Davy Russell was never not coming back. Not when he broke his neck. Not when the shock from his fall in the 2020 Munster National shot down his arm and out through his finger and thumb with such a bang that it felt like a firework had gone off in his hand. Not when he was in traction, which is the fancy name given to lying on the flat of his back with bolts drilled into his head and bags of water hanging off them.
If he was ever going to consider retirement, it would have been then. When the hours would pass and all he could do was stare at the ceiling and wait for the nurse to come and add more water to the bags, elongating his spine that extra bit more. Or, as he puts it: “Like the last scene in Braveheart where they have William Wallace tied up and they’re stretching him away.”
But no. Even then, it never occurred to him to end his riding career. Not even when the surgeon explained to him how fortunate he had been, how 90 per cent of people with his injury end up paralysed for life. How, when he was speared head-first into the ground, it was only a matter of millimetres that saved him.
By pure luck, his vertebrae fractured backwards and away from his spinal cord instead of forwards and in on top of it. Regardless, none of that spooked him. He never wondered how much more luck he had left to push.
“No, that’s not that way I was thinking,” he says. “I wasn’t in that 90 per cent so I wasn’t in that mindset. I was in the 10 per cent of people who were fine after it. And Jesus, I was so happy to be in it. But I wasn’t going to dwell on it.
“Very close friends of mine ended up being paralysed or in really bad situations after falls so I know the dangers and I know what can go wrong. But I was lucky enough to come down on the right side of it so it just wasn’t in my make-up or mindset to think about that. I was told I’d be able to ride again so that was good enough for me.”
This will all seem entirely deranged to most people. To the outside world, to anyone with a family, even just to those of a similar age who can’t tog out for a game of five-a-side these days without paying for it through half the week that follows. Russell is 42 and has four kids under the age of eight. Time would be ticking on anyway, broken neck or no broken neck.
He, Ruby Walsh and Barry Geraghty all turned 42 within a few months of each other last year. Walsh retired in 2019, Geraghty finished up in 2020. Russell came closer to catastrophe than either of them, yet he's the only one still in the plate. Surely someone who had his ear at least wondered if it was wise?
“They didn’t say it to my face if they were thinking of it,” he says. “My wife certainly didn’t so that was all that mattered. There were plenty of people thinking it, I’m sure. And it would have been for my benefit that they were thinking that way.
“But you have to remember, since I could put on my own socks, all I wanted to do was ride horses. You ride horses and that’s fine. And then you ride in races, and that’s fine too. And then you ride winners and that’s great.
“But then you ride winners at Cheltenham. And you get on a good horse. And I don’t know what it’s like to run out in Croke Park or Wembley Stadium or Anfield but I do know what it’s like to set foot in the parade ring in Cheltenham or Aintree or Punchestown before a big race on a big day.
“And when you get that, you don’t want to give it back too easy. I just wasn’t ready to do it. I wasn’t ready to give it back. My wife was very supportive of me, Gordon [Elliott] was very supportive of me and sure what more do you want?
“Once they said I’d be able to ride again, I left it at that and didn’t ask too many questions. I didn’t dwell on it. I moved on from there fairly fast. It might have stayed in other people’s minds for a while but my mind moved on pretty quickly to getting back riding. It’s the only thing I know how to do.”
That last bit isn’t strictly true, of course. You know this if you watched Russell as a pundit on RTÉ during his 11 months off or if you’ve ever caught him smart-alecking away on the Cheltenham preview circuit. He has a deep knowledge of the breeding side of the industry and will be buying and selling horses for years to come, whether he is riding them or not. He is a race-rider, yes. But he’s a farmer and a storyteller and a fierce lover of rural life too.
Russell grew up in a family of six children in Cork and while everyone had an interest in horses, none of the rest of them took to riding like he did. Straight away, it was a language he could get on his ear more naturally than all the others. So in a busy house, he’d often take himself away on the pony across the fields. Out there, whatever happened, happened.
“Basically it was, when you got a fall, you got up as quick as you could and you were either tough enough or you weren’t. And from a very young age, that was the way you thought. So if I got a fall off a pony, I didn’t go into the house to tell my father I got a fall off a pony. I went in to tell him I got back up again. It’s the difference between complaining about being sore and showing you were able to get back up and keep going. That never really leaves you.”
His father went to Cheltenham every year. This was back in the 1980s, when the festival was three days long and the Irish contingent was small, devoted and thrilled to be out in the wild. For years in the Russell house there was a framed picture of Gerry Russell smiling out from the seat of a tractor lawnmower and eventually, when he was old enough, Davy managed to get him to explain.
