If a poll was taken on the best riders at Cheltenham over the past couple of decades, Davy Russell would surely be somewhere near the top of the list.
It is remarkable to think the former leading point-to-point rider did not even turn professional until the autumn of 2002, after the then 23-year-old was plucked from relatively obscurity by the late Ferdy Murphy to become his stable jockey in the north of England.
While that spell did not last much more than a year, the pair remained on good terms, with Murphy later providing Russell with a couple of Festival successes through Joes Edge and Naiad Du Misselot.
Russell’s first Cheltenham triumph came aboard the Philip Rothwell-trained Native Jack in the 2006 Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase - and he has ridden at least one winner every year, apart from last season, since.
The 41-year-old’s current tally of 22 Festival successes makes him the third most successful jockey still riding, behind Barry Geraghty (38) and Richard Johnson (23), and leaves him sixth on the all-time list.
The most high profile of his Cheltenham triumphs to date was Lord Windermere in the 2014 Gold Cup, and his haul also includes Tiger Roll in the 2014 Triumph Hurdle and two Festival wins aboard Presenting Percy, in the 2017 Pertemps Final and the 2018 RSA.
The latter is one of several big rides for the three-times champion jockey heading into this year’s Festival, with Pat Kelly’s stable star being prepared for a second tilt at Gold Cup glory.
Presenting Percy was a disappointing favourite for the blue riband 12 months ago off the back of a solitary run over hurdles - and Russell admits his preparation was probably a factor in his performance.
He said: “He only had the one run (over fences) last season, which was in the Gold Cup, and it wasn’t a great experience for him.
“It didn’t feel like he was firing on all cylinders in the Gold Cup last year, but it was a big ask - it was his first run over fences in senior company really and only his second run over fences, so you have to give him some bit of leeway.”
Presenting Percy has strung together three solid efforts in defeat so far this season, placing third in the John Durkan Memorial Punchestown Chase, fifth in the Savills Chase and third in last month’s Irish Gold Cup. However, Russell is well aware his big-race mount will need to raise his game significantly if he is to play a major roll on his return to the Cotswolds.
“He’s run well in his three runs this year. He ran very well in Punchestown over two and a half miles in the John Durkan and he hasn’t really progressed since that, but he’s still run well,” said the jockey.
“We (the Irish) either have a very good team for the Gold Cup or we don’t. Percy was third behind Delta Work and Kemboy in the Irish Gold Cup, which is solid form, but whether it’s good enough, we don’t know.
“It doesn’t look likely that Presenting Percy will turn that form around at this stage, but until you get to Cheltenham you don’t know.”
Presenting Percy was beaten a shade under five lengths in the Irish Gold Cup, a performance which has gained mixed reviews.
Although some are of the opinion that run should put the Philip Reynolds-owned gelding spot on for Cheltenham, Russell is not so sure.
He added: “People keep saying his last run was a lovely run for Cheltenham, but he was fairly ready to rock and roll in Leopardstown - that’s his form. I don’t know if there is a whole load left in the locker. He’ll probably improve with time and experience, but a lot of people have this thing in their head that he’s only 100 per cent in Cheltenham.
“But he felt pretty good in Leopardstown and jumped fantastic and travelled really well. At the back of the second-last I thought we might win but he didn’t.”
Russell’s other possible rides include the Gordon Elliott-trained Coeur Sublime in a wide-open renewal of the Champion Hurdle, and star novice hurdler Envoi Allen.
He said: “Gordon has a lovely bunch of horses going there and I’m happy to ride any one that he puts me on!
“Coeur Sublime is looking like my ride in the Champion Hurdle. I’d say everyone is in the same boat going into it, thinking, ‘is their horse good enough?’. I hope he’ll run a good race.
“Nobody is really saying much about the Champion Hurdle in the weighing room. All the chat is about the Queen Mother and the Gold Cup and different races.”
Russell could be an interested spectator in what promises to be a mouthwatering renewal of the Queen Mother Champion Chase.
He said: “I’ve never seen as competitive a Queen Mother as we’ve got this year - it looks to be one of the races of the Festival. In previous Queen Mother’s there’s usually a standout horse or two, but this year there seems to be a lot of depth. Any one of them could win. I thought Chacun Pour Soi was very impressive in Leopardstown the last day, Altior is rock solid and probably the one to beat, but Defi Du Seuil is the one that has pleased all the way through the season.”