Sport Cheltenham

Thursday 23 March 2017

Revitalised Russell aims to bolster festival haul

Julian Muscat

DAVY Russell's profile has changed beyond recognition in the past two years. He is outwardly still the same: courteous, engaging, and as honest about his shortcomings as when he returned to Ireland after a chastening stint with Ferdy Murphy in 2004.

The difference is in his status. The wide-eyed novice from Youghal in Cork has finally arrived after a journey slaloming in and out of the fast lane. And he's keeping his fingers crossed that Solwhit can recover from the setback that was announced yesterday, so he can face the ultimate test of speed in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham next Tuesday.

"Not long ago the journey to Cheltenham was a terrible thing," Russell says. "You'd fly into Birmingham and drive down with a knot in your stomach. Then, when you got to see the place again, it sucked you in. It left you breathless."

En route, Russell would remember the days when his father -- part-mechanic, part-farmer -- made the annual pilgrimage. "As a kid I couldn't wait for him to come home with his stories," relates the 30-year-old.

"One year he won the award for doing the most outrageous thing. He drove to the track on a lawnmower and parked it between a Rolls Royce and Bentley."

These days Russell checks into a familiar weighing-room. "None of the big boys are looking at you wondering who you are," he said. "In those days you never wanted to take their space, but now my peg is next to Barry Geraghty. Little things like that help you to feel comfortable."

Russell had no such ambitions in his early 20s. He was blissfully happy riding the Cork/Waterford point-to-point circuit, where he was top dog. Then Adrian Maguire was forced into retirement by injury, and Wexford native Murphy came calling.

He felt he couldn't spurn an opportunity that quickly swept him out of his depth. A tall man accustomed to riding at 12st was now required to waste hard and pinpoint suitable targets for horses when he hadn't the faintest idea about handicap marks. "I was completely lost," he reflects.

style

Although he idolised Maguire, Russell's patient style is more reminiscent of Paul Carberry. "Maybe in patience," Russell responds, "but that's all. Everyone from my background loves Paul but no man alive can ride like him. You'd kill yourself. He is pure natural talent; pure wrath, really."

Up until yesterday, he had been expecting Carberry -- aboard Go Native -- to be the biggest threat to Solwhit in the Champion Hurdle, but now a new doubt has emerged over the Charles Byrnes-trained gelding.

While Russell has always described his mount as "a lazy devil at home", Solwhit's lack of aptitude for working up the gallops is not the reason why he drifted alarmingly in the market yesterday. According to Byrnes, the horse scoped dirty and now must be regarded as a real doubt after the Limerick handler was forced to put his stable star on antibiotics.

Whatever Solwhit's fate, Russell is optimistic he can post his sixth festival triumph. Only seven active jockeys surpass him. And he smiles at the memory of his Gold Cup debut when, riding Truckers Tavern in 2003, he chased home Best Mate. "Four months earlier I was still riding in point-to-points," he recalls.

Russell's other prominent rides include Gordon Elliott's Carlito Brigante in the Triumph Hurdle, Weapon's Amnesty for Byrnes in the RSA Chase, and the Tom Mullins-trained Tavern Times in the Champion Bumper. He also rides the Mouse Morris veteran War Of Attrition in the World Hurdle for the Gigginstown House Stud of Michael O'Leary, who has retained him for the past three seasons.

While those disorientating days with Murphy are distant, they clearly shamed Russell into action. He is now a walking, talking formbook, replete with ratings for every half-decent horse. That explains why he is in demand on the festival preview circuit, when he is one of the few to offer firm opinions.

"My opinion might be worth very little at times but at least I can give it," he says with a smile. "I don't have to stand there dumb." (© The Times, London)

Irish Independent

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