Jockey Club member, steward, former Chair of the PPORA, owner… Richard Russell has worn many hats in racing. But it is for his association with his top-class Teaplanter (pictured above with Richard winning at Towcester), one of the leading Hunter Chasers of the 1990s and whom he rode to 18 successes and second places in both the Cheltenham Foxhunters and Irish Champion that Richard is probably still best-known. Jake Exelby talked to him about a career that spans over 50 years in the sport since his first victory at Kimble in 1969.
How did you get into point-to-pointing?
I was born and brought up in Essex and hunted, firstly with the Essex Union, from the age of five. My mother bought ponies from Chelmsford market – and sold them if they were any good (!) – and my grandfather had horses trained at Newmarket. Apparently, he nearly bought Golden Miller! So I was always keen to take up racing.
I had my first ride in 1966 in the Essex Union Hunt Race on Scarteen, Mum’s homebred hunter, but I joined the Army when I left school and was stationed in Germany so didn’t race-ride again for three years. My first victory was on my Dad’s Serpentine Charge – who’d been placed at the Cheltenham Festival – in the Stock Exchange race, for which my grandfather had given a silver trophy. I won the race twice as did my father, uncle, brother Simon and cousin David Stoddart, who owned Party Politics.
Who have been your favourite horses?
Teaplanter, obviously. I bought him at Ascot Sales as a yearling and, because he was a big horse, he didn’t run until he was six. Although he won 27 races, he only ever ran in four point-to-points (winning three of them).
Another would be Desert Fox, who I bred from a dam I’d bought from the Dickinsons. He didn’t win his Maiden until he was seven, then won his next six races, including beating Eliogarty at Cheltenham. He won 13 in total.
After I retired – when I broke my neck falling from Teaplanter in the 1995 Cheltenham Foxhunters – my first good horse was Avostar. Then when my son John started riding, I bought Persian Hero from the Turners – they won 12 races together. John won 28 races from over 100 rides before he retired last year – only one of them wasn’t in my colours and that was in South Africa!
Richard winning on Avostar at Lingfield
Which jockeys have you most admired?
In the early days, David and Josie Turner and Michael Bloom. Later on it was Mike Felton.
This season, James King’s been amazing and Izzie Marshall looks very promising. There are some strong teams of trainers and riders at the top of the sport, lots of whom are in my part of the world.
Who's inspired you most in the world of pointing?
There have been so many that it’s difficult to single anyone out. However, the Saunders family have had a huge influence on my involvement in pointing. Initially Dick (who won the 1982 Grand National on Grittar as an amateur), who died far too young, his wonderful wife Pam – who still lives at the yard at Holdenby North Lodge – and more recently their daughter Caroline who has trained, managed and looked after my horses since 1988 along with her husband Gerald Bailey.
Dick Saunders on Grittar: huge influence
Caroline Bailey: trained for Richard since 1988
What are your favourite courses and why?
I’m still fond of Mollington, where I used to be Secretary of the Grafton meeting. I’ve always liked stayers courses – Dingley, Garthorpe, Horseheath – as my horses weren’t quick enough to win round tracks like Cottenham and Higham! Of those that are gone, I miss Marks Tey and Newton Bromswold.
What do you love most about pointing?
I enjoy good quality jump racing and hardly ever miss the Cheltenham Festival, but there’s nothing else like pointing for the friendly atmosphere – you get to know so many people. Someone came up to me recently and said, “I wish I’d found out about this sport 20 years ago”.
What's been the highlight of your time in the sport?
Every time you have a winner is a highlight. I had 73 winners as a rider including 30 in Hunter Chases and only four were outside riders (one of those was for my father!) I think I’ve had 145 as an owner.
What's been your personal funniest moment in the sport?
One stands out, although it was only funny after the event. I was walking the course at Folkestone before my first ride in a Hunter Chase and the person with me asked, “Richard, are you nervous?” I replied that I was a bit and she said, “Don’t worry, there’s a stretcher by every fence!”
What are your ambitions in pointing?
To buy a young horse – although not an expensive four-year-old – and see how far we can go with it.
What changes have you seen during your time? For better, for worse?
The organisation has changed – when I started riding, you could do anything and there didn’t seem to be any safety procedures. I remember my father telling me about a horse he had that fell at a local point-to-point and was caught twelve miles away on the main road to London by an AA man when the horse jumped over his sidecar!
It’s a shame that we’re losing the link with hunting. When I was riding, all the horses had to be properly qualified and it does them good. Even recently, my horses like Easythingsarebest and Gunmoney used to hunt.
I also regret that the number of runners is going down and – given the amount of horses we have – there are too many meetings. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if we held fewer, but the courses that only hold one meeting would probably be the ones to go.
However, the work that Peter Wright has done and the time he’s put in to keep the sport going when you don’t know what’s round the corner has been magnificent. The programme’s organised brilliantly and the areas fit together.
What do you think the impact of lockdown on pointing will be?
So far, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at everyone’s enthusiasm and there seem to be enough horses to keep going. However, horse population has fallen from nearly 5,000 to below 2,000 since foot and mouth (in 2001) and the drop in the number of races has been minimal. I also think it’s easier for owners to move to rules racing now because they come from different backgrounds – there are fewer farmers involved in pointing.
What’s your dream holiday destination?
My wife Wendy is Australian but she doesn’t like flying so we don’t travel far. We love going round Britain and have spent some of our best holidays on the Isle of Arran
Who would be your ideal dinner party guests?
I’m a family person, so it would be me, Wendy, my two daughters who now live in New Zealand, John and their families.
Family: son John with Gunmoney