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Davy and Gordon

Quiz question: Who had the better season last season, Gordon Elliott or Davy Russell?

Quick recap.  Gordon Elliott broke through the 200-winner barrier in Ireland.  His horses accumulated more than €5 million in prize money which, in every other year that had gone before, would have been enough to make him champion trainer.  He trained the winners of the big handicaps, the Kerry National, the Troytown Chase, The Thyestes Chase, the Irish Grand National.  And he won the Grade 1 races, the Champion Chase, the Ryanair Hurdle, the Deloitte Hurdle, the Growise Chase.  On a special afternoon at Fairyhouse last December, he won all three Grade 1 races.

As well as that, Elliott sent out eight winners at the Cheltenham Festival last March, equalling the record that Willie Mullins had set in 2015, including the winners of the Ballymore Hurdle, the JLT Chase and the Triumph Hurdle.  He was crowned leading trainer at Cheltenham for the second year running.

Davy Russell rode 119 winners in Ireland last season.  He had the championship wrapped up before they turned into the home straight.  He won the big handicaps too, the Galway Plate and the Porterstown Chase, and he teamed up with Elliott to win the Troytown and the Tara Handicap Hurdle and the Dan Moore Memorial Handicap Chase.  And he also won the Grade 1s, the Drinmore Chase and the Ryanair Hurdle and the Christmas Hurdle and the Growise Chase.

Russell cut loose at Cheltenham too.  He rode Presenting Percy to win the RSA Chase, Delta Work to win the Pertemps Final, Balko Des Flos to win the Ryanair Chase and The Storyteller to win the Brown Advisory Plate.  Four winners in two remarkable days, and he was crowned champion of Cheltenham.

So who had the better season?  Which of them achieved more?

Not easy.

Tie-breaker: Who won the Aintree Grand National?

They won it together.  (Sorry for the spoiler.)



They’re sent on their way, the Grand National field off to a first timer …

“I said that we would go the cross-country route with Tiger Roll,” says Gordon Elliott, sitting easily at the kitchen table.  “And after he won the Cross-Country at Cheltenham, he looked like he could be a well-handicapped horse, so we decided to allow him take his chance in the Grand National.”

The Silver Birch road?  (Recap: Elliott sent Silver Birch to Cheltenham to finish second in the Cross-Country in 2007 before sending him to Aintree to win the Grand National.  He hadn’t had a winner in Ireland at that point.  And now look.)

“The Cross-Country was the plan.  If I told you that the Grand National was the plan, I’d be telling you a lie.  But you always have it in your head that it’s a race you want to win again.  And sure, Tiger had a bit of class, he had won the four-mile chase at Cheltenham the previous year, he’s a Triumph Hurdle winner.  Davy had won the Triumph Hurdle on him and Keith Donoghue, who had done all the work on him and who had ridden him at Cheltenham, couldn’t do the weight in the Grand National.  There was only one person going to ride him.”

Davy Russell takes a sip of tea. 

“I’d only ridden Tiger Roll twice in my life before the National,” he says.  “Hadn’t even schooled him.  But I was always going to be riding whichever one of Gordon’s he thought I should have been riding.  And jumping the Canal Turn, I could have been on any of them.  The other two, Bless The Wings and Ucello Conti, were all going so well too.  And Keith was going well on Valseur Lido.  I think the Cross-Country stood to Tiger Roll more than people thought.  Didn’t it Gordon?  He can be a bit guessy at times.  A bit careless with his jumping.”

“If you go back and have a look at the National,” says Gordon.  “He did take chances.  That’s just him.  That’s the way he’s always going to be.”

“But education is key,” says Davy.  “The education that Gordon has given him.  Gordon has done some job with him.  And this horse is shocking clever.  He knows where he can take chances.  He’s not big, but he has fierce scope.  He has a big action.  He rides like a big horse.  And he’s so fast from take-off to landing.”

Michael O’Leary legged Davy up in the parade ring at Aintree before the Grand National. 

“Gordon was off, legging up one of his other runners.  But it was nice that Michael legged me up.  It was nice for me and I think it was nice for him.  I remember Frankie Dettori shouting and roaring at me as I was going around the parade ring.   And I remember, just as Louise and Karen were letting me go, the voice over the PA says, and Tiger Roll, ridden by the oldest jockey in the race!  I had a joke with the girls.  I may not have many more left in me.  Better make this one count so.”

