Thomas Russell’s hands-on involvement with racing was cut short just over six years ago through a life-threatening injury, but the former jockey and trainer is still enjoying the thrill of the thoroughbred sport as a part-owner and jockey’s agent.
Russell (38), who has been a tetraplegic since a trackwork fall, is co-owner of the in-form Hurry Cane (NZ) (Nom du Jeu), a decisive winner of the Foxton Cup (2000m) at Wanganui last Saturday, and he is agent for central districts jockey Leah Hemi.
Last year Russell experienced one of his biggest highlights as a jockey’s agent when Hemi guided Dee And Gee to victory in the Gr.3 New Zealand Cup (3200m) and now his hopes rest on Hurry Cane providing him with an even bigger highlight in the same Riccarton feature on November 14.
“It was a special win when Leah won it last year with what Terrill (Charles) had been going through,” he said referring to the lengthy battle with cancer experienced by Charles, who trains Dee And Gee in partnership with her partner, Peter Corbett.
“It would be a huge thrill if I can win it this year as an owner. I didn’t have much luck with the few rides I had in it as a jockey.
“It’ll be tough for him (Hurry Cane), but he’s racing well.”
Russell shares in the ownership of Hurry Cane with his partner, Pip Darcy-Brain, and her brother-in-law, Raymond Connors, and Connor’s father, Mark, and he has been on course to see some of the eight-year-old’s races, but not the winning ones.
With no spectators currently being allowed on track because of COVID-19 restrictions, he has watched the Trackside coverage of Hurry Cane’s winning streak, which extended to three on Saturday on his home track.
The son of Nom Du Jeu began the current season with a second at Wanganui in late July and followed with impressive wins at Hawera (in a R91 2100m by five and three-quarter lengths) and at Awapuni (in a R90 2200m by four and a half lengths) before stepping up to the R101 Foxton Cup and beating Charlie Horse by three lengths with 10-time winner and topweight Dolcetto third.
A $22,000 purchase from the 2014 South Island Sale, Hurry Cane has now amassed a record of five wins and nine placings from 15 starts and his trainer, Raymond Connors, is keen to have him at Riccarton for the New Zealand Cup, a race he has won twice (with Blood Brotha in 2011 and 2012). But Connors is wary of the 18 point climb the horse has made in the ratings from R71 through his winning streak.
“He’s climbed up in the ratings quickly and he hasn’t won a big race,” Connors said.
“I’ll probably back off him a bit and not run him again until Riccarton. He could run on the first day in the Metropolitan Handicap (Listed, 2500m) then back up a week later in the Cup.”
Connors is surprised in the progress Hurry Cane has made since he debuted with a second at Wanganui in July 2018 as a rising six-year-old and won his maiden at Riccarton two starts later.
“When he first started racing I didn’t think he’d get this far,” he said. “It’s hard to believe.
“He’s just improved with time and really he’s grown another leg. He couldn’t have been more impressive on Saturday and Sarah (Macnab) rode him well.
“He’s got that good, stout blood (Noble Bijou and Mellay) and there’s no worry about him staying. The only thing I don’t know is how he will go on better ground because he’s only raced on heavy tracks.”
Hurry Cane’s deeds are proving a boost for Russell as he goes through life with his uphill battles as a tetraplegic since his life-changing fall in June 2014.
Russell is confined to a wheelchair to get about, having been left with no feeling in his arms and from his chest downwards, though he is aided immensely by the full-time care from his partner.
“I can move my shoulders, but that’s it,” he said. “I have my good days and my bad days. Pip is amazing.
“It’s good when he (Hurry Cane) is racing and winning or Leah wins a race.
“I enjoy doing Leah’s rides. I started it in November 2018 and it’s helped keep me involved in racing.”
Being offered the share in Hurry Cane proved a stroke of good luck for Russell and he got to name the horse.
“I named him after Harry Kane, the top English footballer,” he said. “It was about the time England was playing in the World Cup.
“Raymond tried to get the correct spelling, but the bureau turned him down so we ended up with Hurry Cane. It’s sounding all right now.”
Russell’s thrills with Hurry Cane are starting to match some of the highlights he experienced as a jockey when he rode 276 winners and picked up two third placings in the Gr.1 New Zealand Derby (2400m), aboard Masai and the Connors-owned and trained King Johny.
King Johny chased home Xcellent in that 2004 Derby and Russell rates Xcellent, the multiple Group One winner and New Zealand Horse of the Year, as the best horse he rode, having been aboard the Melbourne Cup placegetter in his debut maiden win at Te Rapa, just two starts before his Derby triumph.
Russell later trained briefly in partnership with Ken Kelso, the pair winning 11 races together. But it’s the near miss by Down The Road in the 2009 Gr.1 New Zealand Derby (2400m), when beaten a nose by Australian visitor Coniston Bluebird that sticks in his mind most. A start earlier Down The Road had won the Gr.2 Championship Stakes (2100m) at Ellerslie.
Russell follows the fortunes of Connors’ team and there’s hope in the camp of another Great Northern Steeplechase (6400m) triumph with Wise Men Say, despite his disappointing run at Wanganui last Saturday.
“I thought he would go a bit better than he did on Saturday,” Connors said. “He’s really well and we’ll just press on towards the Northern.
“He might go to Ellerslie next Saturday then back up for the Pakuranga Hunt Cup (4900m on October 4) before the Northern.” Connors will be chasing his seventh Great Northern Steeplechase success, having won it first as a part-owner and jockey with Our Jonty in 1998, then as the part-owner and trainer with Hypnotize in 2007,2008 and 2010 and again with Wise Men Say in 2017 and last year.