There was an icy bite to the otherwise mild Cotswold breeze before racing even began at Cheltenham today as Davy Russell prepared for his final two days in the weighing-room.
Racing is a world with secrets in every corner, most interviews with jockeys a kind of listless drumroll of sycophancy towards the moneyed owners of the horses they ride. Gratitude is gospel.
Candour seldom enters this world for the simple truth that, no matter a jockey’s talent, this is an environment of the starkest hierarchal reality.
Even when Russell was so brutally sacked as number one Gigginstown Stud rider over a cup of tea on New Year’s Eve 2013, he stayed faithful to that truth, remaining studiously diplomatic towards Michael and Eddie O’Leary in all media interviews.
Why? Because a jockey firing bullets at those bank-rolling their sport might as well be striking a match to check the level of petrol in their car.
Russell’s diplomacy made perfect sense. Within three months of his sacking, he was riding Tiger Roll and Savello to Cheltenham victories in Gigginstown’s colours after his replacement, Bryan Cooper, broke his leg in a terrible fall on the Festival Wednesday.
Privately, Russell was said to have been disgusted by the coldness of his dismissal, yet there was simply nothing to be gained by articulating such disgust.
But then time passes and circumstances change.
Given tomorrow will, presumably, be Russell’s last day in the weighing-room, the obligation to toe the line simply no longer applies here. Michael O’Leary’s recent ITV interview with Matt Chapman, questioning Gordon Elliott’s decision to coax a 43-year-old Russell out of retirement to replace the injured Jack Kennedy as his number one jockey at this Festival has, palpably, incensed the Youghal man.
Specifically, O’Leary’s insinuation that a man of Russell’s age should, perhaps, be prioritising family now rather than looking to add to his 25 Festival wins.
Asked to respond this morning, Russell’s words were utterly withering. “I have about as much respect for Michael O’Leary’s opinion as he has for my opinion” he told ITV. “I didn’t see any Father of the Year awards being thrown out yet, but I’m pretty happy with my responsibilities at home.”
Ostensibly, they were remarkable words from a man booked to ride three Gigginstown horses over the closing two days, Fury Road in today’s Ryanair Chase, Search For Glory in tomorrow’s Albert Bartlett and Conflated in tomorrow’s Gold Cup.
But what exactly has Russell to lose?
O’Leary’s notoriously blunt nature would seem a pretty shallow confection now if he chose to remove Elliott’s first choice jockey from any of the above rides and there is little doubt that he will be all smiles and breezy epithets should any of those horses win.
But there can clearly be no doubting the nature of his relationship with Russell now. Or, more specifically, the venom the jockey feels – perhaps has always felt – for the man who sacked him so casually over that cup of tea a decade back.
Russell was just eighteen days retired when Kennedy’s injury persuaded Elliott to call him rather than expose some of the younger talents in his yard to the white heat of Festival pressure.
Pointedly, he stressed yesterday that the decision to come out of retirement came only after close consultation with wife, Edelle. “She was fully behind me” said Russell. “I was off for just eighteen days.”
His demeanour was a galaxy removed from the gentle politesse summoned at this Festival in 2014 when winning those races (Triumph Hurdle and Grand Annual) in maroon silks on Tiger Roll and Savello respectively.
He’d ridden no winners in the opening three days, but then had the Friday of his dreams, also piloting Jim Culloty’s Lord Windermere to a 20/1 win in the Gold Cup.
“It was a special day” he said at the time. “It was very nice to still get the opportunity to ride for Gigginstown but I wouldn’t have been thinking about having to prove anything. I didn’t feel I had to. I was just trying to get rides.”
In time, Russell would also ride Tiger Roll to two storied Grand National victories for Gigginstown, the same, almost studiously bland tone humming through every question exploring his relationship with the O’Learys.
He’d always said that it was easy to “speak plainly” to O’Leary and that the Ryanair boss was an owner whose blunt personality “simplified things”.
But just nine days before his sacking in 2013, in an interview with the Sunday Independent, Russell did offer a glimpse into the ruthlessness plumbed throughout his own psyche. Talking about the anxiety of not performing, he reflected “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. It’s (the weighing-room) a family, but we’d cut each other’s throats in an act.”
That devastation he spoke so flatly of back then was just days away for Davy Russell, delivered without much discernible care or empathy by the “plain-speaking” O’Leary.
And for the decade since, Russell has broadly remained on message whenever addressing the management style at Gigginstown. But today that diplomacy finally gave way, his words guillotining any illusion of reciprocal respect in the relationship.
Normally a rapacious market for people speaking out both sides of their mouths, Cheltenham accordingly resounded with a strange giddiness.
Given the coldness between these two men has now, patently, metasticised into something bleaker, it felt only natural to wonder about the energies likely to sweep the paddock should Russell win on a Gigginstown horse before Festival-end.
Because any smiles exchanged will now, surely, be only through clenched teeth.