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Davy Russell

Watch Davy Russell ride Cheltenham.  Perfectly poised, still as a church mouse.  Wait until you can wait no longer, then wait again.

And he gets there.  Invariably he gets there.  He got there twice this week, once on Diamond King in the Coral Cup on Wednesday, once on Mall Dini in the Pertemps Final on Thursday.  Different horses, different days, same rides: steady in mid-division early on, stealthy progress down the hill, delivered on the run to the last and kitchen sink, power-packed all the way up the hill to the winning line.

“I’d hate to get beaten by going too soon.”

Russell’s record at Cheltenham is quite astonishing.  He rode his first winner at the Festival in 2006, Native Jack in the Cross-Country Chase, a spare ride for Philip Rothwell.  He rode his second in 2007, Joe’s Edge, a 50/1 shot for Ferdy Murphy in the three-mile handicap chase.

He rode his third and fourth in 2008, Naiad De Misselot in the Coral Cup and Tiger Cry in the Grand Annual.  He rode his fifth in 2009, Weapon’s Amnesty in the Albert Bartlett Hurdle.

You see the pattern that is developing here?

Roll it forward to the end, and Davy Russell has ridden at least one winner at the Cheltenham Festival every year since he rode his first in 2006.

“When you’re jumping the second last flight at Tramore or at Punchestown or anywhere else,” he says thoughtfully, “the race is on.  Whoever is there in contention, one of you is going to win it.  But when you you’re jumping the second last at Cheltenham, on the hurdles track especially, the race has hardly started.  There’s another race on then from the second last to the line.”

Highlights?  There are many.  Weapon’s Amnesty’s RSA Chase, Lord Windermere’s RSA Chase, First Lieutenant’s Neptune Hurdle, Sir Des Champs’ JLT Chase.  But 2014 was one long highlight from beginning to end, when he went into the meeting with several good rides, including Lord Windermere in the Gold Cup, picked up a few more, and won the Gold Cup on Lord Windermere as well as the Triumph Hurdle on Tiger Roll and the Grand Annual on Savello.

“I was delighted with the book of rides I had going into the Festival this year,” he says.  “I was hoping that I would get to ride one of the Gigginstown horses in the Gold Cup, one of the Dons, and I thought that Pat Fahy’s horse Morning Assembly would run a big race in the three-mile handicap chase, which he did, and I thought Diamond King had a big chance.  It would be easy to say it now with the benefit of hindsight, but I thought the Diamond King was my best ride of the week.”

The week was not without its low points.  In a week of dizzy highs and deep lows for many, Russell’s low was Zabana, who jinked at an awkward and unsatisfactory start to the JLT Chase on Thursday, and got rid of his rider.

“It was a miscommunication,” says Russell.  “But it’s desperate for the owner Chris Jones and the trainer Andrew Lynch.  So much planning goes into getting any horse to Cheltenham.  You never know though, it might be for luck.  He might go to Fairyhouse.  Hopefully it will be for luck.”

It could have been better too.  Fagan just failed by a length to catch Unowhatimeanharry in the Albert Bartlett Hurdle on Friday, under a typically patient Russell ride that got him as close as he did.  Don Poli ran a cracker to finish third in the Gold Cup.  And Dandridge finished second in the finale on Friday, the Grand Annual Chase, when a bad mistake at the first fence cost him a good early position and could have been the difference between victory and defeat.

But Diamond King was fast, and Mall Dini was dogged, and Russell was brilliant on both.

“Mall Dini is a horse that I just adore,” says the rider.  “I really think he’s a bit special, but I just thought, a novice in that race, it might be a bit much for him.  “He wasn’t getting home in his races until we ran him at Fairyhouse.  I know he had won at Thurles by about 16 lengths in December, but I just didn’t think he was galloping to the line.  That was until we ran him at Fairyhouse.  He got hampered a bit, but he ran all the way to the line.

“I was delighted for his trainer Pat Kelly, and for his owner Philip Reynolds.  He has been very, very good to me.  And regardless of what you’d ride for him, I can walk into the parade ring and say, I think I’ll ride him this way, and he leaves me at it.  Whatever you think.  If it doesn’t work out, he’s great, he knows that I am trying to do what I think will work best, and that just gives me so much confidence.”

That confidence was apparent at Cheltenham all week.  Russell’s two winners brings his Cheltenham Festival total to 17.  That brings him past Choc Thornton and Tommy Carberry and level with Fred Winter and Charlie Swan as the joint-seventh most successful jockey in the history of the Cheltenham Festival.

“I don’t know that much about Fred Winter,” he says, “but to be level with Charlie Swan, that’s unbelievable.”

© The Sunday Times, 20th March 2016