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Johnny Murtagh

Imagine you were so good at something that you could take a room in your house, fill the walls with cabinets, floor to ceiling, and still not have enough space to accommodate all your trophies? Johnny Murtagh’s study is Aladdin’s Cave, two Irish Derby crystals in each corner of the wall to your right, three bronze horses centre stage on the left, three Epsom Derbies, Sinndar, High Chaparral and Motivator, rat-tat-tat. On the table in front of you are four little square boxes, no bigger than big match boxes, subtle as you like, each one containing a silver plate, each one engraved with the name of each race that Murtagh won at Royal Ascot last week. These four will go in with the other 28 identical plates in the cabinet in front of you.

There is a painting by the window, a Peter Curling painting, of Murtagh wearing the famous old Aga Khan green and brown hooped silks. Irish Derby day 2003, when Murtagh wore the second colours on Alamshar because Dalakhani, garcon d’or, was carrying Christophe Soumillon in the bright red epaulettes. The fact that Murtagh excelled that day on Alamshar was the sub-plot to a famous Aga Khan one-two in the race, a second Irish Derby for John Oxx after Sinndar, a second for Johnny Murtagh. The rider found it difficult to contain his exuberance that day.

“Nicholas Godfrey, the Racing Post journalist, wrote after that race that I celebrated it as if I thought it was my last,” recalls Murtagh. “And I thought that he could have been right.”


Rewind to 1985, to a boxing ring in County Meath where Sheila Murtagh is watching her son fight. A well-meaning onlooker suggests that the young lad in the ring could be a good jockey, he has all the attributes, balance, poise, weight, strength, courage. Johnny is 15, he is into soccer, a Manchester United fan, he plays Gaelic football and dreams that one day he will play for Meath. He remembers watching Red Rum win his third Grand National in 1977, he remembers Shergar winning the Derby in 1981, his cousins have a couple of donkeys and ponies that he rides a bit, just messing about, but he has never even considered a career as a rider, not until his mother writes to the apprentice school in Kildare and secures a two-week trial for her son. Then things change.

Johnny spends his two-week trial mucking out at the Irish National Stud, but he is among horses and he loves it. He impresses his manager sufficiently for him to recommend that Johnny be allocated a place on the full apprentice programme at RACE. In a twist of irony, that manager is Pat Downes, future manager of HH The Aga Khan’s Studs in Ireland, with whom Murtagh will have many dealings in the future as first jockey to John Oxx.

The young Murtagh doesn’t really think about whether he is a good rider or not, about how he compares to his 25 class mates at RACE, you don’t really think about these things when you are 15, but he knows that he loves it, he loves riding horses, he loves having anything to do with them, and it comes easily to him. On the day that the course finishes, on the Sunday night, the 26 aspirant jockeys are assigned to trainers on The Curragh. Johnny is assigned to Robbie Connolly, and sleeps well that night, new challenges ahead. On the bus on Monday morning, as the youngsters are being dropped off at their respective trainers, there is a change of plan.

“Murtagh, you’re not going to Robbie Connolly now, you’re going to John Oxx instead.”

The change doesn’t matter too much to a 15-year-old. Robbie Connolly, John Oxx, they are both based on The Curragh and they both train racehorses. Johnny quickly works his way up through the ranks at Oxx’s. It is obvious from early that the young lad can ride, but his attitude is right as well. He asks lots of questions, he is always keen to learn. Australian Ron Quinton is stable jockey at Oxx’s, and there is plenty to learn from him. He is the consummate professional, great tactician, goes through every race in detail, always has his homework done. Johnny observes with interest.

He rides his first winner at Limerick in May 1987, and rides 11 more winners between then and the end of the season. He likes winning. The chronological sequence is easy to follow. 1988: he rides 22 winners and is second in the apprentice championship. 1989: he rides 34 winners and wins it. 1991: Ron Quinton goes back to Australia and Murtagh is appointed stable jockey at John Oxx’s, one of the most powerful yards in the country. He also finishes second to Michael Kinane in the jockeys’ championship. He is 21.


Fast forward to 1993, a 23-year-old Johnny Murtagh on the crest of a wave, the world his oyster. Then the wind stops blowing, the waves stop rolling.

“I was trying to do it all,” he says candidly now. “With me being heavy, I couldn’t get away with the things that the other lads were getting away with. You can’t go out all night and get up the next morning and just go to the races. You have to get up and lose 4lb or 5lb. If you’re out all night, you don’t be in any state for that. I remember turning up at Leopardstown one day, riding in a listed race, putting up 3lb overweight and getting beaten a neck.

