London — Davy Russell’s first thoughts after recording his greatest win in a thrilling Grand National were not for himself but for fellow jockey Pat Smullen, recently diagnosed with a tumour.
“This one is for Pat Smullen,” he said. “The man is tough as nails so this one’s for Pat,” said the 38-year-old.
Russell cracked the great steeplechase at the 14th attempt, keeping diminutive Tiger Roll’s nose in front of the charging Pleasant Company on Saturday.
His tough-guy image earned him the wrong type of headlines when he was caught on camera last August punching a horse who was having trouble in lining up for a race — he earned a four-day ban for that offence.
“There was no anger involved,” he said at his hearing.
“There was no malice. I had no anger towards the filly. It was a matter of trying to get her back under control and trying to get her to pay attention.”
However, such blows have only energised Russell to bounce back and it is ironic that Tiger Roll is owned by Ryanair chief Michael O’Leary, who delivered the biggest hit to his career five years ago.
Tea and toast
Over a cup of tea, O’Leary told Russell he was sacked as his retained jockey after a series of what he believed were below-par rides.
Many a jockey in such a perilous sport, where serious injury can be just one fall away, would have walked away but Russell stuck in there.
“When we parted he could have easily gone in a huff, given up,” said O’Leary.
“He went back, he had one or two tough years and built himself back up.
“Davy’s career has been up and down, characterised by periods of great achievement but also fallow periods. And it’s the way he keeps coming back and back again.”
Russell, though, is a sentimental soul as well — his post-race celebration of stretching out his arms and his hands shaking is he says taken from a film about rodeo riders called 8 Seconds which is the way one of the protagonists bids farewell to a rival who dies.
Russell is never one to fete himself in victory.
After a big win at Cheltenham in March, he sang the praises of his recently deceased mother and he paid tribute to her again on Saturday.
“She was a marvellous woman, who got me up at six in the morning and would drive me round the country,” he said.
His father too got a mention for his role in stirring dreams of National glory in his son.
“The only time I ever enjoyed scooping up the grass when my father cut it was in the spring and I would make it into National fences,” said Russell.
“I won the National a thousand times.”
On Saturday those dreams became reality but he accepted what could have been the flip side had Pleasant Company got up to edge him out.
“If I’d finished second, I’d be a long way out of the racecourse by now, disappointed.
“But I didn’t and I’m here and everybody wants to talk to me,” he said.