Russell perfect for stealth test on Abragante

In a golden generation of jump jockeys, the eminence of Ruby Walsh can be usefully gauged by the opportunities being seized in his absence. The most obvious beneficiary remains Sam Thomas, who hopes to build on his achievements last weekend when riding Denman, the favourite, in the Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup at Newbury on Saturday. But the man who rides Denman's chief rival, Abragante, finds himself in a position to make a defining breakthrough of his own.

In three seasons since returning to his native land, Davy Russell has finished fourth, third and second to Walsh in the Irish jump jockeys' championship. All the portents suggest that he will maintain the logic of that sequence by claiming his first title this time and not merely because Walsh is now sidelined until Christmas.

Last season, Walsh rode 125 winners in Ireland, and Russell 79. Remarkably, however, this time round Russell matched that tally as early as last Saturday, when Kilcrea Castle won at Gowran Park. With Walsh stuck on 73, and obliged to divide his time between Ireland and Britain, the title is Russell's for the taking.

"We have five months left," he said yesterday. "All you can do is take it day by day, ride as many winners as you can, and whatever else that gets you, you'll accept. I will just keep going as hard as the body can take it. The more winners I ride, the more I want. Hunger's the best horse."

He had come here to satisfy that craving, and in the process to land a gamble for Charles Byrnes, the Co Limerick trainer, on Merchent Paddy . The job done, Russell turned his thoughts to Saturday, and could not suppress a sense of redemption since his time in Britain with Ferdy Murphy.

"I started riding winners when I was 19, as an amateur," he said. "The nine years since is a long time. Obviously you can either improve as you go along, or find a level. Luckily I've had some real good people around me to keep me on the straight and narrow. Looking back, I would say I just wasn't mature enough when I was with Ferdy. He definitely put me in the right direction."

Not that he was ever a hell-raiser he does not drink and nor was he anything remotely approaching a failure for Murphy, counting second on Truckers Tavern in the 2003 Cheltenham Gold Cup among their shared achievements. But he was not yet equal to the rigours of riding seven days a week. "All credit to the jockeys here for their professionalism," he said. "Over in Ireland we have an average of three meetings a week. Otherwise you might be schooling, or else doing something you shouldn't."

Russell, from the charming seaside town of Youghal, Co Cork, had made his name in point-to-points. Young amateurs in Ireland do not ride against mere dilettantes, and he was always considered an unusual talent, albeit he still felt raw when joining Murphy.

"Every point-to-point race is over three miles, it's a staying race," he said. "Riding over two miles, I thought you're going to have to be handier here. But I learned that you have to ride every horse accordingly, to mix and match. I was trying to ride every horse the same."

The stealthy, sympathetic style with which he feels so comfortable itself owes something to that slow blossoming. "I suppose it might reflect on me as a young one," he said. "I'm not sure I would have responded too well to having a stick waved in my face. There's some you have to do that. But the majority will help you out if you give them a bit of a chance."

Certainly this approach qualified Russell as a natural substitute for the suspended Timmy Murphy on Abragante, who is not necessarily the most ferocious of battlers off the bridle. "Timmy thought I might suit the horse," he said. "He does have a nice weight, but remember it's a big step up, he has his penalty to carry, and a couple of real nice horses to deal with."

Russell's hopes of a big win on these shores last winter had foundered when Cailin Alainn, a mare also trained by Byrnes, took successive falls at Cheltenham. "She was so unlucky," Byrnes reflected. "Unfortunately she hurt herself on the Flat at Galway and now she won't be back in before mid-February. If she's ready in time for Cheltenham, she'll go, but otherwise we'll be looking at Punchestown and Fairyhouse."

The latter venue holds its big winter meeting this weekend, staging three Grade One races in barely an hour on Sunday. Glencove Marina and Ebaziyan, both trained by Willie Mullins, are among the acceptors for the Ballymore Properties Hatton's Grace Hurdle, but William Hill yesterday chalked up Aitmatov as 5-2 favourite.

Chris McGrath

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