“That was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back. John Oxx just told me that he couldn’t be going on like that, that he would have to let me go, but that if I could get myself sorted out, there was no reason why he wouldn’t use me again. At the time it was a disaster, but looking back on it now, it was a positive. It meant that I had to go and sort myself out. The way I look at it, if I didn’t have a weight problem, if I had been able to get away with it then, I might be still trying to get away with it.”

He did sort himself out and started riding out again for Oxx the following January, six months later, no promises. But Murtagh was too good a rider not to be thrust centre stage again, and the horses came along to help him. Ridgewood Pearl picked him up and carried him back into the limelight in 1995. He was champion jockey that year, and again in 1996 and 1998.

2000 was Sinndar’s year, hero of the Epsom Derby, the Irish Derby and the Arc de Triomphe, wins that Murtagh supplemented with nine other victories at the highest level. Black Minnaloushe in 2001, Rock Of Gibraltar and High Chaparral in 2002, Alamshar in 2003, Derbies and Guineas and King Georges, the most coveted prizes in the sport of horse racing and, one by one, Murtagh was ticking them off his to-win list, his career studded with the equine stars that lit up their era.

But Alamshar’s year, 2003, was another tough one. A back injury that he sustained at Royal Ascot meant that he struggled with pain for the remainder of the season. The pain was in his back, in his left leg, in his hamstring, everything was affected. Even Alamshar’s Irish Derby and King George double couldn’t ease it. As a result, he found it hard to lose weight. He got down to 8st 9lb to ride Alamshar in the King George but, in reality, he was struggling to do 9st. He took the last two months of the season off, and told Oxx that he wasn’t certain how he would be the following year.

“I thought that might have been it,” he says. “I didn’t really know what I was going to be able to do. It wasn’t really until the following January that I started to feel well again. There had been a little crack in my back, and it just took time to heel.”

By that stage, Mick Kinane had been appointed as Oxx’s stable jockey and Jamie Spencer had replaced him as first jockey at Ballydoyle. When the Ballydoyle role came up again on Spencer’s departure, the general feeling was that it was a toss up between Murtagh and Fallon. Fallon got the nod. Murtagh was disappointed but not despondent. The river doesn’t need pushing. It wasn’t his time. Last spring, it was his time. He grabbed the opportunity with both hands and rode 21 Group 1 winners in a season.


Royal Ascot 2009, four bullets, four winners in the three days that he is allowed to ride and another London Clubs Charity Trophy for Murtagh as leading jockey. It is some week for Johnny Murtagh, but Yeats stands out a mile.

“If at the start of the year,” the rider says pensively, “someone had said to me, ‘Johnny, you rode 21 Group 1 winners last year, you’re going to have just one this year, which one will it be?’ I would have said Yeats. For the horse, for racing. I knew the following he had, I knew the way that the boss and Mrs Magnier and Diane and David Nagle were before the race, they were so uptight, it meant so much to them.

“John Magnier, I know he’s a great businessman, but he loves his horse racing and the whole team loves Royal Ascot. Deep down, they are passionate horse racing people, and Yeats meant so much to them. During the weeks leading up to Royal Ascot, the main question was always, ‘How is Yeats? How is Yeats?’ He’s out on his own now. Four Ascot Gold Cups. He’s done something now that no other horse has ever done. It meant everything.”


Irish Derby day 2009, six years ago to the day since Alamshar, and the jockey is hopeful that he can bridge the gap. No back pain this afternoon, no Sea The Stars, just a trust in his horse and a confidence in himself that is bred from the knowledge that he is riding these days as well as he is ever been riding.

At Epsom, many felt that Team Ballydoyle, unusually, got the tactics wrong. Murtagh is not so sure.

“All the Ballydoyle horses were there to try and win the race at Epsom,” he says. “Some people said afterwards that Fame And Glory should have been handier, but you don’t want to chase up that hill at Epsom. Seamus jumped out and he got his position. I think he said afterwards that if he had the race to ride again he’d do it differently, but you don’t want to pull out and kick at the top of the hill at Epsom. I thought Fame And Glory ran well, off that slow pace mid-race, I thought he stayed on very well to the line, and he has progressed again since then. It was a close call between him and Masterofthehorse, but hopefully I’ve picked the right one.”

The plundering continues. Bigger cabinets required.

© The Sunday Times, 28th June 2009