“The Grand National is one of those races, Aintree is one of those places,” says Gordon.  “All the commotion.  Cameras and interviews and people pulling and dragging you for photos.  And I like to get out to the middle of the track to watch the race.  I was all the while worried that I wouldn’t get out on time.  Because when those lads put their high viz jackets on and close the gates, you don’t get out.  It doesn’t matter who you are.” 

“It’s an unbelievable place,” says Davy.  “I remember going there as an amateur to ride in bumpers, and I got a ride in the Foxhunters.  I hadn’t a chance of winning the race, I just wanted to get on the telly, riding over the Grand National fences.  I never thought that I could ever win the big race.

“I’ve got some creamers of falls.  I rode Takagi, he fell at the Chair.  I rode Livingstonebramble, he unseated me at Becher’s.  And Alpha Beat.  I got a bad fall off him at Foinavon.  And I thought that it was untouchable, winning the Grand National.  It was so far out of reach.  The last two years before this year though, I had good rides.  Morning Assembly and Saint Are.  It just gave me a little bit of hope.  I started thinking that this may not be as far away as I thought it was.” 

The race flowed.  Horse and man in unison, in harmony.  The fences came and Tiger Roll skipped over them.  Horse and rider in a metronomic rhythm. 

“At Becher’s, I don’t know how he did it.   The minute his foot touched the ground, he ducked, to avoid the horse who had fallen in front of us.  I didn’t even know the horse had fallen until your man ducked.  And he ducked left to go back right.  He went around him.  If he had just ducked to his left, he could have dropped me. Everything just went right.  You have to ring every bell around there.  It was one of those days.”

They cruised into the home straight, and jumped to the front over the second last fence. 

“He was falling a little bit asleep on me crossing the Melling Road,” says Davy.  “And I thought, if I have to sit there and allow him go to sleep, will I ever get him woken up again?  And when you make up your mind, make it up.  Once I had gone on down to the last and spotted a stride, I wasn’t going to wait in front then.  I had to go.  I was happy enough that I had enough in the tank to go and do it.”

He kicked on and set up what looked like a race-winning advantage.  But then, deep inside the final furlong, long after they had rounded the elbow, Pleasant Company started to come back at him.

“People thought that my horse was tying up on the run-in.  But he wasn’t.  He saw the water jump, and he didn’t know what to do.  He didn’t know what I was asking him to do.  Maybe he thought that it was the winning post and he had done his job.  That’s him.  He thinks about things.  He’s a special horse.  He genuinely is, without being too poetic about the whole thing.”

Gordon Elliott did get across the track before they closed the gate.  He watched the race from the infield, splitting his attention between the big screen and the live action on the track.

“I was always happy with how the three of them were travelling.  Going to the third last, they were all there with a chance.  I was very proud of Bless The Wings.  A 13-year-old.  He ran a massive race to finish third.”

But it was all eyes on Tiger Roll from the second last fence.

“When they got to the elbow, sure we were buck-lepping around the place.  And when they went by the line, as much as you think you’re up, we still weren’t sure.  I thought we’d held on, but you’re still nervous until you hear the result.” 

“I wasn’t killed by it,” says Davy.  “I wasn’t sure.  I saw an awful lot of David Mullins at the line.  I thought I’d won everywhere, but on the line, I wasn’t sure.  It was some feeling when they called the result.  Number 13.”

A first Grand National for Davy Russell, a second for Gordon Elliott.

“It was very different to Silver Birch.  Back then, I was only training a year.  We were just there for the jolly.  It was just a big shock, and it was a party.  I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time.  We’ve gone close again since, and you get to realise how difficult it is, you know the hard work that goes into it.  I always said that I wanted to go and win it again, and I definitely appreciated it more the second time.”

“I still don’t know has it really sunk in for me,” says Davy.  “I’m in the thick of things.  I was in Tramore the next day.”

“Racing is very different to other sports,” says Gordon thoughtfully.  “Even if you win a big race, you’re racing the following day.  If you win an All-Ireland final, you have the whole year.  You go around the schools.  You take the time to appreciate the achievement.  You’re not out playing again the following day.”

“I did go around the schools,” says Davy.  “And that was a great experience.  That was a bit special.  The kids.  They’re brilliant.  I went in to pick up my young lad the other day, and this young fellow came up to me and said, you’re a legend.”

