Donn's Articles » Davy Russell


So how was New Year’s Eve for you?

Davy Russell went racing as normal, Punchestown this time, with good rides for Gigginstown House Stud.  He rode Rogue Angel in the first race, the three-mile beginners’ chase, making all to win nicely.

That was satisfying.  Rogue Angel had been struggling to win a chase, so it was good to get him home in one.  He dismounted in the winner’s enclosure, Gigginstown House supremo Michael O’Leary said well done, and do you have time for a cup of tea.

Then the bombshell.

Almost 12 months on, Davy Russell is in reflective mood.

“It was completely out of the blue,” the rider says slowly.  “Nobody had given me any indication of what was coming.  And the time of the year that it was as well, right in the middle of the season.   The ground fell away from under me.  Honestly, I was floored.  I couldn’t believe it.”

Even now one year on, sitting in the Horse and Jockey, sitting easily in his chair with a cup of tea in front of him, there is no mistaking the significance of that day for the rider.

“It’s easy to say now that that’s the way life is, given that I had a good season afterwards.  But I said it at the time.  It has made life an awful lot more difficult for me, but I just had to, and have to, soldier on.  I built my life around Gigginstown for those couple of years.  I just have to try to build it around something else now.”

And can he?

“Yeah, I can.  It’s hard though.  This time of year, I’d have been schooling the point-to-pointers one day, I’d have been in Gordon (Elliott)’s another day, I’d have been in Mouse Morris’ the next, I’d have been somewhere else the next day.  Now I’m riding one horse for one fellow, another horse who has won a bumper who is going hurdling, another promising hurdler who is going chasing.  Some of these horses might be very good, but it’s trickier now.”

In one sense, it’s back to what he always did before he got the Gigginstown job.  In another, it’s completely different.  Different times, different landscape.

“When I was freelance, it was a little bit easier than it is now.  There was more of a spread of trainers I rode for who had good horses.  Liam Burke had good horses, Robert Tyner, people like that.  Philip (Enright) rides Robert’s horses now, and obviously Johnny (Burke) is at Liam’s. It has changed a bit since I was freelance.  But Charles (Byrnes) is great, and obviously Jim Culloty, and I had a lot of success for John Queally before I started riding for Gigginstown.  And others.  I just have to build it up again.”

His pragmatism is refreshing now, as the manner in which he dealt with the news was then.  It can’t have been easy.  Put yourself in his shoes.  You go to work one day, happy and secure in the knowledge that you have one of the best jobs in the country.  Your job goes well in the morning, then at lunchtime your boss tells you that your services are no longer required.  Not only that, but it quickly becomes public knowledge that your services are no longer required.  How would you react?

Russell’s reaction was that of a high-class individual.  That’s the way life goes.  ‘I like Michael,’ he said at the time, ‘and I appreciate all he has done for me.  But life is life and things change, these things happen.  I’m just going to have to do things differently now, work a little harder.  But I’m not worried about that.  I have never been afraid of hard work.’

His reaction then was very different to his reaction in 2005, when he lost the ride on the Edward O’Grady-trained Back In Front in the Champion Hurdle after he had won the Bula Hurdle on him.  Back then, he expressed his disappointment publicly.  (“I probably should have handled that better!”)

“When you’re young,” he says thoughtfully, “you think that it’s your God-given right to ride those horses.  Well I did anyway.  But at the end of the day, it’s not.  It’s the owner’s right to do whatever he wants.”

This time, although undoubtedly at least as disappointed, his reaction was gracious.  Tagann ciall le haois.

“I didn’t think about what I was going to say.  I just said what I said at the time because that was what I thought, that was how I felt.  Michael asked me on the day if I wanted to tell someone about it, if I wanted to make a statement, but I said no.  I just didn’t want to say the wrong thing.  I left it to him to break the news, I wouldn’t have known how to deal with it.”

You can tell that it still hurts though.  He still scratches his head.  He thought that he was riding well, and he always got on well with Michael and Eddie O’Leary.  He would have spoken to Michael just about every day and he is sure that, if he picked up the phone to him now, he would be warmly received.  So what was it?  Was it his weight?  Was it one ride?  He still doesn’t know.

Gigginstown said that they would continue to use Russell when they could, and they did.  It had to have been strange for the rider, however, at Thurles the following Monday, wearing the white Gigginstown cap in the listed chase on Make A Track, while Bryan Cooper won the race on Toner D’Oudairies in the maroon cap with the white star.

Unfazed, Russell kicked on.  He put his head down and he worked hard.  He rode Lord Windermere in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown for Jim Culloty, he rode him handily, up with the pace, and he came back and told his trainer that he would be better ridden patiently.

Strange the way life works out.  Had he still been in the Gigginstown role in February, he would have ridden either the favourite First Lieutenant or the winner Last Instalment in the Hennessy.  In that instance, somebody else would obviously have ridden Lord Windermere, and that somebody probably would have kept the ride at Cheltenham.

Russell faced into the Cheltenham Festival with some decent rides, but without the quality in-depth that comes with riding as first jockey to one of the most powerful owners in the business.  He had seven rides over the course of the first two days.  Western Boy ran well in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, Special Tiara ran well for a long way in the Champion Chase, Morning Assembly finished third in the RSA Chase, but that was as close as he got.

