Tuesday 21 November 2017

Russell's redemption complete after year of 'knocks'

Jockey Davy Russell kisses the Gold Cup after winning the BetFred Cheltenham Gold Cup Chase on Lord Windermere
Jockey Davy Russell kisses the Gold Cup after winning the BetFred Cheltenham Gold Cup Chase on Lord Windermere
Lord Windermere, with Davy Russell up, clears the fence on their way to winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

On a day the great citadel became a wrecker's yard of broken bones and discarded betting slips, the gods suspended war on Davy Russell.

They didn't do it entirely cleanly. He still had to sit in the dentist's chair of a stewards' room, explaining his late steering of Lord Windermere up the Cheltenham hill in a kind of medieval court hearing, broadcast to a gaping world. Maybe it had to be that way for a man who has had bad luck clamped to him like a catheter since the turn of the year.

He'd arrived at the course, by his own admission, solemn as a funeral-goer.

"We'd gone through three days and I got three falls and rode very poorly on some occasions with little confidence," he smiled in the dinky tent to which they bring only Festival royalty. "I literally can't believe it after the year I've had."

The year he's had. Russell rolled a water bottle through his fingers and puckered his lips like a man sensing the need to be careful with his words now. In January, he was sacked from his job as Gigginstown Stud's No 1 rider. In horseracing, these decisions don't come with explanations. Big business doesn't go there.

Yesterday, he rode an improbable treble, two of the wins delivered in the purple silks he presumed to have forsaken. In a Festival full of contradictions, stable alliances blurred.

After Bryan Cooper's wretched fall on Wednesday, Gigginstown were in the market for deputies, and ignoring Russell would have been plain foolish. Then, in yesterday's opener, Ruby Walsh and Paul Townend both went crashing together, Ruby suffering a compound fracture of his right arm, Townend damaging his shoulder. Suddenly, Willie Mullins too was making calls.

When Daryl Jacob then suffered a horrific accident on the way down to the start of the Albert Bartlett, you sensed an eerie breeze come whispering down off the old hill. Cheltenham suddenly felt different. For Russell, that difference had become palpable at roughly 1.35. After he piloted Tiger Roll to a 10/1 victory, an English journalist asked him if he was "sort of second jockey" to Gigginstown now. "I'm second nothing," shrugged Davy with a rueful smile. "I'm only my own man now!"

And he looked philosophical later during that melodrama of the stewards' room, sitting in a chair beside David Casey, the two of them explaining those last strides of the big race to a purposefully stern assembly. Casey believed Lord Windermere had intimidated On His Own by leaning right during the run-in. Russell maintained that any interference would not have altered the result.

Jim Culloty had been joshing with well-wishers when the enquiry was announced. "Well half-way round, he was getting the sack," he was joking of Russell when suddenly his attention flicked to the big screen. "Are we in trouble?" he asked with a shudder.

Those who know these things considered it a borderline case, but you get the feeling that, had the verdict fallen Casey's way, Russell would have not have been turning either pale or defensive. "There's a lot worse thrown at people," he'd said earlier when asked about the Gigginstown sacking. "What happened to me, that's just life."

Now, as a Gold Cup winner, he allowed the outside world the scope to prod a little deeper. "It's easy for me to say now but I've said it all along, that's life," he smiled. "You shut your mouth and you move on. I'm just so grateful for people like Jim Culloty obviously, especially Dr Lambe who pays the bills, who have instilled faith in me.

"I was able to relax because I was riding for people who understood."

His graciousness rang loud and clear, yet his words came freighted too with silent messages.

"Look, it's an ill wind that doesn't blow your way really," he said. "It's just a lesson for anybody who gets knocks through their life or their career, you keep your mouth shut and you move on. You try and do the best for yourself. Thank God for me it has worked out. For everybody, you just don't know what's around the next corner.

"I'd like to thank my family first and foremost and again all the people that stood by me, which is very, very important to me. It's marvellous that we've ended up in the place that it matters. But I was always going to be happy today where the horse was happy and I knew Jim wouldn't be running down on me."

Beside him, Culloty sat programmed only for mischief. The day after Russell lost his job, he rode some work in Culloty's Churchtown yard and, if it was sympathy Davy was drawn to in Cork that morning, he had driven in the wrong gate. Culloty dresses dandily in tweed, but his humour is pure factory floor. His name is cut deep into this valley through the story of his alliance with Best Mate, yet Culloty has the gift of easy self-deprecation that can sustain a man through dark days.

He came to the Festival having known only blanks since a point-to-point last November. "I couldn't ride a winner for Jim all year, his horses just weren't sparking," grinned Russell. "And he kept saying to me 'Wait till Cheltenham, wait till Cheltenham...'."

So Jim Culloty brought two horses to the Festival and both won. Just when it seemed that the great, groaning yards of this sport would never again have their grip loosened on the Championship races, they lost the biggest pot of all to an operation some believed in crisis.

For Culloty, they were nowhere near that condition. He'd retired early as a jockey after "multiple concussions", taking out a trainer's licence to "give me something to do and make a few bob, which everybody told me I wouldn't." And the bad days piled up, sometimes in dispiriting heaps.

"Since I started training, I have been in the doldrums on numerous occasions, as I suppose all trainers are, but when you're in them you think it's just you," he said. "I wouldn't have any suicidal tendencies or anything like that. But you get low and think to yourself 'What am I doing this job for? Go and get a proper job.'

"Two and a half or maybe three years ago, not only was everybody else saying 'That fella hasn't a clue how to train a horse', I was actually saying the same thing. I was on the phone to everybody. I phoned people like Paul Nicholls and all these guys for advice, and to be fair to them they were all very helpful.

"And, of course, I did what everybody does, changed the feed, changed the gallops, we even changed the type of horse we were buying. And what it all came down to was one little thing, a bit of a fungus in the stable. Once that was eradicated the rest is history."

And the bug in his yard this winter?

"That was just a plain ordinary... the horses weren't right," he smiled. "But it wasn't as if I had a hundred horses in training. I only have about four horses mature enough to actually go to war with. Lord Windermere, Spring Heeled (his winner on Thursday) and two novice hurdlers that'll win next week!"

Listening, you couldn't help but recognise that this place rewards maybe only the most indefatigable of people. For Willie Mullins, the day carried a procession of setbacks calculated to break a man's spirit, the stewards' verdict faithful to that trend.

"It appeared that we didn't get a clear run to the line from the last fence," he sighed quietly when it was over. "I thought you were always entitled to that!"

He might have had a case too, Russell conceding: "Even when you win a maiden hurdle around Thurles, it's not ideal to be involved in a stewards' enquiry, never mind the Gold Cup."

Yet, there were few inclined to begrudge the sudden good fortune of a man so publicly discarded last January. And irony kept on buffeting through the valley when he finished the day in purple silks again, scoring a 16/1 winner for a now rampant Gigginstown on Savello. So the Gods suspended their curious war on Davy Russell without putting a curse on those who chose to cut him loose.

Irish Independent

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