“The kids here too,” says Gordon.  “They got a great kick out of it.  The kids in Summerhill, Michael O’Leary’s kids.  Coming up here the day after.  The Gold Cup is the blue riband for racing people.  But the Grand National, everyone knows the Grand National.”

“There are movies made about it,” says Davy.  “Bob Champion, National Velvet.  You could be sitting at home on a Saturday afternoon and National Velvet would come on the telly.  Growing up, to me, it was an amazing race.  And really, I still can’t believe I’ve won it.”

And yet, there it is.  2018 Randox Health Grand National.  Winning rider: Davy Russell.  It was one of the few remaining omissions from his CV.

“My family were so proud of me.  My son Finn is obsessed with it at the moment.  He won’t go to bed unless he sees the race or unless I tell him about it.  But he only does it to me.  He doesn’t bother with Edelle.  Probably because he knows that I like telling him about it!  It’s no bother to me.  And he and Lily, they’re obsessed with Tiger Roll.  They think there’s no other horse like him.  For me though, I think I’d probably have to be retired before I fully appreciate it.”

It was a poignant victory for Davy Russell and for his family, just over a month after the passing of his mother Phyllis.

“It was a timely boost for all of us.  Mam was so special.  It was just a pity she wasn’t there for the biggest day.  She was a great woman.  She was so clever.  She used to ring me every evening.  She knew how to ask me how I got on.  And she knew how I got on.  I knew that she knew how I got on.  If I’d had no winners.  What road are you coming back down now?  I’d say, I’m just coming down past Naas.  That’s great.  Your brother rang this evening.  Everything okay?  Oh yeah, everything’s good.  No joy today?  No, no joy.  Okay we’ll see you tomorrow.

“And then, if I’d had two winners, she’d say, are you on your own there?  Yeah, I’m on my own.  How did you get on?  She’d ask me first how I got on if I’d had a good day.  I had two winners.  Oh that’s brilliant.  That’s great.  Two winners!  She was such a brilliant woman.  She was there through the whole lot.  The good and the bad.  And she was tough.  She never once complained.  No matter how much pain she was in.  You’d go home and you’d ask her how she was.  I’m in great form, she’d say.

“She would have been amazed by the Grand National.  She would have loved that.  She was there through all the Cheltenham winners.  It was just a pity that she wasn’t there for that one.  And then the Late Late Show.  She always watched the Late Late Show when we were growing up.  Without fail.  She would have got a great kick out of that.

“It’s amazing the way things work out though.  The snow came and there was no racing, so I got to spend the last two weeks with her.  If I had been racing, I wouldn’t have got to spend that time with her.”




Gordon Elliott and Davy Russell go way back.

“We were point-to-pointing,” says Gordon.  “I was point-to-pointing up the north.  Davy used to come up from Cork.  He was the king.  He thought he was the king anyway.  He was a bit cocky like that.”

“I knew who he was before he knew who I was,” says Davy.  “He was established.  He was a very good rider from flagfall.  He was riding winners when he was 16.”

“I was lucky enough,” says Gordon.  “I was working with Tony Martin at the time, and he kind of took me under his wing.  I would have been riding all his spares.  It’s funny, when you go racing, there are people you get on with and there are people you don’t get on with.  I hit it off with Davy straight away.  We just got to know each other, we used to share lifts to point-to-points.”

“There was a good bunch of us,” says Davy.  “Norman Geraghty and Simon McGonagle.  I shared the novice riders’ championship with Simon.  I was just getting going.  I used to have to come up from Cork, the boys would ring me, we’ll meet you in Slane.  So you’d pull in and we’d all go up in the one car, stop in the petrol station in Newry.  Every Saturday morning.  They were great times.”

“It was more easy-going in those days,” says Gordon.  “No mobile phones.  No nothing.  Liam Healy used to be with us a lot.  And John Thomas, God rest him.  If you could get John Thomas to go to the north.  He was like royalty.”

“He’d have to get the front seat of the car, or he wouldn’t go.”

“It’s a bit different now,” says Gordon.  “Derek O’Connor and Jamie Codd and Barry O’Neill, they all go to the north regularly.  But back then, John Thomas would only go up once a month or so.  If he went, it was like, wow, John Thomas is here.”

“And if he wanted to stop somewhere, you’d have to stop!”

“He was the man.”

“You had to have everything done before you left home,” says Davy.  “You’d have to know who you were meeting and where you were meeting them.  You could meet two or three cars of jockeys in that BP station outside Newry.  Then you’d kick on up north.  And afterwards, we’d come back down the road.  We might go back to Gordon’s.”

