'Davy Russell tells me he'll go on. I'll believe it when I see it, I think'
The top jockey on how he won the Morgiana Hurdle on Sharjah
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Tie my shoelace, take my foot off the bench, flick up my hood and jog out of the weigh room on to the track. I like to think through races as I run, visualise what might happen at this part of the track and where I want to be. I hate something happening I haven't considered. You react slower. Or at least I do.
My original plan had been to track Abacadabras. Echoes In Rain would drop out and seek cover, Darasso would follow away for prize-money, Zanahiyr would make it and put his race fitness to use, while Abacadabras would take the Gigginstown handy and wide position and I would track him. Now Abra and Darasso are non-runners, though.
Sean O'Keeffe won't make it on Echoes, and surely Davy Russell, with Zanahiyr having had a run, will bowl along in front. Where do I sit then? Behind Echoes and last, or ahead of her in second? If I sit ahead of her, I run the risk of being put in a pocket and/or having to commit earlier than I want if Sean attacks before I'd like to. If I sit behind her, I'm going to have to give the inside run and a two-length head start to Zanahiyr from the home bend, and Punchestown isn't like Leopardstown. It's harder to make up ground.
Pace will decide. If Davy lets his horse roll, I'll take my chance and sit last. If he keeps the handbrake on, I'll sit ahead of Echoes.
The other possibility is that Davy won't make the running. Unlikely but he has made a career out of doing things people don't expect. And he's not a natural front-running jockey; he prefers to stalk. If that's the case, I decide I'll be happy to make it and set my own fractions. Not ideal but in these circumstances maybe doable. The race looks obvious, but I've seen obvious races surprise before.
I jog back through the crowd and into the weigh room again. After grabbing a quick shower, I realise I should have shaved this morning so I ask Danny for a lend of his razor and cream. He hands me a bright green golf ball too. I raise an eyebrow at him. "To plug the sink," he says. Typical Danny choice of plug.
I'm sitting where Ruby used to sit, and where Paul would normally, but I notice now Rachael has all her colours hung up just between there and the door, grabbing them off the peg as she walks in to collect her saddle and weigh out. I throw on my pink colours, get a small lead cloth with my stamp saddle and grey and green pads and weigh out.
There are 35 minutes between races. It stretches. I'm the sort of guy who arrives at the airport 55 minutes before a flight and I hate being early, nearly as much as I hate being late. I wander out to the pre-parade ring to see if Willie is there. I'd like to talk to him before the bell. Too often, I'll have a plan but won't see Willie until the bell goes and then he tells you to do the opposite of what you've planned. There's no sign of him so I chat away to Luke and Aubrey McMahon, two of the sharper tools in the racing shed.
We see Sharjah balk at walking into the parade ring, not once but twice. Strange. I think he could be shying at a bright orange tea cosy on a spectator's head. I follow him in and spot Willie with Granny and David Casey. I walk over and we talk tactics. Casey says he won't be surprised if Russell doesn't make it. Willie asks would Echoes make it. We say she ran too free here before doing that. Essentially Willie decides Echoes will get cover no matter what and I have licence to do what I think when I get to the start.
The other jockeys walk in and Willie and Casey walk over to Sean. I hear Willie call him Brian twice (considering he called me Tom and then George before finally settling on Patrick that very morning, I wouldn't get too worried, Sean). Myself and Granny are left together. She is studying the horses.
"What's your horse by again?" she asks.
"Dr Dino, a French sire," I reply.
"Ah. What's his best horse?"
"Oh!" she chuckles. "You'll win so!"
The bell goes and I jump up on Sharjah and we head out behind Echoes. She is getting hot and jig-jogging. Sean asks me for a lead to the start. I mentally kick myself. Obviously I won't say no, but if I wasn't walking out directly behind him I wouldn't have been asked. Not being around to help is different to declining to help. We canter down to the start, look at the practice hurdle and get the girths checked.
"Less than a minute, lads," Paddy Graffin shouts.
"What are you guys doing?" Russell asks. We both respond that we're happy to follow. "I'll lob away in front so." And I'll believe it when I see it, I think.
Paddy raises his yellow flag and we walk forward. I'm lining up beside Davy, not giving him any ground for free jumping off. If he goes a right gallop, I can drop back; if he hacks, I can sit on his boot. Paddy drops the flag and we're off.
Davy jumps off immediately, so he is going to make it. We follow. Around the home bend and we head toward the first. A lackadaisical gallop. Jump the first, past the stands, over the sand road. I see Zanahiyr leaning out and on his wrong leg into the bend and Davy not correcting him; he's in no hurry.
We climb up to the second. Echoes appears on my inner on landing, head in the air and keen. Perhaps they're riding to unsettle her with the slow gallop. We roll down the hill, around the dog leg and over the third. Sharjah outjumps Zanahiyr and I take him back. Another horse would get keen but Sharjah immediately drops the bit happily.
We roll downhill into the back straight and I wonder whether Davy will push on here. The pace doesn't lift. We wing the two hurdles in the back, hang a right and start running uphill to the third-last. Maybe Davy will play his cards now. No. We fly the third-last and I stay close to Davy, not leaving any space for Echoes to poke into.
I'm taking a pull before we land at the back of the second-last and finally Davy leaves the handbrake. I squeeze Sharjah forward but stay a half-length down. I want Echoes either in the pocket and only out when I decide or I want her to have to check and come around us.
Into the home straight, my hands are still full. We're still in third gear but the revs are at seven, ready to go to fifth in a blink. We have Zanahiyr covered and I'm waiting to see a white nose poking into my outside vision.
Sharjah sees the last and drops two inches and attacks it. We land running and head towards the rail. I give him two flicks and then peak under my arm. No sign of a hooded white face. We coast over the line. Simple in the end. Simply Sharjah.
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