Resilience is needed for any Grand National victory and Davy Russell finally got his reward here for proving perhaps the only employee Michael O’Leary could not get rid of. Just over four years ago, O’Leary called time on their relationship as owner and principal jockey but Russell rode his way back into the Ryanair man’s good books, leading to this shared moment of glory in the biggest jumps race of them all.
Russell seemed at a low ebb in December 2013, when O’Leary fired him over the most famous cup of tea in the history of Irish jumps racing. He was in his mid-30s, at an age when many a fine rider has decided to do something less dangerous, and O’Leary was not the only one who felt the jockey should have been more effective on the track.
But, when asked at the time what he would do next, Russell made it clear that stopping was not in his thoughts. “The same as I do every other day, try and take over the world,” he said.
“When we parted,” O’Leary said here, “he could have easily gone in a huff, given up. He went back, he had one or two tough years and started riding out for Charles Byrnes and Gordon [Elliott, the winning trainer] and built himself back up. This year he’s been riding better than ever before. It’s the way he keeps bouncing back. He wasn’t particularly good on Petit Mouchoir at Cheltenham, where they went off like scalded cats, and he’d say that himself. But he keeps going and keeps delivering. I think the person I feel happiest for today is Davy.
“He’s in a group of elite Irish jockeys, there’s Ruby Walsh, Barry Geraghty, Paul Carberry was one of them before he retired. Barry and Ruby have always been champion jockeys, winning all the best races. Davy’s career has been up and down, characterised by periods of great talent and achievement but also fallow periods. And it’s the way he keeps coming back and back again.”
Russell’s craggy features might make him look dour, and the public perception of him is probably as one of the hard men of the weighing room. But he has used his moments of greatest triumph, here and after winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup on Lord Windermere, to acknowledge those he has lost, performing an idiosyncratic wave to the heavens that he copied from a film called 8 Seconds.
Years ago, he acknowledged an unnamed friend he lost as a child. After a success at last month’s Cheltenham Festival, he paid tribute to his mother, who had died days before. He dedicated this win to his friend Pat Smullen, a Derby-winning Flat jockey who was diagnosed with a tumour last month.
“I was speaking to him the other morning and he’s as tough as nails,” Russell said. Clutching the trophy, he added: “What would I give to be sharing this with my mother?”
But mere inches separated triumph from disaster and Russell said he had not known, crossing the line, that he had won. “I saw a lot of him [Pleasant Company, the runner-up] and usually you don’t see that much of a horse. And I really think I just got to the line.”
Had he been beaten, he would have blamed the decision to “wake up” Tiger Roll on the run to the final fence, mindful of the horse’s reputation as “a bit of a monkey”.
“He had fallen a little bit asleep on me going to the second-last and I’d saved a lot throughout the race. I needed to wake him up and he came alight with me and winged the last. There was a long way to go and, to be fair to the horse, he was brave.”
That decision to press on cost Tiger Roll precious energy and he tired so badly in the last 100 yards that he was almost collared. “That’s the choice I made,” Russell reflected. “Obviously it wasn’t the best choice to make but there was a reason behind doing it.
“If I’d finished second, I’d be a long ways out of the racecourse by this stage, disappointed with myself. But I didn’t and I’m here and everybody wants to talk to me.”