Tough guy with a soft heart

English Grand National winner Russell dedicates victory to fellow jockey Smullen

Davy Russell's first thoughts after recording his greatest win in a thrilling Grand National at Aintree in Liverpool, England, were not for himself but for fellow jockey Pat Smullen, who was recently diagnosed with a tumour.

"This one is for Pat Smullen," he said. "The man is tough as nails, so this one's for Pat," said the 38-year-old .

Russell, at last, cracked the world's greatest steeplechase at the 14th attempt, just keeping the diminutive Tiger Roll's nose in front of the fast-charging Pleasant Company on Saturday.

His tough guy image earned him the wrong type of headlines last August, when he was caught on camera punching a horse who was having trouble in lining up for a race - he earned a four-day ban for that offence.

"There was no anger involved," he said at his hearing. "There was no malice. I had no anger towards the filly. It was a matter of trying to get her back under control and trying to get her to pay attention."

However, such blows have only energised Russell to bounce back and it is ironic that Tiger Roll is owned by Ryanair chief Michael O'Leary, who delivered the biggest hit to his career five years ago.

Over a cup of tea, O'Leary told Russell he was sacked as his retained jockey after a series of what he believed were below-par rides. Many a jockey in such a perilous sport, where serious injury can be just one fall away, would have walked away but Russell stuck in there.

"When we parted, he could have easily gone in a huff, given up," said O'Leary. "He went back, he had one or two tough years and built himself back up.

"Davy's career has been up and down, characterised by periods of great talent and achievement but also fallow periods. And it's the way he keeps coming back and back again."

Russell, though, is a sentimental soul as well - his post-race celebration of stretching out his arms, and his hands shaking is, he says taken from a film about rodeo riders called "8 Seconds" which is the way one of the protagonists bids farewell to a rival who dies.

Russell is never one to fete himself in victory. After a big win at Cheltenham last month, he sang the praises of his recently deceased mother and he did it again on Saturday.

"She was a marvellous woman, who got me up at six in the morning and would drive me round the country," he said.

His father, too, got a mention as well though for his inadvertent role in stirring dreams of National glory in his son.

"The only time I ever enjoyed scooping up the grass when my father cut it was in the spring and I would make it into National fences," said Russell. "I won the National a thousand times."

On Saturday, those dreams became reality but, ever the realist, he accepted what could have been the flip side had Pleasant Company got up to beat him.

"If I'd finished second, I'd be a long ways out of the racecourse by this stage, disappointed with myself," he said. "But I didn't and I'm here, and everybody wants to talk to me." - AFP