Saturday 18 November 2017

Settling in to privileged seat

Davy Russell can't say no but he almost turned down his boss Michael O'Leary, as he tells John O'Brien

SIX days before Cheltenham, Davy Russell hardly needed reminding. He had been contemplating the dilemma that faced him before the Supreme Novices Hurdle, the opening race of the 2012 Festival, the tricky choice between two promising young horses: Trifolium and Midnight Game. He had high regard for Trifolium, he said, but the word seeping out from Willie Mullins' yard in Closutton was that Midnight Game was burning up the gallops. Flying.

Maybe half an hour passes. He is seated beside Mullins at the top table in the Leopardstown Pavilion when the trainer informs a Festival preview audience that the five-year-old had disappointed him in work that morning. It is as much of a revelation to Russell as it is to the large gathering. And so the game goes. Racing is a fickle, uncertain business. Tell him something he doesn't already know.

For the jockey, the news is a setback, but no cause for panic. Midnight Game remains a good horse and there's time left for the picture to change again. The seasoned rider knows this. As retained jockey for Gigginstown, Russell enjoys the pick of Michael O'Leary's talented string and, sometimes, the hardest job comes before the starter releases the tape and he has to decide between good horses carrying the maroon colours of their owner's beloved Westmeath.

So he indulges in some good-natured banter with Mullins, the audience laps it up and they move on. More races to discuss, more irons in the fire. Over the past few years Russell has become a mainstay of the Festival preview circuit, always available with a ready line of quips and one-liners and, he hopes, the odd pearl of wisdom too, just hoping in return that audiences don't hang on his every word or treat him as an oracle who can decode every Festival riddle. The sport is far too fluid for that.

In truth, he feels slightly over-stretched right now. The roadshow kicked off in Waterford a couple of weeks back and has taken him from Cork to Dublin and various points in between. Wednesday was his fifth, he reckons. Or was it his sixth? Hard to keep count sometimes. The thing is, he finds it hard to say no. There's always a bit of fun to be had and a worthy cause to support. "I've an awful problem with saying no," he says smiling. "That's what it comes down to really."

Here's the odd thing, though. Five years ago when O'Leary summoned him to his office in Dublin Airport and offered him the job as Gigginstown's retained jockey, Russell considered the offer and found the word that always came so hard to him: no. He thanked the Ryanair chief for thinking of him, took his leave and pointed his car north towards the races in Downpatrick.

He figures he had travelled 15 miles along the M1 when the enormity of a decision he'd made in an instant hit home. What was he thinking? "It was just I didn't put a whole lot of thought into it to be honest. When it did cycle through my head, thank God it wasn't too late. I called Eddie [O'Leary's brother] and he was very understanding. The way it turned around was wonderful. Sure, I was younger then, a bit cocky. I was tied down to two jobs before that and couldn't keep them. I was worried that way."

He had turned professional five years earlier after a distinguished spell as an amateur and spent 14 months riding for Ferdy Murphy in the north of England. He liked Murphy but couldn't settle in England and the frequency of his trips home ultimately stretched the trainer's patience. He returned home to ride for Edward O'Grady and things went well until the trainer jocked him off Back In Front before the 2005 Champion Hurdle. Russell vented his anger in public and, two months later, O'Grady had found another jockey.

Russell looks back on that period of his life with an older, wiser eye now. Sure, he made mistakes but he doesn't torture himself thinking of things he might have done differently. Mostly, he sees a young, immature rider with little grounding in the business. His father bred a few horses on the family farm near Youghal and, without prompting, Russell fell under their spell and was charmed by the magical world of point-to-point racing where the rural community gathered to share their love of racing.

Even now, that initial connection remains vital. For Russell, the upside of being suspended last Sunday was the freedom to attend a point-to-point in Co Galway, a chance to reconnect with his roots. "It's very special to me," he says. "And even more special that Michael shares that passion. For me, it's like a fella who loves to play hurling. Riding point-to-points is like playing club hurling and riding in Cheltenham is playing for the county."

The best club hurlers aspire to play for their county, of course, and for Russell that leap wasn't entirely straightforward. For one thing, in the professional game only the best horses carried 12st and Russell had a frame that wasn't crafted for riding horses at low weights. Anything below 10st 7lbs was a stretch and for a jockey hungry for opportunity that was a major handicap to carry.

"You learn a lot of things as you go along," he says. "I had issues with my weight. I was very narky. If you told me that chair was red, I'd say it wasn't. If I wanted to have an argument, I'd have one. I was just in that frame of mind at the time. Just wasn't able to handle things as well as I'm able to handle them now. Whether that's down to me maturing or growing up I don't know. Maybe I'm just adapting to it a bit better. I was hard to talk to. I had my own opinions and I thought that was the way it should be. It's great when you can look at things and see the bigger picture."

It helps enormously, he says, to have a boss like O'Leary. It's not just the good horses he rides or the fact that, after five near misses, he's in pole position to land his maiden Irish jump jockeys' title. Just that every day he spends working for O'Leary is an uncomplicated pleasure. The way the owner is adamant he never starves himself to make a weight. And the way he exudes ambition while accepting that, in a brutal sport, not everything always goes your way.

"I tell you, without a doubt, he's changed an awful lot about my way of thinking. He's a very positive man and he likes his horses ridden positively. Like, he wants to win every race but understands you can't do that. He's a great man to deal with. Everything is positive. He'll give you a kick up the hole and then walk away, it's done, forget about it. Or a pat on the back and it's done. Move on."

He thinks of the tears O'Leary shed when First Lieutenant won the Neptune Novices Hurdle at the Festival last year, how priceless and lasting that memory will be. For Russell, success is special because it was never ordained and didn't come easily. He first rode at the Festival as an amateur in 2000, finishing sixth on Toni's Tip in the Kim Muir, and had to wait six years for his first winner, Native Jack in the Cross Country, often despairing it would ever happen.

"I thought it was never going to come. Like, Ferdy was a great man to train winners at Cheltenham. I rode for him and hadn't a winner at Cheltenham. Edward O'Grady has the best Irish record in Cheltenham and I hadn't ridden a winner for him either. So where were the winners going to come from? That's what I'm thinking. So when Native Jack came it was like a weight lifted off my shoulder. I relaxed into Cheltenham after it."

Seven more have followed in the meantime, more good Festival days than bad. He thinks of the worst: the nine-race card of the second day in 2008 when he had several fancied mounts and drew a blank. He was widely slated for his ride on Zaarito in the Bumper, a staying-on third to Cousin Vinny after meeting trouble on the bend. He never minded the criticism, accepted his share of the blame, but he rode the same horse in a Graded chase at Naas last week, kicked on two from home only to get collared by Ruby Walsh on Seabass close home. Go figure.

"At Naas, I done what people suggested I should've done in Cheltenham and it's still wrong," he says with a wry smile. "It was wrong then and the other way is wrong too. I'll tell you one thing. If I'd to ride him in Naas again the other day, I'd have held onto him a lot longer."

Today brings him to Naas again. Bog Warrior going toe to toe with Flemenstar in a Grade Three novice chase, a tasty appetiser before the main course of Cheltenham. He thinks of what the week will bring, live chances every day. Noble Prince in the Ryanair, Toner D'oudairies in the Coral Cup if the weight allows, Make Your Mark in the Neptune, Magnanimity in the JLT Speciality Handicap Chase.

And, of course, the infernal, anxious business of having to make hard choices: Trifolium or Midnight Game in the Supreme, First Lieutenant or Sir Des Champs in the RSA Chase a day later. Problems most of his weighroom colleagues would kill to have.

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