Cheltenham Festival: Davy Russell targets Irish success

By Cornelius LysaghtBBC horse racing correspondent
Davy Russell with Last Instalment after winning the Dr. P.J. Moriarty Novice Chase during the Hennessy Gold Cup Day at Leopardstown Racecourse, Ireland.
Jockey Davy Russell is hoping to be leading the pack during this year's Cheltenham Festival

Jockey Davy Russell has more reason than anyone to hope that the powerful and enthusiastic Irish challenge is in flying form for the start of the Cheltenham Festival.

Russell makes the trip to the Cotswolds as not just one of the Republic of Ireland's foremost riders, but also as the number one "pilot" for leading racehorse owner Michael O'Leary, of Ryanair fame.

And the increasingly prolific maroon and white silks of O'Leary's racing operation - Gigginstown House Stud - are fancied to play a major part in some of the Festival's biggest races.

"We've had a great time this year already," says Russell, 32, "but these four days in Cheltenham are what it's all about, and I'm in the great position of having some very nice horses to ride."

Winning novice hurdlers Edeymi, Make Your Mark, Midnight Game, Sea Of Thunder and Trifolium all have plenty of supporters, as do up-and-coming steeplechasers First Lieutenant and Sir Des Champs.

Meanwhile, Magnanimity and Toner D'Oudaries are receiving favourable mentions in calculations for the hotly contested handicap races in which they are scheduled to participate.

Even with the absence because of a sinus problem of Quito De La Roque - rated a future winner of the Gold Cup, a race won in 2006 by O'Leary with War Of Attrition - Gigginstown is expected to build on its record 70-plus winners this season.

Festival regular JP McManus apart, the airline boss's racing outfit will be the biggest at the four-day fixture.

Russell said: "It's not run on a whim, plenty of thought has gone into all this. Michael's brother Eddie is a brilliant buyer of a horse, and they have a good routine.

"Generally the horses will have progressed from Irish point-to-points, and, obviously, it's clear to everyone this is a winning formula."

At the long list of preview panels that the famously shrewd Russell, the winner of eight Festival races since his first in 2006, has attended, his glowing mentions of Sir Des Champs, trained by Willie Mullins, have been striking.

Sir Des Champs (Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Hurdle) was one of Ireland's record total of 13 winners from the 27 races in 2011, but Russell is not quite so optimistic about how his fellow countrymen and women will get on this time around.

"The mood is a little bit more level," he said. "I don't think we will railroad the place, anyway.

"The Irish have a great passion at Cheltenham, but with horses like [British-trained Arkle favourite] Sprinter Sacre, it's much harder; we don't have a horse to take him on.

"Most confidence here is in [trainer] Henry de Bromhead's horse, Sizing Europe, as he goes back, trying to win [the Queen Mother Champion Chase] like last year."

In saying all that, Russell is probably displaying many of the diplomatic skills that are famously employed sparingly by his blunt-speaking boss.

Even if it's not as many as 13, the Irish contingent are almost certain to go home laden with big-race trophies, and it is likely there will be something for Gigginstown House to celebrate.