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Johnny Murtagh

This time last year, two days before Royal Ascot 2013, Johnny Murtagh had four rides booked for the week. He thought that Sole Power had a good chance in the King’s Stand Stakes on the Tuesday, and he was sure that Simenon would be a good ride in the Gold Cup on Thursday, but he was prepared for a quiet enough week in the saddle.

He was right about Sole Power. The rider delivered Eddie Lynam’s horse with a perfectly-timed challenge in the King’s Stand Stakes, the second race of the meeting, to get him up on the stands side and win by a neck. He had one other ride on the day, on Qatar Racing’s second string, Extortionist, in the last race, the Windsor Castle Stakes, and he duly also got him up to win by a neck.

Murtagh did not win the Gold Cup on Thursday on Simenon, he was narrowly beaten on Willie Mullins’ horse by Ryan Moore and The Queen’s filly Estimate, but he did win the Wolferton Handicap on Friday on Forgotten Voice, and he rounded off the week by landing the Hardwicke Stakes on Saturday on the sadly ill-fated Thomas Chippendale.

Four winners for the week and a second in the Gold Cup from just 11 rides in total, and he was crowned top rider at the meeting.

“It was a special week,” recalls Murtagh now. “It’s so difficult to have any winner at Royal Ascot. I had two runners as a trainer last year as well, and they both finished down the field, so it was great to ride a few winners there. Each of the four winners was special for different reasons, and to win the top jockey’s title again was unbelievable.”

Royal Ascot was always a special meeting for Johnny Murtagh as a rider. Last year’s top jockey title was his fifth. In total, he rode 42 winners at Royal Ascot, from his first, Ridgewood Pearl in the Coronation Stakes in 1995, through five Gold Cups, including two on the peerless Yeats, four Diamond Jubilees, a Prince of Wales’s Stakes on Duke Of Marmalade, and three renewals of the St James’s Palace Stakes, through to Thomas Chippendale last year.

“I loved riding at Royal Ascot. The atmosphere builds from early in the morning, you get there early, have a little run around the track, get a feel for the place, think through your rides. Big crowds, big occasion. If you can’t enjoy Royal Ascot, you shouldn’t be in racing. And it has been a lucky place for me. “

Last year’s highs did not end at Royal Ascot for Murtagh. On the contrary, what happened at Ascot was probably the catalyst for what followed: the Group 1 call-ups and the Group 1 wins. He rode Ambivalent for Roger Varian to win the Pretty Polly Stakes at The Curragh on Irish Derby weekend. He won the Irish Oaks on Chicqita for Alain de Royer-Dupre, he won the King George on Novellist for Andreas Wohler, and he won the Haydock Sprint Cup for Tom Hogan on Gordon Lord Byron. He was riding as well as ever, enjoying it, in demand among trainers, a man for the big race, for the big day.

So why give it all up?

“I had a lot of new owners here, a lot of new horses, and I’m that kind of fellow, I’m either 100% or nothing. I got to thinking, I have to give the training a go. There is a lot of work involved, and I thought that maybe if I continue to try to do both, both will suffer. I just thought that I should concentrate on training. It’s where I want to go, it’s what I want to do.”

He was out running the roads as usual in February when it hit him. It wasn’t quite a Damascus moment, he had been thinking about it for a while, but when you are out there running on your own, you can crystallise your thoughts. Could he do it again this year? Put in the effort that was required to keep his near-44-year-old body at its riding weight, probably about a stone and a half lighter than its natural weight?

But it wasn’t just the fitness. Murtagh has never been afraid of hard work. It was the time that riding was taking up, time that was taking him away from a developing training operation on a daily basis. And if he was riding in England, he was away for a few days, calling home, wondering if everything was all right with the horses. He concluded that it was unsustainable in the long run.

“The riding on the days was brilliant, but I don’t miss getting to the days. There was a lot of hard work involved to get there, to be as fit as you needed to be, and I just felt, I don’t think I can do that and give training the attention it needs any more. I think I was still riding well when I went out. I wouldn’t have liked my form to have dipped and people to have started saying that I was past it. It was the right time for me, and I wanted to channel all my energy into the training.”

Murtagh pats Royal Diamond on the neck, difficult to disguise his affection for Andrew Tinkler’s horse. Eight years old now, the King’s Best gelding has been the stable’s flag-bearer. Winner of the Irish St Leger in 2012, he won the Long Distance Cup on Champions Day at Ascot last season (trained by Johnny Murtagh, ridden by Johnny Murtagh), and he goes back there on Thursday in a bid to land the Gold Cup.

“He just fitted in to the system here well,” says his trainer. “He likes leading the string, he likes going out into the field after working. He’s happy, he’s a happy horse, and he’s in a very good place at the moment. He came out of his last race at Navan very well, he likes Ascot, he’s fit, he’s ready, we’ve got Richard Hughes to ride him, and we’re hoping he will last home through the final half-mile.”

Purr Along will accompany Royal Diamond to Berkshire, all set for the Duke of Cambridge Stakes on Wednesday.

“I was on at Sheikh Fahad for ages to send me a horse, they sent me a lovely Teofilo filly, and then I got a call from David Redvers in early January to tell me that they were sending me Purr Along as well. I was delighted. She was bought for a lot of money, she had good form, and we have liked her since the day that she arrived. She is nice, natural, easy to train, moves well, class filly.”

Since Purr Along arrived at Murtagh’s, the race that her trainer has had in mind for her has been the Duke of Cambridge, the old Windsor Forest Stakes. Work back from that. A stiff, straight mile should suit her ideally. He is hopeful of a big run.

“She came to hand quick, but she had a little quarter-crack, so she missed her intended debut and we decided that we would aim her at that Group 3 race at The Curragh on Guineas weekend, use that as a stepping stone to Ascot. She was very impressive at The Curragh. She had been working well, and she handled the soft ground well, even though all her form had been on good ground. That was a good win, Sheikh Fahad was over as well. We got a big kick out of that.”

He could get another big kick out of Royal Ascot this week. Always looking forward, optimistic by nature. Two big runners for the week, two big chances, ask Murtagh what he would settle for by the end of the week, and he answers without hesitation.

“Two winners.”

© The Sunday Times, 15th June 2014