'That fear is always there'
Having reached the top of his sport, Davy Russell is determined to stay there, as he tells Paul Kimmage
Why David Russell? The documentary. Maybe you've seen it? The Irish Road to Cheltenham, and that scene in episode four from the Christmas meeting at Leopardstown when he loses an epic finish on Sir Des Champs in the Lexus Chase.
The camera follows him to the parade ring; we watch him dismount and we're sitting on his shoulder as he strides towards the weighing room, when he turns and raises his arm: "No, not now."
So they return at the end of the meeting and film him in the changing room and he explains the race and what happened with words that are measured and calm. But the truth is in his face. There's a hell raging in his eyes that looks deep and dark and terrifying. It's a place any interviewer would love to visit. But how do you get there? Where do you buy a ticket?
It's Tuesday afternoon. He has spent the morning at Fairyhouse schooling horses for Michael O'Leary and is about to embark on the journey home when he spots the missed call on his phone. Strange number. There's a message: "Davy, is there any chance you might be free tomorrow or Thursday for an interview? Sorry for the short notice."
He starts the car and points it towards Cashel; two hours, 100 miles and a lot of stewing to do.
The same oul' stuff.
Is anybody interested?
People must have a pain in their hole reading about me.
I know how it will go.
The same questions.
The usual answers.
And then, inevitably . . .
'Give us three to follow for Christmas.'
'I don't have three.'
'Course you have, Davy, you're the champion jockey.'
'I haven't thought about it.'
'Ahh go on.'
'I'd only be picking them off the top of my head to be polite.'
'Okay, just giv'us one.'
'I don't have one.'
'Go on, just the one.'
'Naah, there's nothing there.'
'Ahh go on, you've got one.'
. . . Fuck it!
He calls the journalist and politely declines. An hour passes. He's still thinking.
A few questions.
Cop on to yourself.
What harm can it do?
What do you have to lose?
He picks up the phone and dials the number again: "Listen, I've changed my mind," he says. "I can meet you Thursday in Cashel if you're still interested."
"Okay, great," the journalist replies. Then he smiles and shakes his head. It's only the second time in 23 years as a writer that this has happened to him . . . and the first was a Corkman as well.
* * * * *
Who's Davy Russell? Let's start at the beginning. Let's start with Jerry and Phyllis and the second youngest of the six kids they raised on the family farm in Youghal. David is different to his brothers and sisters. There are cows to be milked and there's schoolwork to be done but all this kid wants to do is ride his pony and hang with his dad.
"As a young lad you don't make life decisions, you just go with whatever you're happy with," he says. "And there was nothing I was happier doing that riding a pony. I don't know what it was or why it was but I was completely obsessed. It was night and day and every weekend and everything that was ever done.
"Dad had a horse in training here and there and from an early age I was like an extra limb on him. I was so interested in what he would do with the horses and wanted to go with him wherever he would go. I'd hear him on the phone the night before saying he was leaving at nine o'clock and I'd be sitting in the car waiting for him to go."
Hurling was another passion and the only incentive for going to school. "I felt that school was getting in the way and took every opportunity of getting out of it. The horses were always a great excuse. It broke my mother's heart. They did everything to get me some description of an education that I didn't want and didn't need because there was nothing else I wanted to do but ride horses."
He won his first race in February 1999 and spent four happy years riding as an amateur before leaving for England and life as a professional at the age of 23. His new boss, Ferdy Murphy, trained at Middleham in Yorkshire. "It didn't really register with me at the time but it was a big transition," he says. "And I was a bit lost at first. In November (2003), I was riding (a point-to-point) in Boulta; in March I was riding in the Gold Cup. But Ferdy drilled it into me to smarten up and do things right.
"It (Middleham) was the coldest place on earth. He told me it would be cold and to go out and buy long-johns and I thought they were just soft over there but mother of God! I've never worn gloves but I wore everything over there and it still wasn't enough. I was wasting and the cold had me bet."
