IF Davy Russell fulfils every jockey’s dream by winning the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup on the course specialist Sir Des Champs, it will be a vindication of the leap of faith taken more than a decade ago by Ferdy Murphy.
The North Yorkshire trainer, who is steeped in Irish racing, plucked the novice rider from relative obscurity and gave the County Cork-born jockey a chance to prove himself in the sport of kings.
Their relationship, more ‘father and son’ rather than boss and employee, blossomed and culminated with Trucker’s Tavern finishing second to the legendary Best Mate in Cheltenham’s blue riband race 10 years ago when Henrietta Knight’s horse of a lifetime won the second of his three Gold Cups in imperious style.
And when Russell chose to return to Ireland – commuting between the Emerald Isle and Murphy’s idyllic West Witton stables became detrimental to the racing interests of both men – he did so with the Yorkshire handler’s full blessing.
They have remained the best of friends, Russell partnering Murphy’s Joe’s Edge and Naiad Du Misselot to Festival handicap glory in 2007 and 2008 respectively as well as enjoying big race success at Punchestown aboard the now retired Kalahari King.
“It would be fantastic for him. Every winner he rides, you see little things that he does because he’s a horseman – he’s very much like Ruby Walsh,” said Murphy.
The respect is reciprocated by Ireland’s reigning champion jockey who said: “I would still be riding point-to-points if it wasn’t for Ferdy. That is how much I owe him.”
Russell’s story began in Ireland’s hunting fields in the late 1990s where he showed far more prowess on horseback than in the school classroom. “At no stage did I think I would become a jockey, I was happy tipping away in the point-to-points,” he said.
“It was a good crack. Good horses, good trainers and you didn’t have to try and lose two stone just to make the weight, like many who switched to National Hunt.”
As the wins, and accolades, accumulated, so did Russell’s reputation. “Everyone knows what’s happening in point-to-pointing in Ireland because it produces so many champions,” explained Murphy.
“Tom O’Mahony, the bloodstock agent in Cork, would phone up and say this lad Russell had three winners one day and four the next. I’d also known about him from my brother Michael in Wexford. I’d known about him for about two years before I made the approach to see if he would replace Adrian Maguire after he retired.”
Russell, then in his early 20s, made the journey to Yorkshire, and he reflected: “It was a great opportunity for a young lad – and Maguire was one of the all-time greats. There were some very nice horses; Trucker’s Tavern who also won the Peter Marsh, as well as Tribal Venture and Ballinclay King, but the travelling was tough and it was difficult with the weight. With hindsight, I would have handled things differently.”
It is an assessment that Murphy says is slightly harsh. “Davy, he was brilliant to work with. At the time his mother wasn’t very well and all his point-to-point winners back home were running in novice hurdles and chases in Ireland with someone else in the saddle.
“It was also pretty hard to break into the jockeys’ room in the North. There were established riders – and the weighing room sticks together – who saw this new lad and started adding up the rides that they could lose.
“The demands with riding out 15 to 20 horses in the morning, and the discipline of the weight, it was tough for Davy.
“He’d go back to Ireland, miss a flight back, and then there were injuries.
“It was then that we both came to the conclusion that he’d probably be better off back in Ireland, but we didn’t fall out – look he wouldn’t have won two Festival races, and ridden in the National, for me if we had.”
Back in Ireland, Russell’s reputation gradually began to grow and he was approached in September 2007 to become retained jockey to the prestigious Gigginstown House Stud owned by Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary.
He met O’Leary and his brother Eddie at Dublin Airport to discuss wearing their famous maroon and white silks. Initially, it did not go to plan – Russell did not want to lose those rides that he had established, even though none were Gold Cup class.
He only realised his mistake on the way home and quickly phoned Eddie O’Leary – he had left the meeting without scribbling down the airline boss’s number. “I said ‘What was I thinking?’ and would they still have me. Fortunately they said yes.”
Based on his experience with Murphy, Russell also came to an arrangement that his minimum racing weight would be 10st 8lb – unless he phoned his employers in advance to discuss the horse in question.
It has worked. This career-extending decision enabled him to become champion trainer and build a formidable big-race reputation on horses like Sir Des Champs, who won the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Hurdle at Cheltenham two years ago before taking the Jewson Novices’ Chase 12 months ago.
Trained by in-form Willie Mullins, who eclipsed Aidan O’Brien’s longstanding record for the most winners in a NH season after recently notching up his 156th success, Sir Des Champs was a close fourth to Tidal Bay in a pulverising finish to the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown over Christmas before outgunning Flemenstar in the Irish Hennessy.
“He’s in very good order. The better the ground, the better the chance he has,” said Russell, 33. “I’d like to think Willie has also left a bit to work on. The great thing about Willie is he does not over-face horses. He will not run a horse until he thinks it can win, whether it be the Gold Cup or a minor race up country.”
Murphy concurs. He enjoyed a long association in his formative years with Mullins’s father Paddy, who masterminded the career of Dawn Run, the only horse to win both the Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup.
“Paddy was a horseman while Maureen, who is still alive, was a very good businesswoman. Willie would have been in his teens when I was with them – I was head lad and first jockey for five years before the weight beat me.
“Willie didn’t start with good owners, he’s strived for it. His training record speaks for itself while his wife Jackie goes to the sales – she has a great eye for a horse. Pont Alexandre, who runs in the Neptune, could be his best horse yet and I think Sir Des Champs is the one to beat in the Gold Cup.”
For once, Davy Russell does not disagree. “I hope Ferdy’s right. I wouldn’t swap him for anything.”