“Basically, he made a bet with a fella the night before that he would drive this lawnmower to Cheltenham. Like, nobody even had a tractor lawn mower at the time so I don’t know where it came from. But he got it and he drove it to Cheltenham. It was 25 miles! Up the motorway!
“But he did it anyway. He drove it up and parked it between a Rolls Royce and a Bentley. That’s the way he told it to us anyway. He always said the only regret he had was that he didn’t take it out onto the track and drive it up the finishing hill. ‘I’d have got an awful round of applause if I done it that way,’ he said.
“My mother was a saint, she was a marvellous woman. I adored the ground she walked on. Some paper rang my mother to tell her that her husband was after winning an award in Cheltenham for the most outrageous act of the festival after he drove a lawnmower up the motorway. And she just went, ‘Well, if that’s what he wants to do, I’m quite busy here with six children so good luck to him and I hope he enjoys himself.’”
So you wonder why he is still going and the answers reveal themselves like the symbols on a scratch card. The bit of toughness is in there, the bit of madness too. Not unimportantly, he’s still a brilliant rider. On the all-time Cheltenham list, only Walsh, Geraghty and Tony McCoy have ridden more festival winners than his 25. Of those suiting up in the weighing room on Tuesday week, only Paul Townend (18), Nico De Boinville (13) and Tom Scudamore (10) have double figures against their name.
At the Dublin Racing Festival last month, he finished second in the jockeys’ table with three winners to Townend’s five, including the Gold Cup on Conflated. He and Jack Kennedy will split up the best and brightest from Elliott’s yard between them as the week goes on and he is in with a huge chance to win his second Gold Cup on Galvin. The point is, he’s not still riding just to be involved. He is a factor in the biggest races.
Much of that is down to his partnership with Elliott. They first knew each other as young amateur riders back at the end of the 1990s. Russell went on to have the career both of them were dreaming of, Elliott went on to build one neither could have imagined possible.
When the horrendous photo of Elliott sitting on a dead horse went around the world in the run-up to Cheltenham last year, it was Russell who came out to bat for him. He couldn’t and wouldn’t defend the photo. But he didn’t think twice about standing up for his friend.
“I wasn’t worried for him,” Russell says now. “I know him too well. He was always going to get to the other side of it. Worried is the wrong way of thinking about it. But I understood the seriousness of it. That’s definitely true. I most certainly understood the seriousness of it.
“But whether I doubted his future? No, I never, ever doubted him, not for one second. I was aware of the magnitude of it all, absolutely. And of the effect it had on him. I was very aware of that. But I knew he would get out the other side. I think since then, he has a sharper awareness of things. He was very honest about it. He just wanted a chance to move on and he has been given a chance and he’s taking it.”
For his own part, Russell goes to Cheltenham now as royalty. He first competed at the festival in 2000, riding as an amateur for Ferdy Murphy. The horse was called Toni's Tip and it finished sixth in the Kim Muir. To look down the list of riders now, 22 years on, is to see a lot of stories waiting to be told. Elliott rode the favourite Shannon Gale but came down halfway round. Russell's late, great friend JT McNamara finished down the field on a Martin Pipe horse. Just kids, green as the grass beneath them.
“I’d say I wasn’t even 20 yet,” Russell laughs. “If I was on a plane, it was probably only once or twice before that. I arrived over and I had nowhere to stay, I barely even owned a suit - I think I had to go looking for a tie.
"I had no bed anyway, I know that. I'll never forget it, Ted Walsh gave me a bed for the night to sort me out. I didn't know what sterling was, I wouldn't have really known about passports or any of that stuff. And then, when you put all that aside, you just go there and you ride the horse and you do your best."
It’s all he’s ever done. It took six years for him to win a race over there and then he won at least one every year until 2019. He’ll usually find a way to get one home in the handicaps, albeit that the Gold Cup and the Triumph Hurdle are probably his best shouts of the 2022 edition.
Whether it’s his last one or not, he isn’t saying. Enough people have popped the question for him to have his answer ready and he’s well fit to find touch with his kick at this stage. Probe him on it and he’ll convince you that he genuinely doesn’t know himself.
“Ah look, people ask me this and all I can say is that I had my chance to retire and I didn’t take it. So whether it happens two years from now or a couple of weeks from now, it will be whatever it is. I just know it’s not today. That’s all I know for sure.
“I don’t want it to sound like I don’t care whether I retire or not. Of course I care. But I don’t give it any thought. It doesn’t have any value for me on a daily basis. It’s not something that’s playing on my mind. I’m not eyeing up a certain day. I will feel like giving it up the day I give it up.”
That day isn’t here yet so he will go on enjoying himself. Keeping on the right side of lucky. Making sure - or as sure as he can - that he picks the day before the day picks him.