The wasting was the toughest part of his new life. He didn't drink (and never has) but was tall and heavy for a jockey and had to reduce to 10 stone for his first Cheltenham with Murphy in 2003. Historg had a great chance on the opening day in the William Hill Chase so he spent Sunday night in the sauna, fasted all day Monday and didn't eat on Tuesday before the race.
"Your head doesn't work when you've to lose that much weight," he says. "It's more your mind than your physical (state) . . . adrenaline will get you through the physical part of it -- it mightn't get you through the whole day but it will get you through two or three rides -- but I was destroyed afterwards. I thought he was going to win but he finished seventh or eighth."
Two days later, he learnt another cruel lesson when he finished second on Truckers Tavern to Best Mate in the Gold Cup. "Cheltenham is our Olympics but there's no such thing as silver and bronze -- the gold medal is all that counts. You might have given the horse the best ride that you could possibly give it, but if he doesn't stick his head out (and win) it's not worth a fuck.
"From an early age you work on trying to be neat and stylish but at the end of the day it's all about getting that gold medal. Because so long as you can keep a leg either side of them and ride winners, people will put you up."
He spent 14 months with Murphy in Yorkshire and returned home in 2004 and spent a season with Edward O'Grady. He still hadn't won at Cheltenham and was still wasting and trying to ride light and it made him narky and difficult to handle.
Tipping the cap did not come easy to him; he could start an argument in an empty room and he spent two years riding as a freelance until September 2007, when he was summoned to a meeting and offered a job by a kindred spirit.
"I'd never met Michael O'Leary before but it was easy to speak with him plainly. He wanted me to ride his horses and raise my minimum weight. What was the sense in doing three pounds less and being like a fucking bear and not riding to the best of my ability? He just simplified things. He's a great man like that."
Two years ago, after five successive second-place finishes, he was champion jockey for the first time. Last season, he won it again but don't ask him to sound a trumpet. "Don't get me wrong," he says, "it was marvellous to win but it didn't make me any better than I was a day before. I was the same jockey. The same person. I just rode more winners than anybody else in one season."
* * * * *
We meet on a wintry Thursday afternoon at a hotel near Cashel. He has spent the morning riding out for Pat Doyle and arrives for the interview wearing a black waterproof jacket, speckled with mud from the gallops. Six hours have passed since he stepped out of bed; he's had just one cup of tea but is still not ready for food: "Sure the day isn't up yet," he smiles.
I remind him of the scene in The Irish Road to Cheltenham when he raised his arm to the camera. "Well," he says, "I was either going to put on a face and be nice to them or describe how I felt. And if I described how I felt, it wasn't going to come out too well on camera."
"How did you feel?" I ask.
"I was disgusted because if I had done something different . . ."
"What could you have done?"
"I was probably a bit lackadaisical on him. He missed a fence down the back because I was a little bit out of my ground. And then I put him further out of my ground and we flew home to get beaten half-a-length. So the margin was very small. And there was no point in being happy about it."
"How long does it stay with you?"
"You go home that night and look through it again and give the dog a few kicks and wake up the next morning and sit on a nice horse and that's it forgotten about, until someone reminds you and you bite the head off them."
Ten years have passed now since he turned professional. He is 34-years-old and is dating "a lovely girl" but has never married.
"To be honest with you, if there was anything that was going to get in the way of riding horses, it was pushed down the list. And sure I was never in the one place long enough. I was in Youghal starting off and England for a couple of years and you'd need to find a very patient girl."
"It's the focus on what you're doing," I suggest.
"It is, yeah."
"Oh Jesus, yeah."
"It hasn't changed?'
"No, no, no. What's the point in putting in all that graft if you're going to let it slip away? I mean, give Ruby (Walsh) any bit of rope at all (and he'll hang you), so you know, what's the point in that?"
"Is it an obsession?"
