Donn's Articles » Oisín Murphy

Oisín Murphy

Ask Oisín Murphy if he has come back down to earth yet after last Saturday, and he shakes his head slowly. He doesn’t think so. Not yet.

Before last Saturday, the 18-year-old lad from Killarney had never ridden four winners in one afternoon. He had never before ridden an Ayr Gold Cup winner. He had never ridden at Ayr, he had never been to Ayr. Actually, before last Saturday, he had never even been to Scotland.

“I got a lift up with Fergus Sweeney,” he says. “Google Maps says that it’s a six and a half hour drive from Kingsclere to Ayr. Fergus did it in five. I don’t know how he did it.”

Nor is he sure how he went to the races for three rides and came home with four winners.

Highland Colori in the feature race, the Ayr Gold Cup, was obviously the main focus of attention. His boss Andrew Balding had told him the previous week that the ride was his. The young rider was hopeful, delighted to have a ride in such a valuable handicap, but he wasn’t confident.

“I had never ridden him in a race before, but I had ridden him a few times at home. He wouldn’t be a great worker at home though. Like, he wouldn’t fill you with confidence.”

Two days before the race, Balding took the young rider into his office, and drew out a plan for how he wanted the horse ridden. Straight for three furlongs from stall 19, then edge towards the stands rail gradually. Get onto the rail if you can, that will help you through the final furlong.

“The boss wouldn’t be one for frying your head with instructions,” says the jockey, “so I knew when he was going into such detail that he must have really thought we had a chance.”

And so it came to pass. Straight for three furlongs, move towards the rail, drive for the line and keep on gallantly to win by over two lengths. Dreamland.

“I couldn’t believe it. Four months ago I couldn’t get a ride, and here I was winning the Ayr Gold Cup.”

Instead of representing the climax of the afternoon for the teenager, however, as you would legitimately have expected, Highland Colori’s win was just the first rung of the ladder that went beyond the clouds. A half an hour later, he rode Levitate for John Quinn to win the one-mile handicap.

He came in after that race – a double on Ayr Gold Cup day – all set to sit the next race out, prepare for his ride on Cockney Sparrow in the last, when Linda Perratt asked him if he would ride Silver Rime for her in the seven-furlong handicap.

Silver Rime was a 20/1 shot, expectations were low. Going down to the start, Murphy thought that this fellow would struggle to lie up with the leaders so, bursting with confidence, he decided to drop him out, give him a chance, pick up the leaders late on if he could.

Turns out, he could, and he got up close home to win by a neck.

Then he went out on Cockney Sparrow, the 5/2 favourite in the last, and won that too to complete a 9,260/1 four-timer.

A nephew of Best Mate’s rider and Lord Windermere’s trainer, Jim Culloty, Murphy started going to riding school when he was four years old. Show jumping was his passion as a young fellow and, while he downplays his own innate ability – “I was lucky that I had a few good ponies to ride” – his uncle puts it into context.

“It was obvious from the moment he got his first pony that Oisín was going to be a jockey,” says Culloty. “He had everything, he was mad keen, he was fearless, he had balance – all the things you need. Very quickly, he was in demand. Everyone wanted him to ride their horses.”

When he was 14 he sat up on a racehorse for the first time at Culloty’s. He rode on the pony racing circuit and studied for his Leaving Cert. He was too young to do anything else. An A2 in Business and a B1 in German tells you that he has brains, and 52 winners tells you that he has bottle. He and good friend Connor King traded blows on the pony racing circuit. Last Saturday at Ayr, they sat next to each other in the weigh room.

While King stayed to conquer Ireland, Murphy went overseas. After a year living and riding out with Uncle Jim, he left and joined Andrew Balding’s academy.

“When I rang Andrew to ask him if he could take Oisín,” says Culloty, “he told me that it was very competitive, that he had a lot of young lads who were looking for rides. When he assured me that he would get rides if he was good enough, though, I knew that Oisín would be all right.”

Murphy arrived at Balding’s in October last year, but an administrative delay meant that he couldn’t take out his apprentice’s licence until April this year. Since he rode his first winner, however, Imperial Glance at Salisbury on 16th June, just over three months ago, his rise has been meteoric. All things being equal, there is no telling how high he can go.

There are no celebrations though. Not yet. He was home from Ayr and back in his bed by 11.30 last Saturday night, so that he could be up at seven o’clock – it was his Sunday on – to muck out and ride out.

There’s back down to earth for you.

© The Sunday Times, 29th September 2013