Donn's Articles » Oisin Murphy

Oisin Murphy is talking championships.  He gave it a go in 2018.  He thought that it was possible, and wouldn’t it be something, to be champion jockey in Britain.

He didn’t do badly in 2018.  He rode 14 winners in May and 14 winners in June but, actually, by Royal Ascot, Silvestre de Sousa was so far clear, he didn’t think that he could bridge the gap.  He didn’t stop trying though.  He rode all the way to the line, came up 27 winners short, and resolved that he would do better in 2019.

It gave him a platform though.  It told him that his ambition to be champion jockey in Britain was achievable.  The horses he was riding, the people for whom he was riding.  In the end, he finished second in the 2018 championship, up from ninth in 2017, and he rode 198 winners in the calendar year in Britain.  Add the two winners that he rode in Ireland that year, Roaring Lion in the Irish Champion Stakes and Limini in the Petingo Handicap, a double on the first day of Irish Champions’ Weekend at Leopardstown in September, and big winners on the continent, like Royal Marine in the Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere at Longchamp and Night Music in the Gran Premio Di Milano at San Siro, and that took his 2018 European tally through the 200-winner mark.

And 2018 was a landmark year too for the young Kerryman.  Before that year, he had just one Group 1 winner on his CV, Aclaim in the Prix de le Foret the previous September.  That was massive, but he craved more.  One swallow in summer.  In 2018, he went on a Group 1 run.  Benbatl in the Dubai Turf at Meydan and in the Grosser Dallmayr Preis in Munich, Lightning Spear in the Sussex Stakes, The Tin Man in the Haydock Sprint Cup, Royal Marine in that Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere.  And Roaring Lion. 

When Oisin Murphy needed a horse on whom he could showcase his ability, a medium for his talent, his ability to compete with the best riders on the biggest stages, along came Roaring Lion.  In 2018, he rode the Qatar Racing colt to win the Dante, the Eclipse, the Juddmonte International, the Irish Champion Stakes and the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes.  It was a remarkable haul for horse and rider.

At the start of this season, he set his sights on the championship again, and he set the dials back at zero.

“Sheikh Fahad was on to me about being champion,” says Oisin Murphy now, an orange juice on the table in front of him, a cushion on the couch behind him.  “And so was Andrew (Balding).  They had lots of faith in me.  So, when I got back from Japan at the start of the year, I got straight into it.  The ball got rolling in February and March and April, my statistics were good and, small fields, I was riding loads of favourites.”

It’s good to be having winners in those months of course, but, actually, the jockeys’ championship in Britain does not start until Guineas weekend at the start of May.  It was good to have a rolling start though, to go into the season with momentum behind you, confidence up.  He bagged a winner on the first day of Guineas weekend, Pogo in the final race on the day, the one-mile handicap, and he was off and running.

“I had a great May,” he says, “29 winners and a strike rate of 19%.  So that was a good start.  But June was terrible.  My strike rate dropped to 16%.  Then I failed a breath test at Salisbury.”

He speaks about the incident openly.  The Sunday before Royal Ascot.  It was his fault, he tells you, his responsibility, but we’re talking margins here.  His reading was 17 micrograms per 100 millilitres of blood, which was well below the legal limit for driving of 35 micrograms per 100 millilitres, but it was above the limit for riding.

“If you don’t hydrate and don’t eat after a night out, you’re in trouble.  If I’d had breakfast, I’m sure I would have been okay.  But I wasn’t okay.  It was embarrassing.  Even now, I’m embarrassed about it.  And I missed three winners at Salisbury.  That was on my mind.  If I lose the championship by three or less, it’s my fault.”

The championship quickly evolved into a two-man race.  Oisin Murphy v Danny Tudhope.  Tudhope had a great Royal Ascot, he had four winners for the week and one at Ripon too on the Thursday, while Murphy had just one, Dashing Willoughby for Andrew Balding in the Queen’s Vase.  Tudhope had the momentum.

“Danny was 12 ahead of me at one point.  I obviously felt sorry form myself, but I had nobody to blame but myself.  I needed to focus again.”

The catalyst for the return of his focus came from an unlikely source.  When Frankie Dettori won the Irish Oaks on Star Catcher, Murphy sent him a congratulatory text.  Dettori replied, thanking him for the text, but also telling him that he had a natural talent, that he should use his riding instincts.

