Donn's Articles » Davy Russell

Davy Russell

The rumours started shortly after you arrived in Thurles on Sunday and gathered momentum as the day progressed.  There had been talk before about Davy Russell’s retirement, about when one of the greatest National Hunt riders ever would weigh in for the final time, but there was substance to it this time. 

If Liberty Dance won.

Liberty Dance won all right.  She didn’t need all of Davy Russell’s assistance to win, but she got it anyway.  Up on the outside of the leader early on, in a lovely racing and jumping rhythm.  Her rider allowed her stride on as they approached the second last flight, gave her a squeeze when she landed, and she took off, over the final flight and into the record books.  Davy Russell’s final ride, Davy Russell’s final winner.

Rider Bryan Cooper was the first to shake Davy’s hand, as they walked back down the track before they came back into the winner’s enclosure.  The crowds were already assembling there, there was a hum around the place.  Word had obviously got out.  Davy’s wife Edelle led him and Liberty Dance back into the winner’s enclosure, where Davy Russell got the reception that he deserved.

The stats are impressive: 1,579 winners, which leaves him ninth in the all-time list of National Hunt jockeys.  Fifty-eight Grade 1 wins, including most of the top races: the Irish Gold Cup, the Savills Chase, the Irish Champion Hurdle, the Champion Stayers’ Hurdle, the Drinmore Chase, the Christmas Hurdle, the Morgiana Hurdle, the Irish Arkle, the Punchestown Champion Chase.  The Grand Steeple-Chase de Paris in France, and the Aintree Hurdle in Britain, as well as, famously, the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 2014 on Lord Windermere.

And the Grand National.  Twice.

But there was a qualitative element to Davy Russell’s riding that the stats don’t reflect.  He was a sympathetic rider, yet he gave every horse a ride.  He encouraged horses to give their all.  Tactically, he was brilliant, and he excelled on the biggest stages.  Gordon Elliott said on Monday, the bigger the stage, the greater the man.

Davy rode 25 Cheltenham Festival winners, more than any other jockey currently riding, which leaves him joint-fourth with Pat Taaffe in the all-time list of Cheltenham Festival jockeys, behind only Ruby Walsh, A P McCoy and Barry Geraghty.  He ‘got’ Cheltenham.  He understood the subtleties and the nuances of the track.  Remarkably, he rode at least one winner at the Cheltenham Festival every year from 2006 to 2018 inclusive. 

There was a magic about Cheltenham for him when he was growing up, he said on Sunday.  There was a mystique about the place.  His dad used to go to the Festival when Davy was a young fellow and, every time he went, he would bring back a small present.  So to go there as a rider, to ride winners there, that was special. 

He rode top-class horses, and he got the best out of them.  From The Railway Man and Cailin Alainn and Mansony through Weapon’s Amnesty and Solwhit and Sir Des Champs and Presenting Percy and Delta Work and Envoi Allen, all the way to Galvin and Conflated and Three Stripe Life.

He rode Grade 1 winners for 20 different trainers: Arthur Moore, Charles Byrnes, Liam Burke, Tom Cooper, Sabrina Harty, Tom Mullins, Mouse Morris, Colm Murphy, Philip Fenton, Willie Mullins, Tony Martin, Jim Culloty, Jessica Harrington, Dermot Weld, Andrew Lynch, Henry de Bromhead, Pat Kelly, Nicky Henderson, Isabelle Pacault and, of course, Gordon Elliott.

Davy Russell and Gordon Elliott go way back, back to their point-to-pointing days, amateur riders together.  There was a group of them and, when they were riding up north, Davy would drive up from Cork, meet them in Slane, and they’d head on up north together.  Stop in Newry for petrol.

Davy was first rider for Gigginstown House Stud when Michael and Eddie O’Leary decided that they should have horses in training with Gordon Elliott.  Tharawaat was the first horse that they sent to Gordon, and Davy rode the Alhaarth gelding to victory four times, including in a Grade 3 juveniles’ hurdle.

That was just the start of it though.  What followed was an astonishing run of success that trainer and jockey enjoyed together right up until Sunday.  And even when Davy’s job as first rider for Gigginstown House ended, his association with Gordon Elliott endured, so that, door still open, he was the man to whom they turned at Cheltenham in 2014 when Bryan Cooper got injured.  That was at the heart of that special day, when Davy’s Gold Cup win on Lord Windermere was bookended by victory in the curtain-raiser, the Triumph Hurdle, on Tiger Roll, and victory in the concluding race of the day and of the meeting, the Grand Annual, on Savello.

He is a massive asset for racing.  Great with everyone, owners, trainers, racegoers, kids.  And a pure horseman.  Asked to name one horse, unsurprisingly, Davy said Tiger Roll, the teak-tough little warrior on whom he won the Grand National in 2018, then returned in 2019 to win it again, the first horse to win back-to-back Grand Nationals since Red Rum in 1973 and 1974.

Sunday was a mixed-emotion day for sure, there was a sadness there at the end of an era, that we wouldn’t see one of the finest ever exponents of his craft in action again, but relief that he was going out on his own terms, healthy and well and in fine spirits.  Happy for him that, as he said, he will now get to spend more time with his wife Edelle, and with his kids Jaimee, Lily, Finn, Liam and Tess.

He was riding as well as ever this season too, and he was enjoying it.  His bottle never went.  That was part of it though, he said.  That formed part of his decision, and the timing thereof.  He wanted to ride his last ride when people were wondering why he was leaving. 

It is just another ride that Davy Russell timed to perfection. 

© The 42, 19th December 2022