Russell's golden moment well worth the wait, Sir
A last-minute injury had robbed Davy Russell of the chance to ride Sir Des Champs at Cheltenham but the jockey ensured he will conclude his season on the highest note as the pair claimed a magnificent renewal of the Tote Punchestown Gold Cup.
Very likely to retain the championship when the season ends this weekend, Russell was hospitalised with a punctured lung and had to watch Tony McCoy take his place at last month's Festival, Willie Mullins' seven-year-old finishing an honourable second to Ulster-bred Bobs Worth.
Third that day was Long Run, and the pair were locked together yesterday over the final couple of fences with a mere three-quarters of a length between them at the line, while First Lieutenant snapped at their heels.
Sir Des Champs has the potential to be a Cheltenham Gold Cup star but he once again required mid-race attention from his jockey to keep pace before regaining momentum.
Russell could see Long Run a fair way ahead of him under another gallant ride from the front by amateur Sam Waley-Cohen but began his charge for glory at the third-last obstacle and looked set for an impressive victory.
Long Run, though, has a proven appetite for racing and forced his way back into contention along the rail, emerging with great credit in a grandstand finish through gruelling conditions.
First Lieutenant, winner of the Betfred Bowl at Aintree earlier this month, was also in with every chance and gave owner Michael O'Leary's Gigginstown House Stud the first and third.
As a result of the fall-out from Cheltenham, Russell was not permitted to ride at Aintree, where he would have been on board First Lieutenant.
Russell said: "I've missed enough Grade One winners and that's important to Gigginstown and for myself.
"You always want to ride in big races and I wasn't disappointed in him at Cheltenham, it was a great run until the last 100 yards and I was very impressed by the winner.
"I was impressed when I rode him in the week, he's tough physically but he's proved he's mentally tough."
Referring to the race, Russell said: "It was tough. I was tipping him along and I was worried that Cheltenham might have taken its toll. I was struggling to move him up on the back straight but he completely filled up again and I had loads left over the last two.
"He's only seven, and if he improves next season and the other fellow (Bobs Worth) stays the same, you never know."
Ryanair chief O'Leary, who employs the cool man from Cork as his stable jockey, was not so sure about turning the tables.
Sir Des Champs is 13-2 with Stan James for next March's Cheltenham showdown.
"I doubt it," O'Leary said. "Bobs Worth has beaten First Lieutenant consistently and he's beaten them all. We probably need younger horses coming through.
"It was a great race, we had the second and third in the Gold Cup fighting out the finish and it shows what a good horse Bobs Worth is.
"Davy gave him a peach of a ride. He was good, and he was positive. We'll enjoy this, and next year is next year."
Trainer Mullins said: "That was a great performance.
"I thought he looked big in the parade ring before the race and I thought we might have let him down too much after Cheltenham.
"I thought we were beat, but Davy got a breather into him and he was a different horse.
"We'll be back to Cheltenham I hope, and we might adjust a few little things next year.
"He has won the Irish Hennessy and this, the two biggest races in Ireland, so it's fantastic."
On his recent problems, Russell said: "I am in the process of being booked in for an operation in a week or two in Dublin.
"I was speaking to the surgery and they're trying to fit me into a slot to try and have a few blisters on my lungs stitched up.
"It happens to a number of people, just walking down the street, and it's just one of those things that happens to you – riding horses isn't going to make it happen."
Meanwhile, Hurricane Fly – owned by Rose Boyd of Crossgar and George Creighton from Belfast – returns to action tomorrow at Punchestown in the Rabobank Champion Hurdle, his first race since regaining the Cheltenham crown.