“That was a turning point for me.  I was about eight or nine behind Danny at the time.  I stopped over-thinking it then.  I just concentrated on riding.  My agent has been brilliant too in pushing me on.  And Sheikh Fahad and Andrew.”

Here’s how it works.  His first commitment is to Skeikh Fahad, so the Qatar Racing horses have first call.  Then it’s the Andrew Balding horses.  Then a few select others, Saeed bin Suroor, Archie Watson, King Power when their first rider Silvestre de Sousa is not available.  Then Phoenix Racing, when Frankie Dettori is not available.  Then the others.

“Lots of trainers are very good to me.  People like Joe Tuite, Harry Dunlop, Ed Vaughan, Stuart Williams, Amy Murphy.  I still ride out for those people.  I still ride for the same people I rode for when I was an apprentice.”

July was good, 32 winners and a strike rate of 18%, August was better, 39 winners and 22%, and September was even better, just 36 winners but a strike race of an impressive 25%.  For every four horses that Oisin Murphy rode in September, one of them won. 

That took him 30 clear of Danny Tudhope and it meant that he could coast to the jockeys’ championship in October at Ascot.  He didn’t coast though.  He ran hard to the line and through the line.  Even when the championship was over, even when he had the title in the bag and the trophy on the mantelpiece, he went to Newcastle for the re-scheduled Group 1 Vertem Futurity Trophy, and he kicked Kameko home.

Ask him if he has enjoyed it though, and he takes the time to consider his answer.

“That is a good question,” he says slowly.  “I enjoy every winner.  I get a huge kick out of the big winners, because that’s where a top jockey will be judged at the end of the day, on how many big winners they have ridden.  You can win as many Class 6s and Class 5s as you want, but you need to be winning at the top level.  It has been a lot of stress, a lot of hard work.”

But worth it. 

“I put as much effort into being champion apprentice in 2014 as I did this year into being champion jockey.  Obviously, I wasn’t riding the quality of horses that I’ve ridden this year, but I definitely spent as much time thinking about the championship and concentrating on it then as I did this year.”

That year, 2014, was Oisin Murphy’s second year riding in Britain.  He sat up on a racecourse for the first time at the age of 14 at his uncle Jim Culloty’s.  He rode out there, and he rode out at Tommy and Fozzy Stack’s and at Aidan O’Brien’s.  He also did his Leaving Cert and he went pony racing.  

He had a few concussions on the pony racing circuit, he lost his teeth, he even cracked his skull once.  But he rode 52 winners, including four at Dingle, the Cheltenham Festival of pony racing, and that was the most important thing. 

“I moved in with Jim when I was in fifth year.  We had monthly assessments in school.  In the first month, I failed a couple of subjects, and Jim and his wife took my mobile phone from me.  In the second month I failed a few more, so I wasn’t allowed ride out after that.  So I figured I’d better get to work.  I wanted to ride out, I wanted to be a jockey, so I figured that I needed to do better in my exams.”

Needs must. 

“In the Christmas assessments, my grades were okay, but still not great. I didn’t get my phone back, but they allowed me to ride out again, which was all I wanted really.”

Having his phone or not having his phone wasn’t that big a deal to the youngster.  Being able to ride out again though, that was massive.

“The school were good to me at the time too, they’d allow me off on Wednesday morning to ride work.  The jockeys used to come in on Wednesday morning, Davy Russell and Robbie McNamara, and I wanted to ride work with them.  And the school would allow me off on Thursdays if I was going racing.  My mother was okay with that too, as long as I was doing okay in the tests.”

He did okay in the tests all right, most notably in the Leaving Cert itself.  480 points.  He could have done Computer Science in UCD, but he didn’t.  His third-level education was always going to be in a racing yard.

“Aidan and Jim had a conversation at the end of September.  I was never going to university and I was finished school.  They came up with the idea that I should go to Andrew’s.  William Buick had been champion apprentice with Andrew.  Jim knew Andrew well, and he asked him if I could go over to him.”

It was a big change.  There were obviously big horses at Ballydoyle, Group 1 horses: So You Think, Maybe, St Nicholas Abbey, Ruler Of The World, Starspangledbanner.  At Andrew Balding’s, he was one of nine apprentices, and the trainer’s best horse at the time was Highland Knight, who had just won a Group 2 race in Germany.

