DAVY Russell, the gritty veteran jockey who served his racing apprenticeship with Ferdy Murphy in North Yorkshire, became one of the unlikeliest winners of the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup after the under-rated Lord Windermere prevailed in a blanket finish.
Not only was his horse so far in arrears in last place that winning trainer Jim Culloty joked that he wanted to sack his rider mid-race, but the Lord Windermere team then had to survive an agonising stewards’ inquiry after veering into On His Own who, in turn, hampered the fast finishing The Giant Bolster.
Culloty’s contorted face during the tense 10 minute inquiry told its own story.
Victorious exactly a decade ago when he piloted the great Best Mate to his historic third Gold Cup, he became the fourth man in racing history – after Fred Winter, Pat Taaffe and Jonjo O’Neill – to ride and train the winner of the blue riband race. However, this only tells part of the story.
Russell, who spent his formative years with Ferdy Murphy in West Witton before returning to his native Ireland, is now racing’s comeback king – he’s the modest man who suffered the ignominy on New Year’s Eve of being sacked as retained rider to Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary’s powerful Gigginstown House Stud.
He never complained and his career now has a new lease of life and, in an ironic twist, Russell’s day of destiny began with victory in the JCB Triumph Hurdle on Tiger Roll because his young successor at Gigginstown, Bryan Cooper, had broken his leg on Wednesday.
Next On His Own, the gallant runner-up for Willie Mullins and a late inclusion in the race. His jockey David Casey was third choice after Ruby Walsh broke his upper right arm in the Triumph and then Paul Townend had the courage to declare himself unfit – he, too, had been hurt in the melee which leaves Walsh on the sidelines for months.
And then The Giant Bolster, pushed widest of all after six horses had jumped the final fence while still in contention. His jockey Tom Scudamore had fallen heavily at the final flight of the preceding race and nearly been crushed by his horse.
Of the remainder, the well-backed Silviniaco Conti was fourth – he just didn’t stay out the trip – while reigning champion Bobs Worth was fifth, his first defeat in six starts at the home of National Hunt racing. Sue Smith’s Cloudy Too was well beaten when unseating his jockey Jonathan England at the last.
At least their fate was clear cut. Yet, despite the Dr Ronan Lambe-owned Lord Windermere adding the Gold Cup to his RSA Chase triumph of 12 months ago, the conjecture will linger as On His Own’s trainer Mullins considers whether to lodge an appeal.
Should Lord Windermere have kept the race? A lesser race on a lesser track and the placings would probably have been reversed.
Would On His Own have won with Ruby Walsh in the saddle? A tough call, but Walsh is the Cheltenham Festival’s winning-most rider. However the horse’s owner, Graham Wylie, could not have been more sporting in defeat.
And will The Giant Bolster, and his unheralded trainer David Bridgwater, ever get a better chance of winning a Gold Cup?
This horse, which never travelled under Tom Scudamore until the dramatic, race-changing closing stages, has now been placed in the last three renewals.
There was also the irony of Russell and Casey, the first two jockeys home in this frantic finish, to pick up various bans for riding offences,
“What a wonderful horse to be placed in three Gold Cups. I hope he and David Bridgwater get the credit they deserve,” said Scudamore.
But Cheltenham’s roll of honour will always show that the winning trainer and jockey were Jim Culloty and Davy Russell, two men who enjoyed success in Britain before returning to Ireland.
“Halfway around Davy Russell was getting the sack!” Culloty said. “He was beaten 26 lengths at Leopardstown last month, but Davy said take no notice, it will be a different ball game at Cheltenham. I knew he’d take his time but that was waiting tactics exaggerated. I can’t believe it. The horses just weren’t right this season, but God they have come right at the right time.”
Perhaps the calmest person was Russell, who rode Murphy’s Truckers Tavern to a second place finish in the 2003 Gold Cup behind the Culloty-ridden Best Mate. “I was on the best horse in the race. He was very idle, like he was last year,” he said before completing an unlikely 3,926-1 treble aboard Savello in the last.
Yet the most profound word, at the end of an attritional week for so many jockeys, came from the runner-up David Casey.
“It could be worse, I was fortunate to get the ride as two other lads got injured,” he said. “I do genuinely feel that if we’d raced in a straight line I’d have won.”
It said it all.