Davy Russell: ‘I’d give my right hand for the championship’
The refreshingly forthright jockey is not shy about his desire for a third title
Davy Russell on Avenir d’Une Vie. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho
Davy Russell’s run-up to Christmas has involved lots of juggling. And driving. The driving is a day-to-day chore. But it’s the season when it’s tough to keep everyone jolly. Russell is a master of his craft but he can’t be in three places at once.
Trilocation would come in very handy on St Stephen’s Day given the options open to him on the busiest day of the racing year.
Leopardstown has centre stage in Ireland. But the odds are the hugely promising Death Duty will go to Limerick instead and he’s Russell’s ride.
Whisper is set to line up for the King George VI Chase. He belongs to the Welsh businessman Dai Walters who has a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ with Russell when he is not required in Ireland by local owners, Chris Jones and Philip Reynolds.
Death Duty is one of champion owner Michael O’Leary’s most promising young horses and part of a massive Gordon Elliott team helping propel Russell towards this season’s champion jockey title.
It’s been tricky trying to keep so many balls in the air. So while almost everyone else has been indulging this week, Russell has been juggling with a vengeance ahead of Saturday morning’s final declarations stage.
“Now if there was no one on the other end of the phone, that would be a disaster,” he grins. “The thing is, genuinely, without being f***ing smart, you never know in this game – you can get forgotten very fast.”
Russell remains one of racing’s most steadfast figures. At 38, he’s never been in greater demand and is odds-on to be champion jockey for a third time this season. Along with contemporaries Ruby Walsh and Barry Geraghty, he still sets the bar for the toughest job in sport.
Public affection for jockeys is famously dependent on the contents of punters pockets, and Russell has found out how fickle that can be. But he still manages to cut a distinctive figure even to those on just a nodding acquaintance with racing.
The expressive face looks almost woebegone until lit up by the sort of killer smile beloved of racecourse photographers. His capacity for a colourful turn of phrase remains intact. And emotions, rarely far from the surface, can erupt sometimes with rare forthrightness.
It gets this magnetic personality into trouble occasionally, yet in a sport full of furtive whispers it allows people relate to him. Colleagues may opt for a bland, resolutely middle-of-the-road approach to their public utterances, but there’s an impulsive lack of reserve to Russell that defiantly makes him his own man.
As good as it gets It’s hard to imagine Ruby Walsh or Tony McCoy publicly proclaiming O’Leary’s brightest young star, Samcro, “as good a horse as we’ll ever see”. And for good measure add that the
almost €380,000 the Ryanair boss forked out for him still makes Samcro “the cheapest horse that will ever be bought”.
O’Leary is famously pessimistic about his horses’ chances and has been trying to fight Samcro hype ever since. It’s easy to imagine the jockey, whom the Ryanair boss famously fired on New Year’s Eve 2013, mischievously enjoying that idea.
It was the young hot shot Bryan Cooper who took over the Gigginstown gig in early 2014, and inevitably speculation was that Russell’s best days were behind him. Within weeks he had won a Cheltenham Gold Cup with a ride for the ages on Lord Windermere. On the same day he rode two other festival winners for O’Leary.
Fast-forward to last summer and Cooper was sent packing with the advice ringing in his ears that Russell’s response to the same rejection was the best way to cope. Perhaps, then, it’s no surprise that Russell has been sharing the best O’Leary rides this season with teenage star Jack Kennedy.
This resilience has typified the Cork man’s career, just as much as the talent, horsemanship and sheer physical and mental hardness required to ride over jumps in the first place.
In 2016 he told stewards at a Clonmel meeting exactly what he thought of them after they disqualified his horse from first. It cost him a hefty 17-day ban.
But despite run-ins with stewards, trainers, handicappers and media types, he keeps coming back undaunted, even after perhaps the most uncomfortable controversy of all last summer, when he appeared to strike his unruly mount, Kings Dolly, before a race at Tramore.
At the end of a sorry and badly handled saga that provoked some grotesquely disproportionate criticism, Russell received a four-day suspension and a bruising and unwelcome insight into being at the eye of a media storm – both social and mainstream.
“It opened my eyes. I couldn’t believe some of the stuff,” he says now, although he’s reluctant to reheat the issue.
At the time he had said: “I’m a father, as well as a horseman, and a normal human being. I’ve put that across to journalists and they’ve paid no regard to it. They’ve kept going and going with something that in my eyes is disgraceful.”
With hindsight, perhaps the incident was most notable for the discrepancy in response between those who work with horses day to day and those who don’t. Russell insists he was thinking of his own safety, and that of others, in striking Kings Dolly on the neck.
Right-hand stuff In the circumstances a third jockey’s title might
rate as Russell’s finest ever reply to adversity. Not that he’s thinking like that, though.
“It’s right-hand stuff. I’d give my right hand for the championship. The importance of it is huge. But I’m able to take it out of my mindset until near the April [end of the season at Punchestown] because I’ve learned that’s what you have to do.
“You see, unfortunately, in this country we have multiple champion jockeys riding at the one time,” he says. “I’d love to walk around with my chest out, enjoying the thing, but you can’t do that. It’s too difficult. And betting on it [the jockey’s title] is scandalous. It’s laughable people betting on something that a rider doesn’t even contemplate.”
Ruby Walsh on the sidelines with a broken leg is stark proof of how disaster always lurks at the next obstacle. However, Russell’s haul of 74 winners this season leaves him on course to beat his best ever tally of 126 a decade ago.
It was about 2008 that a certain Gordon Elliott was setting out on his meteoric training career. He and Willie Mullins now dominate Irish jump racing to an unprecedented extent. It leaves those riding for them in the happy position of always having a title shot.
“Whoever has the connection to either yard, and stays sound, has got a great chance of being champion jockey. It’s the same for Ruby with Willie’s job,” Russell says before outlining the similarities he sees in two uniquely accomplished trainers.
“Both are ultra-confident in how they do their job. They actually don’t worry too much about what anyone else is doing. They’re similar in that both know when to stop rather than go with a horse. They know when to work them but just as importantly when not to. So they can find levels of fitness different to anyone else.
“What Gordon and Willie do is they see over the entire year rather than just the one day. Now they can do that because they’ve got substitutes if something goes wrong. Everyone else knows today’s the day and there’s no other day. But they are a bit different,” he maintains.
Plenty will argue the same can still be said for this season’s top jockey. Certainly there are a lot of owners and trainers ready to juggle their own arrangements in order to secure his services for the upcoming glut of top-flight action.
“It backs up a bit at Christmas, but the people I work for are understanding. None of them want me on a bad horse. They want me on horses that look like having a future,” he says.
Russell looks like having his Christmas pick of them – wherever they end up – and long into the future too.