Sunday 22 July 2018

Vincent Hogan: Davy Russell's class a lesson in grace under pressure

15 March 2018; Jockey Davy Russell reacts after winning the Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate on The Storyteller on Day Three of the Cheltenham Racing Festival at Prestbury Park in Cheltenham, England. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
15 March 2018; Jockey Davy Russell reacts after winning the Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate on The Storyteller on Day Three of the Cheltenham Racing Festival at Prestbury Park in Cheltenham, England. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

It could be that he's bitter as a crab apple inside, that all the grace espoused is just a firewall against the most human of resentments, but Davy Russell's equanimity has begun turning into an elegant parable.

A 377/1 treble catapulted him to the top of the Festival jockeys' table yesterday, the pick of which was a Ryanair Chase win on Balko Des Flos in Gigginstown's maroon silks which, essentially, meant the winner's prize-money of £152,530 travelled from Michael O'Leary's left pocket into his right.

Russell's other wins were on another Gigginstown horse, Delta Work, in the Pertemps Hurdle (his third consecutive win in the race) and on The Storyteller in the Handicap Steeplechase.

But Gigginstown had never won their own Grade One in 13 previous attempts, so the identity of the pencil-thin man guiding Balko Des Flos so imperiously past Un De Sceaux four from home, then storming unassailably up the hill, surely had the ghosts of this old place grinning.

It's just four years after all since Russell was beckoned to Ryanair headquarters for "a cup of tea" which, in this business, is the popular euphemism for a court martial.

Russell was being sacked by Gigginstown after six years as their retained jockey, a devastating fate endured under the most withering of public scrutiny.

His response at the time was impressively sanguine. "I'm a big boy," he said. "I know what I'm going to have to do now and that is work very hard. I still have a lot of belief in my own ability and am confident plenty of people will use me."

Having ridden 16 winners over the previous two months, Russell would ride nine over the next two. If his numbers were diminishing, they were clearly not in freefall. Owners and trainers clearly understood that a Gigginstown sacking could not be interpreted as any kind of character assassination. Their style was simply to approach business like an oncoming train in a tunnel.

Yet, as Russell collected his stomach at the door, he had a fundamental decision to make. He could farm bitterness for the rest of his life or he could step back into the weigh-room on a mission, at 34, to get even better.

Those watching him in this sacred corner of Gloucestershire these past three days have been left in little doubt of his wisdom in choosing the latter course. For the Irish champion jockey-elect has cut a commanding figure thus far, returning to the great enclosure with four winners, a second and two thirds.

He has ridden at least one Festival winner every year since 2006 and made a point of bringing his father, Jerry, to the podium after yesterday's victory for Delta Work in the Pertemps. It was from Jerry that he got his love of horses on the family farm in Youghal, Davy once describing himself as "like an extra limb" on his father whenever there was a horse to be seen.

Russell won his first race in February '99, had spells working for Ferdy Murphy and Edward O'Grady, followed by two years as a recalcitrant freelance, before taking the call from O'Leary in September '07. At the time, it seemed he'd met a kindred spirit.

Funny, just a month or so before that relationship would sunder, Russell spoke about dealing with setbacks in a Sunday Independent interview. "There's nothing worse than fellas feeling sorry for themselves because it's raining or they didn't get picked," he remarked. "Maybe the reason they didn't get picked is because they didn't put in enough f*****g effort.

"You should leave nothing behind you and if you do that, you'll have no reason to feel disappointed."

It's now safe to say that Davy Russell left nothing behind him in his six years with Gigginstown. The man who replaced him, Bryan Cooper, got called for that "cup of tea" last summer and, though they have not formally yet named a replacement, the smart money seems to be on 18-year-old Kerryman, Jack Kennedy, whose win on Shattered Love in yesterday's Pertemps was his third of this Festival.

Either way, Russell's decision to bite his lip kept lines of communication open that, quickly, proved beneficial.

Just three months after his sacking, Cooper's leg-break led to a phone-call from O'Leary, inviting Russell to ride Tiger Roll in the Triumph Hurdle. The Corkman duly responded with a majestic ride, guiding the horse through a minefield of juveniles en route to an authoritative victory. That same afternoon, he won the Gold Cup on Lord Windermere before returning to those maroon silks to ride Savello to victory in the Grand Annual.

And that's been the peculiar thing about Gigginstown and Davy Russell since.

It might just be an illusion of amity of course, but the relationship remains hugely, mutually profitable. As Russell himself put it yesterday after Balko Des Flos's win: "As much as I stayed with him (O'Leary), you must give him credit too. He's a good man, we get on well. He's supported me for a lot of my career.

Blip

"I know we had a bit of a blip, but everybody has a blip!"

Russell almost had more than that courtesy of a crashing fall from Bless The Wings in Wednesday's Cross-Country Chase, leaving him with a painfully swollen knee. Indeed, but for the intervention of fellow jockey, Brian Hughes, he might not even have been passed fit to ride yesterday.

"Yeah, Brian didn't even get changed for the Bumper, he ran out to his car where he had an ice machine, which was a huge help," explained Russell. "I don't know if I'd have been able to ride today without it to be honest. It was quite sore but obviously it was only soft tissue, so it wasn't bone like Ruby obviously. Once I got it iced, I was able to do my job."

That job was lauded by Balko Des Flos's trainer, Henry de Bromhead, who talked of Russell giving the horse "such a cool ride, he got him into such a lovely rhythm". And O'Leary was no less effusive after Delta Work's victory in the Pertemps, suggesting "Davy is a master jockey and terrific in these handicaps. He rides Cheltenham so well he is worth a couple of pounds around here!"

For many, those words might seem more than a mite ironic given recent history, yet perhaps Russell's greatest triumph these past four years has been to rise above the most human instinct of self-pity and strive simply to get better.

In that 2013 Sunday Independent interview, he spoke of his admiration for Roy Keane's dismissal of Alex Ferguson's praise for that famous Champions League performance against Juventus on the basis that "It's like praising the postman for delivering your letters. He's supposed to, isn't he?"

And he spoke of recognising something of himself in Keane's description of being driven relentlessly by fear.

"I don't want to be copying Roy Keane," he told Paul Kimmage. "But that fear is always there. I know exactly what he is talking about.

"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 a family, but we'd cut each other's throats in an act."

Asked yesterday what it would mean to leave this Festival as leading jockey, Russell remained typically self-aware. "Listen, I said coming over if I won the terrier race here tomorrow I'd be happy!" he smiled. "There isn't a jockey inside there that wouldn't love to win it. But there's plenty of people nipping at my heels."

They'll have to do a good deal more than that to catch him.

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