Then Bryan Cooper suffered that sickening fall from Clarcam in the Fred Winter Hurdle, the penultimate race on Wednesday, and things changed.

The big thing about losing the Gigginstown job for Russell was that he thought that his chance of winning a Gold Cup was lost with it.  As long as he was with Gigginstown, he thought that he could win the Gold Cup.  Only a finite number of horses get to challenge every year for the Gold Cup, only a handful are good enough to be considered genuine contenders, and it is difficult for a rider to get on one of them.  But Gigginstown major in staying chasers, they compete at the very top of the National Hunt game, and it is legitimate to think that there will be at least one Gold Cup contender from Gigginstown most years.

Cheltenham was always special for Davy.  Even before he ever got to go there, his dad Jerry used to go every year, and every year he would bring back a present for young Davy.  Even if it was only a bar of Toblerone, he would always have something back.  Cheltenham was a magical place for him even then.

Replacement riders were required for Bryan Cooper’s horses.  Davy rode Mozoltov in the JLT Chase on Wednesday, but he fell at the first fence.  He rode Benefficient in the Ryanair Chase, but the horse stopped fairly abruptly at the third last fence and Davy pulled him up.

Nine rides in three days, no winners, but he was not that disappointed.  He never came back in thinking, I should have done this or I should have done that.  He came back on all nine rides, happy that he had given each horse the best possible chance.  As a rider, that’s all you can do.

Then the news filtered through that he would ride two of the Gigginstown horses on Friday: Tiger Roll for Gordon Elliott in the Triumph Hurdle and Savello for Tony Martin in the Grand Annual.  Lord Windermere was a 20/1 shot in the Gold Cup, but Davy and trainer Jim Culloty thought that his chance was a fair bit better than that.  Put him with Tiger Roll and Savello, and it was a fair book of rides for the final day of the Cheltenham Festival.

“Ollie Murphy, Gordon’s travelling head lad, was raving about Tiger Roll.  Gordon was confident, but Ollie couldn’t see him beaten.  It was an unbelievable feeling to win the Triumph Hurdle on him.  It was great to come back into the winner’s enclosure.  Michael and Eddie were delighted.  It was like things hadn’t changed.”

The plan with Lord Windermere in the Gold Cup was to ride him patiently.  Ideally, he probably wouldn’t have been as far behind the second last horse as he was in the early stages of the race, but Russell just wanted to get him relaxed, get him comfortable and settled wherever he was happy, going at a pace at which he was happy.  Ride him with the engines turned off.  If that meant that he sat a few lengths off the field, then he was going to sit a few lengths off the field.

They did not go that fast in the early stages of the race, but they went for home from a long way out.  Davy sat still on his horse until the run to the home turn then, confident that he had plenty of horse under him, he asked him to pick up.

“I’d say I had about six horses to pass going to the second last, but when I took off at that fence, I passed two or three of them in the air. When he jumps a fence like that, going full speed, he is brilliant, but you can’t get him to do that from flagfall.  He wouldn’t get home if you did.”

Lord Windermere hit the front half-way up the run-in.  He looked set to go on and win well, but he didn’t.  Bobs Worth and Silviniaco Conti beaten on the far side, On His Own and The Giant Bolster came at him again on the near side.  On His Own closed but Lord Windermere stretched his neck out and hit the line first.

“When he gets to the front, he doesn’t do a stroke.  You can feel him coming back underneath you.  It’s hard even to ride a finish on him because he does that.  Lucky enough I had ridden him in the RSA Chase there previously so I knew what to expect.  And we got there.”

His jubilation was delayed.  No sooner had he pulled up but the claxon sounded, the pre-cursor to the ensuing drama of the stewards’ inquiry, good friend David Casey arguing On His Own’s case, before the announcement came that the result stood.  Gold Cup winner.  Elation.

Savello in the finale, the Grand Annual, was not an after-thought, but the Gold Cup gave Russell the foundation to ride him as he needed to be ridden: out the back and with bundles of confidence.  He won too.  In truth, he was never going to lose.

“I was always going to ride him my way, I was going to take all the chances, because that’s how he needs to be ridden.  If you’re beaten when you do that, you’re beaten, but at least you’ve given him the best chance that you could have given him.  But from the minute the tape went up, he did everything I wanted him to do, he was winging away.  From the top of the hill, honestly, I had everything cooked.  It was one of the easiest winners I have ever ridden around there.”

It was a day of a lifetime.  Surreal even.  On that one day, Davy Russell proved that he was still one of the best National Hunt riders in the weigh room.  He proved that day that he is a man for the big day, for the big stage, and he proves every day in Ireland that he is simply a top class rider, even away from the limelight.


If Gold Cup day was surreal, however, Gold Cup night was bizarre.  None of his family was at Cheltenham.  With chances apparently thin enough on the ground, no rides for Gigginstown, his dad didn’t go.  His girlfriend Edelle stayed at home.  As well as that, while he timed his run in the Gold Cup to perfection, his run to Birmingham Airport was badly mis-timed.  He missed his flight and spent the night in a hotel at Birmingham Airport.

When Davy Russell dreamed of riding the Gold Cup winner as a youngster, in his dreams there was probably more to Gold Cup-winning night than going to bed early in your hotel room alone, drained from the day’s exertions but happy in your own skin, one of life’s main ambitions fulfilled.

Life changes though.  Tagann ciall le haois.

© Irish Racing Yearbook, January 2015