In the saddle


Ashley Redmond talks to Davy Russell, a jockey riding for Gordon Elliott, about  the Cheltenham festival.

“There’s Bethlehem and Cheltenham.” These wise words, sung by Christy Moore, sum up the importance and emphasis put on the Cheltenham horse racing festival. Apart from perhaps the Aintree Grand National, it is probably the best known horse racing spectacle, attracting millions of spectators from Ireland and further afield. At Cheltenham, everything is done on a mammoth scale; big money, big names and big wins. There is also an element of rivalry and tradition between the English and Irish, as each camp tries to gain the greatest number of winners over the four climatic days.

Cheltenham is as much a platform for judging horses as it if for assessing jockeys. Speaking to the University Observer, Horse Racing Ireland’s National Hunt Ambassador for 2012, Davy Russell, gave an insight into his daily routine at the festival. Russell is a jockey with a reputation for being a great horseman and skilled rider, having narrowly missed out on champion jockey titles in the past few years, beaten by a short head by the likes of Ruby Walsh and Paul Townend. Russell is first jockey to the famous Gigginstown House Stud, owned by Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary. This highly productive team yields great results on the race course and any horses they send across the water will definitely be watched closely by racing punters.

The much publicised road to Cheltenham can be a long one, and when asked about his plans for the historic sporting event, Russell said: “I’ll probably go over there on either Sunday night or Monday morning, get my accommodation, get myself sorted and get everything I need ready for the week and kind of try and treat it as if I’m back home riding out. I’ll go in and ride out every morning and then do some media stuff as well. One of the days I have to go on Channel 4, for the Morning Line interview, so I’ll have to pencil that in! Once I’m finished at the track, I get everything organised for the next day’s racing. Then I just go back to my accommodation, sit down, watch a bit of TV and just relax.”

Whether Russell will have to lose weight for the festival will depend on what horses he’s riding. While the ritualistic time of Lent is now upon us, and many of us strive to give up those treats we crave so much, our efforts really do pale in comparison to a jockey’s diet. It’s a well known fact that what jockeys lack in height they make up for in strength and stamina, however this is not enough, as they need to maintain a very low weight. Russell is not any different: “I’d probably go for a walk around the track [before a race]. I would never go there with any huge amount of weight to lose; I’d have a cup of tea rather than something more substantial and then I’d go have a hot bath and sweat it off that way.”

Cheltenham is renowned for its reverberating atmosphere, and the roar of Cheltenham has a lasting effect on those that attend. They arrive back exhausted, with hands in empty pockets, uttering phrases like ‘you had to be there’. Russell believes that Cheltenham isn’t just an event for the winning punter, “It’s about speaking to the owners and stuff like that and meeting people and kind of enjoying the atmosphere there too. You really need to just get out and enjoy it.”

With the biggest event in the National Hunt racing calendar around the corner, Russell would be forgiven for feeling nervous, but instead looks forward to it: “I’d be more excited now than nervous. I think the nerves are kind of gone out of it like, especially when you’ve a number of horses to ride. I’d be nervous maybe if I only had the one ride. It’s more looking forward to it than anything else.”

To ride at this level and compete at such a fast pace in horse racing, nerves of steel are a pre-requisite. On the back of continued success from the Gigginstown House Stud, each of their horses have a strong chance of winning, and on their back will be an excellent rider.