"It is, but it's a good business to be obsessed about, at least for me. If you were obsessed about being an accountant I'd say it was a bit different but there are so many sides to it. And look, sure I don't know what it's like to be an accountant, I only know that it's very pleasing to be a jockey."
The first hour is hard work. He is polite and self-effacing but guarded and offering no guided tours to the man I glimpsed on the screen. And then the conversation strays to his love of Gaelic games and the wonder is revealed.
"We're so lucky that we have the GAA," he says. "That it's ours and no one else's and as a nation we're so proud of it. Hurlers and footballers don't get interviewed much. They are team players and don't get the chance to pat themselves on the back . . . Jaysus, did you watch that Roy Keane interview (the Keane and Vieira documentary on ITV)?"
"I did," I reply.
"Now there's a fella who just hits it straight down the line."
"But you're a Corkman," I tease.
"I am," he says, "and a proud one. And Jaysus, I was proud of him. I thought what he said about the postman was brilliant."
(There's a scene in the Keane/Vieira documentary when Keane is reminded of a performance against Juventus and the praise he received from Alex Ferguson. He says: "To be honest, I actually get offended when people throw quotes like that at me, as if I'm supposed to be honoured by it. It's like praising the postman for delivering your letters. He's supposed to, isn't he? That's his job.")
"His mentality is brilliant. I love it," he says.
"You love it?"
"I love it."
"What do you love?"
"His passion. Everything he has done is about putting in an effort and getting out of your comfort zone. He wants to get results."
"Do you see some of yourself in him?"
"Ah Jaysus, no."
"Forget his achievements, I'm talking about his mentality."
"Well, yeah, but if you are going to be a sportsperson -- whether it's playing hurling or soccer or rugby or riding horses -- there's no point in going at it if you don't give your all. There's nothing worse than fellas feeling sorry for themselves because its raining or they didn't get picked -- maybe the reason they didn't get picked is because they didn't put in enough fucking effort.
"You should leave nothing behind you, and if you do that you'll have no reason to feel disappointed."
"What about other interests," I ask. "What is pleasure for you?"
"A good game of hurling."
"So it was almost a great summer?"
"Almost, yeah. It was a great summer to get up there, and get that close, but I don't think they [Cork] left anything behind them. I think the better team won."
"Did you go?"
"I did. I was lucky enough to get tickets for both of them. There was no racing the first day and the second day we were (racing) in Navan and the time suited me. Jim Bolger got me great tickets . . . actually Roy Keane was (sitting) two rows in front of me."
"Yeah, he was literally just in front of me. And I have more respect for him now because he did some interview a couple of days ago and said that hurling was the best sport to watch."
"Did you say hello to him?"
"No, sure there's enough people bothering him. But I'd love to speak to him for half an hour. He'd put you in some frame of mind going out (to play sport), that's for sure."
"Who else would you like to talk to? What if I offered you dinner with three famous people?"
"Are they dead or alive?"
"Whatever you like."
"Roy Keane for sure, Willie Mullins if he'd tell me everything he knows, and Jimmy Barry-Murphy if he'd tell me all the stories. But they would have to be open. There wouldn't be much point in sitting down with them if they'd tell you nothing."
Has Russell told me everything he knows? No, I've barely scratched him. But I'm still trying as he's heading for the door.
"How does it feel to be Davy Russell at 34?"
"Oh, very content and happy with what I've done. But then there's times I think I could be doing better. I don't want to be copying Roy Keane (when he talked about being driven by fear) but that fear is always there. I know exactly what he is talking about."
"The fear of not performing?"
"Yeah, and it is a fear. Could you imagine the devastation if you slipped down the slope? I mean, if it happens, it happens and we'll cope but it's a huge motivation to keep going, because there's any number of lads that want to take your place."
"They're queuing up for you," I suggest.
"But you seem to get on so well as a group?"
"Yeah, that's true, it is a family. But we'd cut each other's throats in an act."