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Horse Racing: Davy Russell's retirement signals end of a racing era

Top-class National Hunt rider Davy Russell called time on his career in the saddle on Sunday afternoon after a winner at Thurles and, with him, a generational door closed for jumps fans.

Russell was the last remaining bastion of a high-calibre weighing room era that included the likes of Ruby Walsh, AP McCoy, Barry Geraghty, Paul Carberry and Richard Johnson.

Like those peers, he's taken his leave of absence now - but what an indelible mark they left on the sport of racing.

Russell follows Tiger Roll to the exit door

It's just nine months since Russell was on board Tiger Roll when they met with an agonising final defeat at the Cheltenham Festival in March.

Through their back-to-back wins in the Grand National at Aintree in 2018 and 2019, Tiger Roll and Russell became household names to a whole new audience outside of racing's bubble.

They were denied the perfect send-off in the Cross Country race at Cheltenham in March, foiled late on by Jack Kennedy and Delta Work - and it's the young Kerryman that will now be expected to fill Russell's shoes as leading rider to trainer Gordon Elliott.

Speaking at Punchestown on Monday, Elliott revealed that Kennedy had a tear in his eye on Sunday evening talking about Russell, the man that has been "his idol since he was 11-years-old".

Delta Work, meanwhile, is 2/1 to land a second Cross Country win at Cheltenham on 15th March.

Tiger Roll is the horse that will always be associated with Russell's career after their successive Aintree wins in the world's most recognisable jumps race.

"I'll never forget my first winner and I'll never forget my last but it's hard to get away from Tiger Roll," he said at Thurles.

Happy going out on his own terms

Russell called time on his career at 43, ending a 23-year stint as a jockey.

He won the featured Billy Harney Memorial Irish EBF Mares Novice Hurdle on the Elliott-trained Liberty Dance - the 1,579th and final winner - before confirming his decision to quit with immediate effect.

Russell's signature wave and glance to the heavens - a homage to a western movie that he became so well known for - was the signal that this was no ordinary winner.

"It's been a special time and it's great to do it here. Thurles is kind of like the centre of our sport," he stated.

His first winner came on Right'N'Royal for trainer Michael O'Connor at Gowran Park in May 1999, while seven years passed before The Railway Man gave him his maiden victory at Grade 1 level in 2006 - the same year that Native Jack won the Cross Country at Cheltenham - his first Festival success in the Cotswolds.

In total, he rode 25 Cheltenham Festival winners and was leading rider in 2018, while he was also Champion jump jockey three times in Ireland (2011-12, 2012-13 and 2017-18).

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'Never worked a day'

The word seemingly most commonly assigned to Russell was 'horseman', a testament to his relationship with the animals.

Elliott suggested that Russell "came to life on the big days" too, a homage to the man that rode a winner at every Cheltenham Festival from 2006-2018 - a remarkable streak.

In amongst them was 2014 Gold Cup winner Lord Windermere for trainer Jim Culloty. On that afternoon, Russell's partner never seemed to be travelling with much enthusiasm and they'd have been an afterthought to most onlookers, but the canny rider hunted around and got the 20/1 shot to come with a fine run up the home straight to win in a photo finish.

Speaking at Punchestown on Monday, Jack Kennedy said: "I was always drawn to him, just from the first time I ever went racing - I wanted to ride like him.

"He was one of the most natural horsemen you'd ever see. You'd never see a horse keen with him, and he was a great man to get a horse jumping for him. That Gold Cup on Lord Windermere was a serious ride, that would stand out for me."

His 2018 win on Presenting Percy by contrast was a masterclass in a cool and calculated destruction as they outclassed the RSA Chase field.

In a heartfelt statement Russell released on Sunday, he suggested being a jockey was a job but he'd never felt it was hard going.

He said: "I'm sad to be giving up something I've been lucky enough to have called a job for so long, but the truth is I've never actually worked a day in my life."

Back from the brink

The latter end of his career as a top jockey was a testament to the determination and iron will required to succeed in the sport.

He was seriously injured in 2020 when falling in the Munster National at Limerick, with the resulting neck injury including fractured and dislocated vertebrae that required surgery and a long period of recovery.

Beyond his 40th birthday and pictured at the races in a brace looking uncomfortable doing punditry, many felt Russell's time was up. He had other ideas and was seemingly hell-bent on getting back to full fitness, once the medics told him it could be done.

After missing the 2021 Cheltenham Festival, Russell returned to the saddle last September following an 11-month absence.

He won the Irish Gold Cup in February on Elliott's Conflated with a masterful ride from the front this time and had proved to one and all he still had the fire burning inside.

Over and out

While Frankie Dettori announced a year-long farewell in recent days, following the McCoy route into retirement, Russell emulated Walsh with a winning ride and a sharp 'goodbye' on the track.

He had the career he couldn't even dream about and, on bowing out, there was praise too for Michael O'Leary - the man that once famously sacked him as retained jockey over a cup of tea - though they went on to have plenty more glory together afterwards.

"I dreamed about it (a career as a successful jockey), but never thought my dreams would come to fruition," he said.

"There must also be a special mention for Gigginstown - Michael, Anita, Eddie and Wendy (O'Leary).

"You gave me the opportunity and trusted in me, taking me to places and to days I could only ever have dreamed about. You took me to the next level. You let me ride a remarkable little warrior called Tiger Roll. The horse of my lifetime."

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