“I had a three-bedroom house, and you wouldn’t know how many people would be staying in it on a Saturday night,” says Gordon.  “There’d be bodies everywhere.  There were good old times.”

“And I was an awful divil,” says Davy.  “I’d have to wash my gear that night.  I didn’t like leaving it overnight in the bag.  I’d throw it into the sink and wash the boots, polish the boots.  Because I’d be going to Cork on the Sunday and Gordon would be in Leinster.  And there seemed to be always a 21st birthday on somewhere on the Saturday night, or a party somewhere.  You mightn’t always end up back where you were supposed to end up that night.  And I’d flake off on the Sunday.”

Elliott went professional for a season, and he rode for Martin Pipe for a season, but the call to train racehorses was too strong to resist. 

“I struggled with my weight, and I don’t think I was good enough anyway to make a good living out of it as a professional.  So I started pre-training a few, and training a few point-to-pointers.  Paul Carberry used to ride a lot for me in the early days.  And Davy then, with the Gigginstown connection.” 

Davy was first rider for Gigginstown House when Gordon first appeared on the radar of Michael and Eddie O’Leary.

“I remember, I was at Doncaster sales, it was after Silver Birch had won the Grand National,” says Gordon.  “I was there with Norman Williamson, who was very good to me, in the old St Leger bar, and Eddie O’Leary was there.  I’d never met Eddie O’Leary before in my life, but Norman said to Eddie that he should send me a horse.”

It didn’t happen immediately.  Eddie said that he would see how Gordon went but that, if he happened to come across a good one, to let him know.

“I wouldn’t be one for pushing horses on owners,” says Gordon.  “If someone sends me a horse, I’ll do my very best with that horse, but I wouldn’t be great at pushing horses.  Anyway, one of the first horses that Gigginstown sent me was Tharawaat.”  

It’s Gordon Elliott all over.  Lets his horses do the talking.  Endeavours to get the best out of every horse that he has.  Strives to get each horse to achieve his or her true potential, no matter how great or small that true potential is.  That attitude has been a key component of his success.  It is one of the cornerstones on which his entire operation has been built, an operation that has grown from a fledgling venture just a decade ago to one of the most powerful National Hunt operations in existence today.

And everything that Elliott has now, he has earned himself.  He started from scratch, rented a yard, got himself going.  And he still has the hunger that he had when he started out.  He may have been king of the Cheltenham Festival for the last two seasons, but he has also had 20 winners at Perth this season and six at Sedgefield. 

“I’ll go wherever I think I can have a winner.” 

In October this year, he sent Jury Duty to Far Hills in America, and landed the Grand National Hurdle.

Davy Russell likewise.  Got himself going as an amateur rider, got himself going as a professional.  Suffered the setbacks, rode the adversity, picked himself up again and built the momentum.  These days, hungry as ever, he is riding as well as he has ever ridden. 

The pair of them have lots in common.

Tharawaat was the first big horse that Davy Russell rode for Gordon Elliott.  Together they won a maiden hurdle at Navan in November 2008, and they won the Grade 3 juvenile hurdle at the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle meeting at Fairyhouse the following month, before finishing second in the Grade 1 juvenile at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival that year.

“We should have won the Grade 1 hurdle at the Punchestown Festival too,” says Davy.  “We fell at the last.” 

The pair of them teamed up with others as the momentum built.  Toner D’Oudairies and Roi Du Mee and Carlito Brigante.  Russell rode Carlito Brigante to victory in the Coral Cup at the Cheltenham Festival in March 2011, Elliott’s second Cheltenham Festival winner, just two and a half hours after his first, Chicago Grey in the National Hunt Chase.

And even when Davy lost the Gigginstown job, he continued to ride for Gordon.

“Gordon was very good to me then.  I rode plenty for him.  I rode Tiger Roll for him to win the Triumph Hurdle that year, and I rode Diamond King to win the Coral Cup two years later.” 

“That was obviously a tough time for Davy, but he had the brains not to throw his toys out of the pram.  He still came in here riding out.  He bit his tongue.  And it just goes to show, all the winners he has ridden for Gigginstown since.”

