Kevin Blake

With Davy Russell’s stock seemingly falling with leading owners Gigginstown House Stud this season, leading racing writer Kevin Blake puts some flesh on the bones of the much-talked about subject.

  • Monday 11 November
  • Blog
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In recent weeks it has become clearer and clearer that Davy Russell is not being utilised by Gigginstown nearly as much as would have been expected. Any doubts that something had changed were removed when Russell wasn’t given the ride on Delta Work in the Ladbrokes Champion Chase at Down Royal just over a week ago despite having ridden him to win three Grade 1 novice chases last season.

The reason why Russell has seemingly fallen out of favour with Gigginstown doesn’t seem to have been the result of any falling out. When the subject was discussed on the Jumps Season Preview Show a fortnight ago, Mick Fitzgerald rang Davy in advance of the programme to ask him what the story was.

Davy told him there had been no falling out and that his door was very much open to Gigginstown if they wanted to use him. This seems feasible, as if there had been a falling out Gigginstown surely wouldn’t be using him at all, yet they have been using him sporadically and as recently as at Down Royal just over a week ago. 

So, if we are to believe what we are being told, this is more so a case of Russell slipping down Gigginstown’s pecking order. With a view to assessing why this might be the case, it is worth delving into the numbers to search for clues.

Ever since Gigginstown ended Bryan Cooper’s tenure as their retained rider in July 2017, they have opted to use a looser arrangement with their jockeys rather than giving one rider the choice as had been the case with Cooper and with Russell before him.

In practice, those trained by Gordon Elliott tended to be shared by Russell and Jack Kennedy, with Rachael Blackmore riding many of their horses trained by Henry De Bromhead and Joseph O’Brien and Sean Flanagan riding their horses trained by Noel Meade.

This looser arrangement has been working well in the main for Gigginstown. In the context of this discussion, it is important to establish the extent of the role that Davy Russell has played since becoming a part of that arrangement.

Below is a breakdown of all of the rides on Gigginstown horses in Ireland and Britain by jockey, for the last three seasons. The three bars for each rider represent the percentage of the total Gigginstown rides that they each took in 2017/18, 2018/19 and the current season from left to right:

What those numbers show is that while Russell very much came back into the Gigginstown picture in a big way after Cooper was removed as their retained rider in 2017/18, his role for them was already in decline last season, with his share of the total Gigginstown rides having dropped from 18% to 12%.

So, it could be argued that a further reduction in his role this season isn’t the bolt from the blue that many seem to consider it to be.

It is also worth hammering down those numbers to assess Russell’s role on the biggest days during those seasons. In 2017/18, Gigginstown enjoyed 14 Grade 1 successes and in 2018/19 they had 11 such victories. In each of those campaigns Davy Russell rode just three of those winners. Last season, all three of his Grade 1 wins for Gigginstown came on one horse, Delta Work.

In a nutshell, while the exploits of Tiger Roll in the Grand National and a couple of others may have created an impression that Russell was Gigginstown’s go-to man on the biggest days, the breakdown of the statistics suggests that wasn’t the case and that his role for them was in decline as early as last season.

It is purely speculation, but one wonders might last year’s Cheltenham Festival have had a bearing on Gigginstown wanting to shake up their riding arrangements more drastically this season. There has never been any secret made of the fact that Gigginstown value the Cheltenham Festival higher than any other meeting and their success there often defines each season.

Having won a quite remarkable seven of the 28 races at the 2018 meeting, they came down to earth with a bump last March by having just one winner from 39 runners over the four days. Could that have been the catalyst for the changes that are now coming to wider attention?

To this set of eyes, Davy Russell’s riding doesn’t seem to have diminished in any perceptible way in recent years. Indeed, he would still be the one I’d pick out of the weighing room as my favoured big-race jockey on the day that mattered most. However, he turned 40 last June and it is a reality of life and sport that he will not be able to maintain that level forever.

