Donn's Articles » Aidan O’Brien and Johnny Murtagh

Aidan O’Brien and Johnny Murtagh

Aidan O’Brien sent out three runners in the juvenile fillies’ maiden at Navan on 6th October. Stable jockey Johnny Murtagh rode Diamond Brooch, a 5/1 shot, the trainer’s son Joseph rode Eirnin, also a 5/1 shot, while Seamie Heffernan rode Make My Heart Sing, who was sent off at 12/1. Joseph on Eirnin beat Murtagh on Diamond Brooch by a short head in a finish of bobbing heads, while Heffernan finished fourth on Make My Heart Sing.

O’Brien also had three runners in the next race, again they filled three of the first four places and, again, as it turned out, the stable jockey was not on the right one, as Heffernan won the race on the 14/1 shot Exodus with Murtagh finishing third on the 9/10 favourite Pirate Chest.

Murtagh did win the conditions race that day on Don Carlos, the sole Ballydoyle representative in the race, but the last race on the day was won by the 5/4 favourite Table Mountain, trained by Aidan O’Brien and ridden by his son Joseph, as Murtagh trailed in in 10th place on the winner’s lesser-fancied stable companion Scottish Reel.

In isolation, most of this wasn’t that big a deal. You could easily have argued that Diamond Brooch had a better chance than Eirnin, there was only a short head between them in the end, and the winner was owned and bred by her rider’s mother Anne Marie O’Brien. Also, Murtagh’s ride Pirate Chest was the obvious choice in the colts’ and geldings’ maiden, he got beaten by his much lesser-fancied stable companion, these things happen. That said, there was no obvious reason why the stable jockey didn’t ride Table Mountain in the last.

Two months earlier, at an evening meeting at Leopardstown on 12th August, Aidan O’Brien sent out two winners and Joseph rode both. The youngster rode the 11/8 favourite Why to win the opening fillies’ maiden as Murtagh finished third on the 11/2 shot Chattel House, trained by David Wachman. Later that evening, Joseph rode the 2/1 favourite Beethoven to win the Group 3 Desmond Stakes for his dad as Murtagh watched from the weigh room.

Joseph’s involvement can’t have been the reason for Murtagh’s announcement on Monday that he would leave his position as number one rider at Ballydoyle/Coolmore at the end of the 2010 season, but it can’t have helped. It may have been more manifestation than causal, but you can understand it from the trainer’s point of view. If you were a racehorse trainer and your son was as talented a rider as Joseph is, it makes sense that you would want him to ride as many of your horses as possible, particularly if he was in with a shout of winning the apprentices’ championship. That said, you can also see the rider’s point of view. As stable jockey, you can legitimately assume that you will ride the stable’s selected in every race, physics permitting. When that isn’t happening, when reality falls short of expectation, tension pervades.

Rumours that Murtagh was not riding out much in Ballydoyle had been rife for a while, but that in itself was not wholly unusual. Trainers the world over complain about ‘jockeys’ riding work. Some high profile trainers won’t allow ‘jockeys’ into the yard. Specifically at Ballydoyle, Michael Kinane was not a regular work rider, and the stories of Dr Vincent O’Brien’s displeasure when Lester would ride work in such a way as to benefit the rider more than the horse are fabled. Again, more manifestation than causal. When a relationship begins to break down, to reconcile or to muddle through is usually much more difficult than to simply walk away.

The O’Brien/Murtagh alliance was a win-win alliance. In their three years together as trainer and stable jockey, they shared 39 Group 1 wins. From O’Brien’s perspective, he had one of the best flat race jockeys in the world on his side and not against him. Group 1 races are the chocolate chips in racing’s cookie, they are really all that matter to Team Coolmore/Ballydoyle, and Murtagh excelled in them this year, winning 12. Even in defeat he was good: Age Of Aquarius in the Ascot Gold Cup, Rip Van Winkle in the QE2.

From Murtagh’s point of view, he probably had the best job that any Flat jockey in the world could have had. Aidan O’Brien is a brilliant trainer of racehorses, one of the best in the world, possibly ever. He is a perfectionist with a unique horse sense. Coolmore is the most potent force in the global bloodstock industry. As Ballydoyle’s stable jockey, you will always ride top class horses, you will always be involved in the best races. Common consensus is that Ballydoyle have fallen a little short this year of the standard that they have set for themselves, yet Johnny Murtagh still rode 12 Group 1 winners, all of them trained by Aidan O’Brien, earning his percentage of over €3 million in prize money in Ireland and over £2 million in prize money in the UK.

So what next for Murtagh? There is no obvious top contract that is awaiting his signature. That said, he is a world class rider and he is recognised as such. He is 40 now, not young for a top sportsman, but not old for a flat jockey. Even as a freelance again he could do very well.

The debate on who should and will fill Murtagh’s boots at Ballydoyle has been lively in the last few days. Ryan Moore has the talent and the demeanour that should see him do very well in Tipperary, but he has a top job with Sir Michael Stoute in the UK and a young family, and is unlikely to want to move. Christophe Soumillon has the talent all right, but his unconventional ways may not be the ideal fit with the Coolmore/Ballydoyle ethos. Pat Smullen is a top class rider, he has the talent, the professionalism, the experience, the proven ability at the top level, but he has committed himself to his job at Dermot Weld’s for the foreseeable future, effectively taking himself out of the reckoning, even if the bookmakers haven’t fully.

It may be that we will have the unusual situation of no number one rider at Ballydoyle next year, it may be that Colm O’Donoghue and Seamie Heffernan and Joseph O’Brien will share the domestic rides between them, and that Ryan Moore or Pat Smullen or Christophe Soumillon will don the Ballydoyle colours abroad as and if they are available. More chocolate chips await.

© The Sunday Times, 14th November 2010