As tension builds on the eve of the Cheltenham Festival, one man who is remaining ice cool is former Irish champion jockey Davy Russell.
“There’s no point going into the Festival with your hopes too high – if you do, you’re in for a rude awakening.
“If you fancy one horse too much, you’ll end up going home with your tail tucked firmly between your legs.
“I know it sounds like a cliche, but I just go to Cheltenham and treat it like any other race meeting.
“That’s easier said than done, but I suppose it comes with experience.”
Russell – who has ridden 14 Festival winners – doesn’t underestimate the importance of Cheltenham in the calendar.
“Nothing beats Cheltenham," he adds. "It is quite simply the best four days racing anywhere in the world and to ride a winner there means everything to a jockey.
“You can have 50 or 60 winners during the season, but miss the target at the Festival and it goes down as a bad year.
“On the flip-side, you could have a terrible campaign with a handful of winners, yet you land just one at Cheltenham and you’ll be over the moon.”
The 36-year-old from County Cork never went to Prestbury Park as a kid, but he still has plenty of memories from his childhood.
“It was always a pilgrimage for my dad and I saw it as some kind of mystical place," he says.
“He’d always come home with a present if he’d had a good year – I’ve still got a toy Land Rover jeep with a horsebox behind it.
“My first memory horse-wise was Dawn Run when she won the Gold Cup in 1986.
“I was amazed by the crowds. You couldn’t even see the mare coming back in, it was just Jonjo [O’Neill] on top of her.”
It was as an amateur that Russell had his first taste of Cheltenham when he finished sixth on Toni’s Tip for Ferdy Murphy in the 2000 Kim Muir.
“I couldn’t believe the speed they were going. I always thought they were going too quick and they’d have to stop, but they didn’t," he recalls.
“It’s such a unique course and it’s very challenging to ride. You have to be careful not to overdo the waiting tactics, while also making sure you don’t ride too aggressively.
“There’s a long way home from the top of the hill and I always say that if you use energy to get down the hill you’ve got no chance of getting back up it.”
Russell had to wait six years for his first Festival winner when Native Jack took the Cross Country Chase, but his crowning moment was winning the Gold Cup on Lord Windermere two years ago.
“The Gold Cup is the race every jockey wants to win," he says. "I’d won the RSA Chase on Lord Windermere the year before, but he had disappointed since then and was one of the outsiders on the day.
“The race didn’t actually go as planned. I decided that my horse couldn’t go any quicker so I waited at the back and hoped that he’d pick up coming round the home turn. Luckily he did.”
That success in racing’s blue riband event capped a remarkable period for the jockey.
Just a couple of months earlier he’d lost his job as retained rider for the powerful Gigginstown House Stud.
However, with new No1 Bryan Cooper suffering an injury on the Wednesday, Russell was drafted back in by his former employers.
He won the Triumph Hurdle on Tiger Roll and the closing Grand Annual with Savello, sealing a remarkable Gold Cup day treble.
And then 12 months on he landed a Wednesday double with Windsor Park in the Neptune and Rivage D’Or in the Cross Country Chase.
“The last two Festivals have gone really well, I couldn’t have asked for more. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to continue that way," he adds.
“I’ve got some nice rides this year, though, and hopefully I’ll pick up a fair few in the handicaps and maybe even a couple in the big ones.
“Silver Concorde will need to improve in tomorrow’s Supreme Novices’, but the more the ground dries out the better his chance will be.
“First Figaro has a decent chance in the Bumper and I’ve been pleased with Zabana lately who will go for the JLT.
“He’s another who will enjoy decent ground and he ran an absolute cracker at the Festival last year.”
The highlight of the week is Friday’s Cheltenham Gold Cup where one of the leading contenders is the Gigginstown-owned Don Cossack.
Russell knows the nine-year-old well, having won the Grade One Drinmore Novices’ Chase on him, and he schooled him recently at Leopardstown.
If Cooper chooses to ride Don Poli, as many people believe, Russell is in A1 position to step in for the ride.
“He’s the real deal and we’ve thought that from day one. The forecast drying ground will certainly help him," he says.
“He was just getting into it at Kempton when he came down two out in the King George and would have gone very close.
“Although he hasn’t won at Cheltenham yet, he was unlucky in the Ryanair last year and he wants this sort of trip these days.
“It’s a very open and high class race, but he certainly goes there with every chance.”
Russell is a man for the big occasion and if connections turn to him for the Don Cossack ride, the man from Cork could be celebrating a second Gold Cup in three years.
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