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How insatiable jockey Davy Russell won in Ireland just hours after Grand National glory

 

By Michael Verney

What's the difference between €576,714 and €8,624? It may be a huge sum of money, but for Davy Russell it's nothing. Winning the Aintree Grand National on Saturday is one thing but to turn up at Tramore yesterday and win the opener is another.

It's a measure of the man that less than 24 hours after achieving his racing dream, he would arrive at the Waterford track with boots and whip in hand, just another day at the office doing what he does best.

It's that insatiable thirst for winners, the hunger for competition and the responsibility of providing for a young family - with a wife and four kids, the most recent of which arrived two weeks ago - that sets him apart.

That drive has helped him enjoy the most remarkable few months of his 16-year professional career after being crowned top jockey at Cheltenham, racing clear in the Irish jockeys' championship (set to become champion for the third time) and now picking up one of the most famous races in the world at the 14th attempt.

Thirteen is unlucky for some but not Russell and when that number was announced over the Aintree tannoy to confirm Tiger Roll's photo-finish victory by a head over the gallant Pleasant Company, dreams finally became reality.

"I was thinking of all the times my dad used to cut the grass and I'd collect them grass cuttings up to make National fences to jump over on my feet in the garden," the 38-year-old Cork pilot, who was the oldest jockey in the race, said fighting back the tears.

"We would have races over them and kick the grass into the air like the spruce flying. I won the National a thousand times in the back garden but never like that!

"My father reared six kids and he'd take me hunting every Saturday when he had other better things to do."

Dedicating the victory to fellow jockey Pat Smullen - who was diagnosed with cancer last month - proclaiming him "as tough as nails so this one's for Pat" and his late mother Phyllis, the showpiece had delivered its usual drama. And that was only the jockey.

What a partner Russell had in the pint-sized Tiger Roll - the smallest horse in the race - with the eight-year-old cementing his place in National Hunt folklore after adding the Grand National to his three Cheltenham Festival victories.

RACING Nat (7).jpg
Just champion: Trainer Gordon Elliot and Grand National Winner Tiger Roll pose for pictures with locals outside Shaw’s Pub during the homecoming parade through Summerhill Village, County Meath, yesterday

It takes two to tango and Pleasant Company was an able sparring partner with the pain of defeat etched all over David Mullins' face as he just fell short of repeating his National glory of two years ago, this time for his uncle Willie.

And what of trainer Gordon Elliott, winning the race for the second time after Silver Birch shot him to fame 11 years ago when the Meath handler hadn't even trained a winner in Ireland as he ventured to far-flung places miles from the bright lights such as Sedgefield and Perth.

It's all change now, however, and in the past five weeks Elliott has taken the Irish Independent Leading Trainer Award at Cheltenham for a second time, hit a record-breaking 200 winners (and counting) for the season in Ireland and won his maiden Irish Grand National with General Principle.

They say success softens your reaction to victory but there were no signs of it from the Cullentra maestro as he kissed the cameras and danced around like a mad man. To see that joy was a sight to behold.

As always, Elliott was quick to deflect praise with a special mention for Keith Donoghue, who rode the horse to Cross Country victory at the Festival but couldn't do 10st 13lbs, and Russell, his old ally of more than 20 years.

"Davy has been a good friend more than anything. He's ridden for me throughout my career, but sometimes we talk about anything else but horses. We lie on the couch and drink tea. Davy's a brilliant man and such a good horseman," Elliott said.

Speaking of tea, Russell was famously relieved of his retained rider's role by winning owners Gigginstown House Stud over a quiet mug, and the resiliency he showed to keep his counsel and knuckle down after losing one of the biggest jobs in racing wasn't lost on connections.

Ryanair chief Michael O'Leary, who was collecting the spoils for the second time in three years after Rule The World's success in 2016, paid tribute to Russell's persistence.

"It's known we've had our ups and our downs," O'Leary remarked.

"He has always come back better than ever. It is not the end of his career, but I think it is marvellous that he can now add the greatest steeplechase to his CV."

O'Leary, who treated passengers to a complimentary drink on their Ryanair flight back from Liverpool on Saturday night, and Elliott have formed a remarkable partnership over the past decade and he always knew the 40-year-old had something special.

"When Gordon first won the National, I thought 'Who the hell is he?', and it was only when he started racking up lots of winners at places like Ayr and Perth that I thought, 'This is something different'," he said.

"We send horses to lots of trainers, and those that train winners get more horses, those that don't get less, and Gordon is setting different standards. To be champion trainer in Ireland in the past you needed to win 50 or 60 races, but now you need to win 100-plus, and he's doing that."

For the second time in a couple of weeks, Elliott chinned old adversary Mullins in a National photo-finish and the only thing that could make the season any better for the Meath trainer is a first Irish trainers' championship.

Another winner at Tramore yesterday - naturally with Russell in the plate in the Gigginstown colours - has his advantage hovering at around €550,000 but it's far from over, as they learned 12 months ago when Mullins rose from the dead.

With the leading trainers generally keeping their powder dry at Aintree with limited runners apart from the National, several big guns are waiting in the wings for the five-day Punchestown Festival as we finish the season in style.

With five of the first six horses home at Aintree being Irish-trained, it truly is a golden era for Irish jumps racing. And next week is certainly going to be one to savour.

Belfast Telegraph

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