Johnny Murtagh rides Ambivalent to victory in Pretty Polly Stakes

Win completes his collection of Ireland’s 12 Group 1 races

Johnny Murtagh rides Ambivalent to victory in the    Pretty Polly Stakes at  the Curragh. Photograph:  Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images)

Johnny Murtagh rides Ambivalent to victory in the Pretty Polly Stakes at the Curragh. Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images)


Johnny Murtagh watched Saturday’s Derby from the sidelines but yet again proved his big-race pedigree with a sparkling victory on the English-trained Ambivalent in yesterday’s Curragh feature that completed a landmark Group 1 collection for the jockey in Ireland.

A beautifully controlled ride from the front gave Murtagh a first victory in the Oxigen Environmental Pretty Polly Stakes in 20 years, but crucially also a first since the race was promoted to topflight status in 2004. It completed his collection of Ireland’s dozen Group 1 races, the elite contests that define the sport.

What has always defined Murtagh as a rider is an ability to perform when the pressure is at its most intense, a rare gift that cross-channel trainers now seem to appreciate more than their Irish brethren.

Rider as trainer
Murtagh’s increasing profile as a trainer himself, officially so since May, but in reality in place for a couple of seasons, means many local trainers appear reluctant to use the services in the saddle of a man they regard as competition. Still determined to combine training with riding, Murtagh has had less than 50 rides in total in Ireland this season. Yet when in action at Royal Ascot recently, he wound up as leading rider.

Newmarket-based Roger Varian certainly didn’t hesitate to book Murtagh for the 10-1 shot Ambivalent whose form didn’t look up to scratch against the likes of the Oaks heroine Was, but whose requirements fitted her jockey like a glove.

“I told Johnny to be positive, send her forward, and told him he had nothing to lose. And he gave her a brilliant ride because she’s got a quirk and is not easy,” said the Englishman.

Murtagh has always prided himself on being positive, both in and out of the saddle, and combined with a priceless judgement of pace, it helped Ambivalent to repel Was by half a length with another English hope, Shirocco Star, in third. “They all had a go and she dug deep,” he said. “It’s been a great few weeks. It seems to happen like that; if you get on a roll it can keep going.”

Murtagh’s day hadn’t begun well though when he picked up a four-day ban in the Group 3 Grangecon Stud Stakes won by the Ballydoyle filly Bye Bye Birdie, and he had to settle for a runner-up spot in the Attheraces Curragh Cup as the Irish Leger hero Royal Diamond had no answer to the late surge of Ernest Hemingway. Aidan O’Brien’s 12-1 second-string powered clear to a five-length win to leave the champion trainer contemplating some fancy staying options later in the season. 

“That’s the first time he’s run at a trip and I’d say the ground suited him. He showed good acceleration. Obviously we could look at the Irish Leger. And the Melbourne Cup might be looked at too,” said O’Brien, whose daughter Sarah rode her first winner on board her mother Annemarie’s Beach of Falesa in the Ladies Derby.

“That’s a special one, a great day, and it’s a great track for her to do it on,” the proud father said.

Australia’s debut
The regally-bred Australia, a son of Galileo and Ouija Board, was backed for next year’s Derby even before his debut yesterday. Such confidence might yet be justified but the colt fluffed his lines first-time out, losing ground at the start and ultimately coming up a neck short of the winner, Renaissance Art.

The Irish Leger in September could also feature on Dabadiyan’s radar after Michael Halford’s three-year-old sauntered home in the mile-and-a- half handicap. “He’s improving all the time and there’s more to come,” said the trainer who doubled up in the seven furlong handicap with Eastern Rules.