trailer. I still have it at home. So Cheltenham was like this magical place for me then, and it still is.”

He went close in the Gold Cup before. In 2003 he rode the 33/1 shot Truckers Tavern in the race for Ferdy Murphy to finish second to Best Mate, ridden by Jim Culloty. Strange, Russell’s good friend and confidant Peter Vaughan said to him on Friday, that the villain in 2003 would be the hero in 2014.

It was Jim Culloty who asked Russell to ride Lord Windermere in a race for the first time before the RSA Chase at last year’s Cheltenham Festival. Culloty and Russell go way back. Russell worked at Henrietta Knight’s for a summer when he was 18 while Culloty was riding there. The pair of them had hit it off then, and had stayed in touch since.

Lord Windermere and Davy Russell duly won that RSA Chase, but the rider’s commitment to his then boss Gigginstown House meant that he could not ride him in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury last November, nor in the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival.

Strange the way life works out. It had to have been difficult for Russell to see a potential bright side when he lost his job as first rider for Gigginstown at the end of December, but if he hadn’t lost that job, he would not have been free to ride Lord Windermere in the Hennessy at Leopardstown in February, nor in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

“We decided that we would ride him handy in the Hennessy,” says the rider. “He learned a lot from that race, and we learned a lot: that we wouldn’t ride him handy at Cheltenham. We decided that we would drop him in, let him settle into a rhythm, and ride him to finish. I was a few lengths off the second last horse early on, but I was always happy with him. I didn’t want to go for him until I had to, but I knew after we landed over the second last that we had a real chance of winning.”

That ride had everything. It had the confidence that was required to drop his horse right out the back in the biggest race of the year, with the eyes of the world watching. It had the judgement of pace that dictated that he ask his horse for his effort precisely when he did, no sooner, no later. It had the strength in the finish that got his horse’s head up the hill and to the winning line first. And it had the presence of mind that enabled him argue his case successfully in the stewards’ inquiry that followed.

It was On His Own’s rider David Casey whom Russell faced in the stewards’ inquiry. The two riders sit beside each other in the weigh room every day, they are the best of friends, but they didn’t exchange a word as they pulled up. They both saved it for the stewards’ inquiry.

“It was the Gold Cup, David had to argue his case, I had to argue mine,” says Davy. “I didn’t think we would lose it, the horses never touched, but you can never be sure with a stewards’ inquiry. They didn’t tell us what they had decided, I had to wait until the result was announced over the PA system like everybody else. Although, thank God there wasn’t a camera on me when it was announced – I just jumped straight up into the air!”

There were twists and turns to Russell’s Cheltenham week, not to mind his year. Nine rides, nine losers during the first three days. Then Bryan Cooper suffered that sickening broken leg when Clarcam fell in the Fred Winter Hurdle on Wednesday, and Russell got the call up to ride two of the Gigginstown horses on Friday, Tiger Roll in the Triumph Hurdle and Savello in the Grand Annual.

“Fair play to Michael O’Leary for putting me up. Even though I’m not his number one rider any more, he still has no problem putting me up. To win the Triumph Hurdle on Tiger Roll for Gordon Elliott was brilliant, my first winner of the week, and it was great to win the last race on Savello for Tony Martin. I thought he had a chance, but he put his head down and battled for me. It was just one of those days.”

Three rides on the day, three wins, including the Gold Cup. There was champagne in the weigh room afterwards and a changed flight. He had been due to leave the racecourse straight after the Gold Cup, but it’s a roller-coaster world. 10.30pm was the time that he had in his head for his new flight. Get to the airport by 10.30.

Too late. His flight had actually left at 10.30. There was nobody in Birmingham Airport when he got there, the place was absolutely deserted and there were no flights left. So he checked into the airport hotel and stayed the night. The Gold Cup-winning jockey, in his hotel room on Gold Cup night, alone but not lonely, anonymous but not seeking recognition.

Exhausted, he lay down on his bed with memories of the day that had just passed by like a whirlwind flashing around in his head. The Gold Cup. The realisation of his childhood dreams. Fulfillment. And it started to sink in.

© The Sunday Times, 23rd March 2014