DAVY RUSSELL and Tiger Roll were made for each other – the oldest jockey in the Randox Health Grand National winning the world’s greatest steeplechase on the smallest horse after the race of their lives.
The second-closest finish in the recent history of a race first run in 1839, Russell, 38, endured a nervous wait for the photo-finish to be confirmed after the pacesetting Pleasant Company’s dramatic late rally on the run-in.
This was Ireland’s day. Uniquely, the first four finishers were all trained in Ireland with the fifth-placed Bryony Frost, and Milansbar, the best of the British challengers at Aintree.
Yet, as Russell saluted his late mother Phyllis who died last month and all those who have supported him in his career before dedicating the win to Ireland’s champion Flat jockey Pat Smullen who is being treated for a tumour, the jockey’s heartfelt words had a special resonance with his one-time North Yorkshire mentor.
He spent two seasons, from 2002 until 2004, with Ferdy Murphy when the trainer’s West Witton yard was a powerhouse of Northern racing, with Truckers Tavern chasing home the legendary Best Mate in the Cheltenham Gold Cup 15 years ago.
Now living in France in semi-retirement where he buys and sells horses, Murphy’s confidence in the young Russell – and long-held believe that this mercurial horseman would win a National – was more than vindicated by this Aintree riding masterclass.
“I had people spotting young horses for me on the point-to-point circuit in Cork,” he told The Yorkshire Post. “It was a very amateur sport then. Now it’s very professional.
“He (Russell) would brilliantly ride horses that had been barely broken. He was getting these half-tonne horses round, winning and educating them from day one. They could do nothing until he rode them. If you came across a horse that Davy had ridden, it was more advanced – and more forward – than any other. That was him.”
When Murphy’s luckless stable jockey Adrian Maguire retired through injury, Cork bloodstock agent Tom O’Mahony had no hesitation in recommending the up-and-coming rider to the trainer.
“I flew to Cork, met Davy and his dad and we shook hands. He said he would start with me the next day. It was a massive change from going point-to-pointing to professional riding, and it took time for him to make the adjustment.
“He was a great person to have in the yard. He’d be the first to get the brush out and sweep up if it needed doing. He’d have his breakfast with the other lads who thought it was a great that they were valued by the stable jockey. He was very much a team player and he always helped the underdog.”
The arrangement only ended when Russell’s mother, the driving force behind his career and the forceful woman who ensured he fulfilled his riding career, was first diagnosed with cancer and he chose to return to his native Ireland where his experience here helped him to rise through the ranks.
Yet Murphy and Russell remained firm friends. When the jockey was having a luckless run, the trainer viewed the tapes, suggested some minor changes to his riding technique and he promptly rode three winners at a major meeting in Ireland.
And they enjoyed a number of big race successes – notably Joes Edge’s Cheltenham Festival win in 2007, Naiad Du Misselot’s success at Cheltenham the following March and Kalahari King’s triumph at Punchestown in April 2008.
However, it was Russell’s handling of Joes Edge, a former Scottish National winner, at Aintree in 2006 that stands out. “It started raining on the Friday afternoon and it never stopped all night,” recalled Murphy. “I never slept a wink and I knew chance was gone. It was, however, the most amazing ride for Davy to finish seventh to Numbersixvalverde. From then on, I knew he would win a National and I feel priviliged to have been a small part of it.”
It also explains Russell’s approach to this year’s National. His 14th ride in the race, he did not lose sleep over tactics. He simply rode the diminutive Tiger Roll from fence to fence and provided trainer Gordon Elliott, the new force in Irish racing, with a second win the race.
Even losing his riding irons briefly did not faze him before Tiger Roll took up the running two out and appeared to have the National secured before Pleasant Company’s improbable surge under 21-year-old David Mullins who was victorious two years ago on Rule The World.
Tiger Roll – owned by Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown House Stud – is, arguably, the most versatile National Hunt horse of modern times.
The winner of a modest race at Market Rasen in 2013 where a bar has already been renamed in Tiger Roll’s honour, his three Cheltenham festival successes range from the two mile Triumph Hurdle in 2014 to the four mile National Hunt Chase last year and the unique Cross Country race just over four weeks ago.
Described as “a little rat of a thing” by O’Leary, Tiger Roll means the world to Russell who kept his dignity when he was sacked by the Gigginstown boss over the “the most legendary cup of tea in racing” on December 31, 2013.
Now it is Russell’s chosen successor Bryan Cooper who is nowhere as Russell’s riding reaches new heights so he can support his wife and four young children.
Buoyed by Saint Are’s third-place finish last year, he said: “I gained a bit of confidence, and felt maybe I could win the National. I had been thinking, ‘This is impossible to win’, especially when you’ve had 13 goes. They described me as ‘Davy Russell, the race’s oldest jockey’, going to the start and that focuses the mind.
“This exceeds everything else I’ve won because it’s such a hard race to win.
“You dream about it, but thousands of things have to happen in your favour.”