Irish jockey Davy Russell said he was lucky to be able to walk again after enduring a “torturous” 11-month rehabilitation process following a horrific back injury.
The Cheltenham Gold Cup and Grand National winning rider suffered a fracture and dislocation of his vertebrae when Dr Duffy fell on the first fence at the Munster National in October 2020.
The injury meant Russell, 42, missed the majority of National Hunt’s final season, including the Cheltenham and Aintree festivals.
As Cheltenham Gold Cup hopeful Galvin won at the Festival the mounts Russell would no doubt have taken, he had bolts drilled into his head and weights added to the back of his head in order to remedy to the dislocation in his back and spine.
But despite the rehabilitation Russell describes as “torturing”, the former Irish champion jockey said Sky Sports Racing that he considers himself lucky just to be able to walk.
“The surgeon said I was in the 10% of people who had this injury and are walking again, so it’s good to be in there,” Russell told Kieran O’Sullivan.
“It was a simple fall, I just landed awkwardly and fell on top of my head and compressed.
“I broke one, crushed another and dislocated another, so I knew I was in trouble when it felt like a firework exploded in my inch.
“There wasn’t a huge amount of pain, just discomfort and I actually thought it was my shoulder that was broken.
“All the medical staff were fantastic – I had to go into traction to stretch to put the dislocation back in place.
“When they operated, they had to go through the front and they didn’t want to get in the way.
“They bolt to the side of your head and add water and weights until it opens up enough to allow it to fit in and it was quite a pain.”
Russell also had several minor setbacks along the way, meaning that in the end it would take a total of 11 months out of the saddle.
Since his return, he has probably been driving as well as ever.
Highlights of the past two months include a Savills Chase win over Galvin, a juvenile sophomore success over Triumph Hurdle prospect Pied Piper and a stunning overall win over underdog Conflated in the Irish Gold Cup.
Despite questions about his retirement during the injury layoff, he’s in no rush to get out of the saddle, despite the ribbing of retired AP weigh-in room colleagues McCoy and Barry Geraghty.
“My surgeon was always very optimistic,” he added. “He had seen this injury in the past with a lot more impact sports than me. We fall, but we don’t fall every day.
“I had a terrible problem getting my neck up to see all the scenery and it was only a few days before Cheltenham.
“I couldn’t see everything I needed to see – I could only see the tail of the horse in front of me and not the wider picture.
“I only renewed my license a few days before my return. We trained a few horses one day and it just clicked – it was time to get back riding.
“The beauty now is that I can retire in the morning happy – it was great to come back and win the Irish Gold Cup but I’m not scared. My bottle is intact and I have beautiful horses to ride.
“If I feel like after the weekend I’ve had enough, I’ve had enough.
“I was talking to AP McCoy and Barry Geraghty over the weekend and they were saying Davy Russell, 48!
“It could be that long and maybe not. It’s not really in my thought process and I’m just happy enough that I pushed myself and didn’t let myself go when I could have.”
An unlikely inspiration for Russell comes in the form of seven-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback Tom Brady, who recently retired from playing in the NFL at the age of 44, after spending more than 20 years at the pinnacle of sport.
“Tom Brady is the one that’s always on my mind because it’s a tough sport,” Russell added. “He has a target on his back all the time, so he’s someone you would definitely trust.
“One thing that has kept my career going longer is that Michael O’Leary always insisted on increasing my driving weight and I didn’t listen.
“I was doing 10st 6lb or 10st 5lb and it was tough. I was really killing myself and I realized something had to change and that was it.
“My weight has just stabilized and I can eat reasonably normally – I still sweat a little but not as much.”
Russell also weighed in on the ongoing debate around jockeys’ weight, insisting that the removed saunas have helped his day-to-day approach to life and that his family have also appreciated the positive effects.
“The addition of the removed saunas has helped me a lot because my approach to the day is much better.
“There’s no panicking about rushing, losing 2 pounds, then drinking a can of coke to get that sugar rush and put it back on. It’s a vicious cycle when you put it on and reduce it to new.
“It’s definitely not good for your mind and your approach to the day. I come home in the evening if I haven’t played on the racetrack and everyone feels the effects.
“Even the guy inside the garage on his way home is feeling the effects! Someone might come up and say hi and you’re thinking ‘what does this guy want?’
“You get paranoid but now everything is grand and much happier.”