herald

Sunday 17 December 2017

Davy relaxed but prepared for war

Russell tunes up for Festival with warning to Irish fans to have patience

"It's The Favourites out in front, followed by Lady Gaga on the rails (ooh er!) and Boyzone in a bunch!"

Jockey Davy Russell had a dream last night and in it a voice on the radio tipped him for big things. "I'm hoping to be No1 at the end of the week," he says.

Despite being ranked among the top five or six riders expected to become top jockey in this year's Festival, Davy isn't claiming he'll better the tally of the highly fancied Ruby Walsh or Barry Geraghty.

The Youghal man is talking about going to No1 in the pop charts with the single Cheltenham, a good humoured remake of the old Petula Clark hit Downtown.

It seems like almost everyone in national hunt racing gets a look in on this charity fund-raiser. "Laura Critchley who sings the song is very good," says Davy. "As for the rest of us, well, there's a lot of crows on the chorus. But it's amazing what they can do with technology these days."



phenomenal

The proceeds from the single (you can even download a karaoke version on iTunes) go to four worthwhile racing charities so everyone associated with the sport is hoping The Favourites gallop to the top by the weekend.

Curiously, despite a phenomenal year for the Irish at last year's festival with nine Festival winners, 13 Irish-bred winners and five Irish jockeys nabbing the first five places in the leading jockey table, Irish punters are optimistic the visitors will turn in another remarkable performance this year.

Russell, who ranked fifth in the jockey's table last year, relishes the Festival. "I can't wait for it to start," he told me last night. "The sooner the better. They've been watering the track. They're trying to maintain a bit of nice ground."

To those of us who marvel at the electricity that crackles through the crowd at each of the four days of the Festival, and who still get shivers down the spine as the roar goes up at 1.30pm on the first day when the announcer says, "And they're off!", it's a surprise to see how relaxed a top jockey can be.

The man who nailed the "real politic" of being a jockey when he declared, "You're out there on your own. There's no back up," now tells me, "We enjoy it."

"The pressure eases off," insists the man who put himself through agony when he failed to win the Ryanair Chase on Mossbank two years ago. "It's more enjoyable than people would imagine."

"It's going to be an interesting and highly competitive Festival this year," predicts Davy. "What with the likes of Dunquib and , of course, Willie Mullins has a very good team over this year. But, you know, none of them (Irish favourites) could win. It could be that kind of way. It's always very tough at Cheltenham."



speculation

War of Attrition (in the World Hurdle on Thursday) is another of Davy's mounts that's encouraging speculation among the travelling Irish punters. "He's going well at the minute," says Davy.

If he can bring the 2006 Gold Cup winner in ahead of the field then surely Mouse Morris will be credited with one of the master training performances of the year.

But perhaps it's on another of Michael O'Leary's horses, Carlito Brigante (in the Triumph Hurdle on Friday), that Russell has his best chance of a win. Despite an impressive record of winners in Ireland and England this season, trainer Gordon Elliott has yet to win at the Festival.

Russell is star performer. Put him on a half decent horse and he'll almost always get the very best out of him. Like most jockeys who aren't called Ruby, Davy's book of rides is a bit of a moveable feast. "I'll have between 10 and 15 rides at the Festival," he says.

A Festival horse that Davy hasn't been slow in enthusing about is the Tom George-trained Tell Massini, who'll be going in the Alfred Bartlett Hurdle on Friday. On a bit of a winning streak, he won over three miles on soft ground at Cheltenham in December.

A talented horse, Davy's nap has set tongues wagging in racing circles, with some even claiming to know a man who has a full sister to this in Cork.

Davy Russell has had a Festival winner every year since 2006 (two in 2008). He's had his fair share of second places too. If he adds to his quota this year, some connections somewhere might just get to hear a few choruses of American Pie. The old Don McLean hit is a Russell party piece and if The Favourites are looking for a follow-up to this year's single, they could do worse that give Davy a call.

The locals here have been enthusing about another Irish musical act that's just headlined the local Town Hall. The Dubliners have been bringing the house down since the days when Arkle was bringing home successive Gold Cups ('64, '65 and '66).

Legendary racing commentator Peter O'Sullevan once famously described Arkle as "a freak of nature". Many of the trendy young "nu-folk" enthusiasts over here have been saying much the same thing to me about banjo king Barney McKenna.



excuses

It's a pity The Dubliners aren't back during the Festival. Not that there aren't enough excuses to be found for a knees-up in this town.

One winner (winner alright!) will do the trick. And, as you know, there's a madcap Festival atmosphere every day. And night.

While there are no official figures to hand, the Irish contingent seem to be taking this opportunity to exorcise thoughts of NAMA, Brian Cowen's diminishing majority and the HSE's sordid record of incompetence.

There'll be over ten thousand hotel (and guest house) beds filled every night here. The local economy is reckoned to benefit in excess of £50 million.

So here it is upon us again. The day race fans have been waiting for since this time last year. The start of the Festival that Noel Meade has described as being like "an All-Ireland final and an international match".

As I watched many of Ireland's top trainers troop into this well- proportioned Regency town yesterday with their tactics and strategies held close to their chest, it was easy to get a sense of the anticipation. That whiff of cordite that once so intoxicated generals on the eve of battle.

What lies ahead for all concerned, from today until the Grand Annual Chase Challenge Cup at 5.15 on Friday, is as Jonjo O'Neill once put it, "Years of agony and moments of glory".

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