Gigginstown may well have announced their intention to not buy any new horses going forward earlier this year, but such has been the scale of their investment in recent years, they will continue to be a major force in National Hunt racing for anything between three and five years.

The likelihood of Davy Russell remaining at the top of his game that far into the future are slim. Bear in mind, Ruby Walsh retired a couple of weeks before his 40th birthday and AP McCoy retired a few days before his 41st birthday. Davy Russell and Richard Johnson (42) are already outliers amongst outliers in the general population of National Hunt jockeys, but they cannot go on forever.

Given that Gigginstown decided to replace Russell with an up-and-coming Bryan Cooper when Russell was just 34 years of age, it shouldn’t come as a wild surprise to anyone that they seem to be easing back from him at the age of 40.

Some will understandably view that as harsh and lacking in loyalty, but everyone that deals with Gigginstown knows the score. Whether people like or agree with it or not, past glories are no guarantee of future opportunities and sentimentality isn’t a consideration. Davy Russell knows that better than anyone.

With all indications suggesting that Russell’s role for Gigginstown is set to be a reduced one, that brings us to the very pertinent question of Tiger Roll. Russell has won two Grand Nationals on him and it would be considered one of harshest cases of a jocking off in many years if he didn’t get the ride back if Tiger Roll makes it back to Aintree. However, to repeat for emphasis, sentimentality isn’t a consideration for Gigginstown.

Keith Donoghue, whose star seems to be very much on the rise within the Gigginstown operation, rides Tiger Roll every day at home and has ridden him in six of his nine racecourse starts in the last two seasons. It wouldn’t be at all unreasonable to speculate that if Tiger Roll arrives to the gates of history at Aintree in April, Donoghue could well be the one on his back bidding to ride him through them into immortality.

Davy Russell and Tiger Roll after the 2019 Grand National
Will Davy Russell keep the ride aboard Tiger Roll at Aintree this season?

As harsh as that would be on Davy Russell, the flip side would be that it would be the zenith of one of the most remarkable comeback stories of recent times. Donoghue has always struggled with his weight and it all became too much for him when on March 11th 2017 he announced on Twitter that he was taking a break from racing for the foreseeable future.

Three days later, he had to watch the horse he would have been riding, Labaik, win the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.

One can only imagine the depths that merciless situation brought him to. There is little doubt that it would have finished off many a man or woman in racing. So, for Keith to have come back to ride Tiger Roll to win at the last two Cheltenham Festivals and be getting opportunities such as riding Delta Work in the Ladbrokes Champion Chase at Down Royal earlier this month truly is an amazing story of recovery and rise.

If that indeed comes to pass, while there would be great sympathy for Davy Russell, there surely wouldn’t be anyone that could begrudge Donoghue the opportunity of a lifetime after what he has been through.

In terms of what we can expect in the bigger Gigginstown picture in the months ahead, the injury to Jack Kennedy has served to muddy the waters somewhat. Robbie Power was certainly a surprising choice for Apple’s Jade and Abacadabras at Navan on Sunday given that the last two full seasons have only seen him take a total of four rides for Gigginstown. Whether Power become a regular in the maroon and white remains to be seen.

The picture promises to become clearer when Kennedy returns, but given the operation in question here, it wouldn’t be a shock if no real pattern emerges at all. Gigginstown’s intention may well be to keep all their jockeys on their toes by booking rides in a manner that suggests everything is to play for. Who knows, Davy Russell might well be able to play his way back into a bigger role in the team.

Regardless of what the future holds for Davy Russell with his role with Gigginstown and Tiger Roll, he’ll be just fine. He showed the sort of man he is by his response to losing the Gigginstown job back in 2013 and one can be sure that this apparent setback will only serve to spur him on if anything.

In the meantime, one can be certain that there will be plenty of other trainers and owners grateful for the opportunity to capitalise on his increased availability this season.

Kevin Blake
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