Bode Miller, the Olympic champion skier, is planning a new career training racehorses when he retires from the slopes. Even allowing for the speed common denominator, it’s still quite a leap of discipline. Miller is convinced he can make a go of it but his move possesses a novelty value that, say, an ex-champion jockey becoming a trainer doesn’t. Except that’s not entirely fair either.
It's not even nine months since Johnny Murtagh retired from a riding career that confirmed him one of the greatest jockeys this country has ever produced. Since racing, along with black beer and sectarian hatred, is among the few things for which Ireland has always had a worldwide reputation, that means one of the greatest anywhere.
Murtagh retired at the height of his powers. In 2013 he secured a handful of Group One victories, including on the €6 million Chicquita, a super-talented filly with temperament ‘issues’.
That he jacked it in at 43 was a surprise, but only to an extent, considering the context of a life spent battling weight, a battle that by definition has to be fought alone, and which for centuries has sent jockeys close to the edge, and sometimes tragically over it.
Blessed with a gift for making horses run quickly but plagued with an unsuitable shape and, at one stage, a fondness for alcohol, Murtagh’s riding career was ultimately built on remarkable persistence. A series of shuddering setbacks were overcome to such effect he won almost every race worthy of mention and when he did jack it in last February he did it, both personally and professionally, on his own terms.
In many ways the real surprise is not that he packed it in but that he packed it in to start training. It’s a route much more travelled by jump riders who, through injury and attrition, rarely stretch their careers beyond 40. Murtagh, however, is a rarity among modern top international flat-race jockeys in aspiring to similar success as a trainer.
Lester Piggott tried it, got bored before he got jailed, and eventually returned to an Indian summer of race-riding. Pat Eddery still trains, but is cursed with moderate horses, often a worse problem than no horses at all. Mick Kinane never considered the gig, Steve Cauthen avoided it too, as did Willie Carson, Yves Saint-Martin and Cash Asmussen. Frankie Dettori is the same age as Murtagh and is clinging to the day-job.
Maybe Dettori has the legendary American Gary Stevens in mind. Stevens trained one winner and couldn’t get back to race-riding fast enough, despite having a knee held together with little more than cottage cheese and hope. “The bureaucracy wore me down in a hurry. You hire people to do all the various things around a barn, but the bottom line is that it all gets back to you if something goes wrong,” he said.
Stevens tried everything and anything apart from training again, even acting in the movie ‘Sea Biscuit’ and the HBO series ‘Luck’. Dettori is tentatively testing the temperature of eventually becoming a talking-head on television. It leaves Frenchman Freddie Head as the only former top flat jockey who’s made even a vaguely similar impact as a top-flight flat trainer. Head jokes that three marriages and seven children meant kicking back and eating chocolate for the rest of his life was never an option.
The money bit is critical. Rare is the top international flat jockey who financially needs to train. A couple of decades of pinnacle percentages assures that. Murtagh, though, turned his back on the familiar to start a different racing career from close to scratch.
He actually put his toe in the water a couple of years ago when nobody-but-everybody on the Curragh knew he was training in all but name from the stables he owned. History will tell that Tommy Carmody trained Royal Diamond to win the 2012 Irish St Leger. No one is in doubt as to who it all really came back to.
A year later Murtagh officially combined training and riding. This year it was the riding that got chucked, despite all the glory, the glitz and the ‘g’s.
The upside is being able to eat three squares a day. Listen to most trainers though and the downsides are many, lots of headaches in return for nothing like the financial reward of steering horses on the track.
Training is the obsessive’s career choice, a lifestyle as much as anything. It demands patience, planning and attention to boring logistics that are a complete contrast to the adrenalised hair-trigger reactions which characterise the best jockeys.
Like Miller, Murtagh was used to performing at an average of 40mph and on a much more precarious conveyance than skis. But the odds on Miller ever making an international racing mark as quickly as Murtagh must be off-the-board.
In the early hours of tomorrow morning, the Irishman saddles two Melbourne Cup hopes in the race that famously 'stops a nation'. Royal Diamond is at the veteran stage now, but Mutual Regard's credentials are hard to quibble with, including having the top Aussie jockey Damien Oliver on his back.
Murtagh himself rode the race twice without success. A big-race temperament was always his hallmark as a jockey. Returning to Australia to win the cup as a trainer, however, would take an already legendary racing career to another level again, maybe force a redefinition of the word ‘perseverance’, and certainly confirm one of the greatest transformations in modern racing history.
The message to Miller might be “different gear but still speeding”.