“I knew that I had to leave Ballydoyle,” says Oisin, “but I didn’t really want to go to England.  I thought that they might send me to Jim Bolger’s, or somewhere closer to home.”

It wasn’t easy, making the move.  He had never been away from home before.

“There weren’t many young lads in Ballydoyle, so all the older lads would look after the young lads.  There was a good camaraderie there.  Then you go to a place where there are more kids, and you’re just another kid then.  I think that that was the hardest part.  Going from riding work with the jockeys to just being an apprentice, with a lot of other apprentices.  And then being away from home.  For the first time.  I cried a lot for the first month.”

That was October 2012.  He settled in and got going and waited for his licence, which didn’t come through until May 2013.  He rode his first winner the following month, Imperial Glance in an apprentices’ handicap at Salisbury, and kicked on.

“It took a while.  You start at the bottom of the pile, and there were some very talented apprentices at Andrew’s, all there at the same time.  Kieran Shoemark, Tom Brown, Rob Hornby, Dan Muscutt, Joey Haynes.  The competition for rides was intense.”

Gradually, Murphy’s talent came to the fore.  He rode seven winners that July and seven more in August.  Then there was that golden day in September, Ayr Gold Cup day, when he went to the races for three rides and came home with four winners.

“I was riding with a lot of confidence then.  I had two rides for John Quinn, and both of them won.  I got a spare ride on Silver Rime for Linda Perrett, and I won on that.  And then there was Highland Colori in the Ayr Gold Cup.  Andrew took me into his office the day before the race and drew a diagram in order to explain to me how he wanted me to ride the horse.  Go in a straight line, then edge over to the rail.  And remember that he stays well.”

Murphy went high profile then.  A four-timer on Ayr Gold Cup day, on Saturday, on terrestrial television, will do that.  But Andrew Balding restricted his rides.  An apprentice can burn through his or her claim too quickly sometimes, a fire cracker that burns brightly for a little while, then burns itself out.  Better sometimes to be a slow burn.  Establish your name and your reputation slowly, allow it to seep into public consciousness while you still have the claim that differentiates you from the established professionals.  The trainer said that he could ride in races that were Class 4 or higher.

“That helped me a lot.  I wasn’t riding in Class 5 or Class 6 races.  I was going to the races to ride the favourite in the Class 3 race, then going home.  It helped my strike rate.  Smaller fields, easier rides.  Instead of going in a Class 6 with 14 runners around Wolverhampton.”

It was at Andrew’s that his relationship with Sheikh Fahad and Qatar Racing began.

“I used to ride a lot of the Qatar Racing horses in the morning at Andrew’s.  Then on Champions Day at Ascot in 2013, I was due to ride one of the favourites in the apprentices’ handicap, the race that used to be the last race on the day, but Andrew told me that I had to ride one for Sheikh Fahad instead, Dubawi Sound.  I remember, we had to be taken down to post early, and we finished nowhere.  But I didn’t mind, I didn’t complain.  It was part of the job.”

He started to ride some of the Sheikh Fahad horses who weren’t trained by Andrew Balding.  Horses in handicaps that David Redvers and Sheikh Fahad felt would benefit from Murphy’s claim.  Then on Irish 2000 Guineas day in May 2014, the two Qatar Racing riders, Jamie Spencer and Harry Bentley, were both required at The Curragh.  Sheikh Fahad had two runners in the Group 2 Temple Stakes at Haydock on the same day, and Murphy was set to ride the one that Ryan Moore passed over.  As it happened, Ryan Moore chose to ride Pearl Secret, and Oisin Murphy won the race on Hot Streak. 

“I rode as second jockey behind Andrea Atzeni for Sheikh Fahad in 2015.  Then in 2016, Andrea went back to Sheikh Obaid, and I was appointed as first jockey.”

Oisin Murphy has kicked on again since then.  His star continues in the ascendancy.  Every year, the number of winners that he has ridden in Britain has increased.  41, 76, 91, 115, 127, 198, 220.  It is difficult to know where the sequence will plateau.  And more victories at the highest level this year.  Veracious for Sir Michael Stoute in the Falmouth Stakes, Deirdre for Mitsuru Hashida in the Nassau Stakes, Kameko for Andrew Balding and Qatar Racing in the Futurity Trophy.  And a first jockeys’ championship.

Momentum behind him.  Confidence up.

© Irish Racing Yearbook, December 2019