“I was lucky,” says Davy.  “I had good people around me at the time.  My parents and my wife Edelle, and lots of good people.  Three or four years earlier, I might not have acted like I did.  But Michael (O’Leary) deserves a lot of credit too, to allow me ride those horses then.  Like at Cheltenham in 2014, Tiger Roll in the Triumph Hurdle and Savello in the Grand Annual for Tony Martin.  There would have been loads of jockeys available, but he was happy to allow me ride them.  I rang Gordon that evening to tell him that I had no ride in the Triumph Hurdle, and he just said, leave it with me.  Next thing I knew, I was down to ride Tiger Roll.”

And look how that one turned out.  Two winners for Gigginstown, a Triumph Hurdle and a Grand Annual, the bookends to his Gold Cup win on Lord Windermere.  Storybook day.

“I would have been the opposite to Gordon when I was younger.  Back then, I begged lads to let me ride their horses.  I can remember schooling after point-to-points, begging lads to let me school their horses.  Just to school them.  I just didn’t think that lads knew who I was.  I wanted to ride for everyone.  I’ve levelled off a good bit now.  I still have the same hunger though.” 

“We’re very lucky here now,” says Gordon.  “With the horses that we have, the owners that we have, the staff we have, the jockeys that we have.  We’ve got the best of both worlds.  We have Davy, all his experience, and we have Jack Kennedy, 19 years of age.  If Jack can continue to ride alongside Davy, what’s he going to be like in another few years?  How good is he going to be?  It’s the ideal.  Neither jockey has the pressure of having to ride all the horses.  And they can bounce things off each other.” 

“As well as the big owners,” says Davy, “Gordon has these syndicates.  And they’re so happy to have a horse there with Gordon.  And a horse runs well, finishes second or third or fourth, they’re delighted.  It has re-kindled the whole thing for me too.  That there are people out there with horses in training, with one of the best trainers you have ever seen, having fun.”

“We have every tier,” says Gordon.  “We have horses here who cost very little and we have expensive horses here.  And we have a great bunch of staff.  If I’m off racing, I know that everything will be done.”

“I don’t want it to sound like everything is rosy in the garden,” says Davy.  “There’s loads of pressure too.”

“Davy gets pressure from me,” says Gordon, “and I get pressure from him.  But we try to keep it all together.  We had one little argument this year.  It wasn’t even really an argument.  He said what he had to say and I said what I had to say, and it hasn’t been mentioned again.  That’s the way it is.  We understand each other.”

That understanding was key at the 2018 Cheltenham Festival.  Neither man had a winner on the Tuesday.  If that meant that the pressure was intensified on Wednesday, you wouldn’t have known it.  Elliott had a treble, Samcro, Tiger Roll and Veneer Of Charm, while Russell was silk-smooth in guiding Presenting Percy to victory in the RSA Chase.

“Cheltenham was unbelievable,” says Gordon.  “The first day was slow enough, Mengli Khan ran well in the Supreme Novices’, but we were always going to be stronger later in the week.”

Thursday was magic.  The pair of them teamed up to win the Pertemps Final with Delta Work and the Brown Advisory Plate with The Storyteller.  As well as that, Elliott won the JLT Chase with Shattered Love, who was ridden by Jack Kennedy, and Russell won the Ryanair Chase on the Henry de Bromhead-trained Balko Des Flos.  Then on Friday, Elliott won the Triumph Hurdle with Farclas and the Martin Pipe Hurdle with Blow By Blow.

“To have eight winners, at Cheltenham,” says Gordon.  “It was unreal.  When I was younger, Cheltenham was the pinnacle.  The pinnacle of any sport is where you want to be.  When I was growing up, we used to go to Summerhill and you’d see Mick Lyons playing football.  We used to go to rallying a lot and we’d see Austin McHale.  To be in the position we are in now.  We’re so lucky.  At Cheltenham.  I’m very lucky to be doing what I am doing.”

When they handed out the accolades at the end of the 2018 Cheltenham Festival, they handed the trainer’s award to Gordon Elliott, and they handed the rider’s award to Davy Russell.  Same at Aintree, after the Grand National.  The trainer’s award to Gordon Elliott, the rider’s award to Davy Russell. 

… But it’s Tiger Roll, for Gordon Elliott, and is the long wait for a National winner about to end for Davy Russell? …  Pleasant Company’s coming back, Tiger Roll, hanging on, just may have lasted …  It got desperate, I’m pretty sure Tiger Roll has held on.

He held on all right.   Sorry again for the spoiler.

© Irish Racing Yearbook, 31st December 2018