The Milnathort-based trainer reasons you can tell how old a person is by asking for the first Grand National winner they can remember. In her case it’s Red Rum – in 1977.
Liverpool were en route to winning the European Cup and Scotland fans were getting set to frolic on the pitch at Wembley. On the Fife-Perthshire border, a ten year-old was beginning what has proved a lifelong love affair with the Grand National.
“The race has always been a big part of my life since then,” says Russell, who turned 50 last year. “It’s extraordinary, though, just how big.”
Directly involved this afternoon through the eight-year-old gelding One for Arthur, she had early experience of riding a Grand National winner for herself. Not in the race itself, but shortly afterwards, at hunt meets in Scotland.
Russell, she casually drops into the conversation, has “a small connection” with the horse that galloped home the first year after Red Rum triumphed for a third time at Aintree. Lucius was the last-but-one Scottish owned horse to win the National in 1978 (the only Scottish owned and trained winner was Rubstic, 12 months later). “He (Lucius) was owned by Fiona Whittaker, who was from just down the road from here,” explains Russell. “When he retired and came back from Gordon Richards’ yard, I rode him to go hunting when I was young.
“I remember thinking ‘this is enormous, I’m riding a Grand National winner here’. He was awesome. He was the classic example of a top horse, they just have a presence about them and you can feel it when you’re with them.”
Russell’s Arlary Stable was a fevered scene of activity a few days ago as reporters, cameramen and women gathered to catch a glimpse of One for Arthur, Scotland’s latest hope. Belinda McClung and Deborah Thomson were also present, stepping out of their guise as Two Golf Widows, the name under which they registered their ownership of the horse three years ago.
As well as having their partners’ devotion to golf in common, they are also old friends dating back to convent school in Berwick, and thereafter Casterton in Cumbria. They both grew up in the Borders, where McClung is still based. Thomson, meanwhile, has moved to Gullane in East Lothian.
“We love being the golf widows! Off you go husbands!” said McClung. But, like everything else, golf will take a backseat this afternoon as partners, husbands, friends and relatives gather at Aintree to see if a horse Russell describes as “something special” can win the world’s most famous steeplechase.
“The good ones know they’re good,” said Russell. “Lucius had it and so did Silver By Nature and Brindisi Breeze. The good ones know they’re good.
“You saw it with Arthur at our press day as well,” she added. “There was all this fuss around him but he was like ‘sod it, I’m eating my hay’ and just stood there doing his thing. He knew it was all about him.”
A win this afternoon would propel Russell into the top ten of the trainers’ championship for the first time. As a proud Scot, she is also conscious how One for Arthur would be greeted as an overdue victory for Scotland.
“It would be very important for the yard, the area and everyone who works here if we could win it,” she explained.
“It would give northern racing – and Scottish racing – a massive boost.
“We have great trainers up in the north, just as good as the ones in the south,” she added.
“But we need big winners to attract the owners because that’s what it comes down to at the end of the day.
“The trainers are as good, the tracks in the north are good and it’s a better day out for owners up here. But it’s the investment. You have to have the owners.
“The price of point to pointers has gone through the roof so you have to look at the level below that now and try to get them.”
She recalled being at a point to point recently with her partner, the eight-times champion jockey Peter Scudamore - who will be a particularly rapt observer today, with his son, Tom, on a Grand National mount, Vieux Lion Rouge.
“There was this lovely horse called Madison to Monroe,” continued Russell. “He will probably make £400,000 when he goes to the sales. If you said to me that you have unlimited funds so buy me a horse, I’d buy you that one.
“But nobody in the north has owners who are doing that and that’s why those horses are all staying in the south or in Ireland.”
It’s a reason why Russell, clearly unafraid to speak her mind, is firmly against another independence referendum. She believes the uncertainly doesn’t help those with the mind and funds to invest in horse racing.
“When people don’t know what’s going to happen, they don’t invest in things like horses,” said Russell.
“It happened before and we’re very worried it will happen again if this new referendum happens.”
But this is a battle for another time. Right now there’s a race to be won – and two widows to make merry.