Johnny Murtagh calls time on illustrious riding career

Jockey won the Epsom Derby three times and Irish Derby at the Curagh four times

A special moment for Johnny Murtagh as he wins his first Irish Derby at the Curragh on the John Oxx-trained Sinndar in 2000. photograph: john cogill/pa

A special moment for Johnny Murtagh as he wins his first Irish Derby at the Curragh on the John Oxx-trained Sinndar in 2000. photograph: john cogill/pa

 

One of the greatest riding careers in Irish racing history ended with Johnny Murtagh’s announcement yesterday that he is quitting the saddle to concentrate on life as a trainer, an announcement he could be forgiven for making with his mouth full.

The Co Meath native, 44 in May, has always tried to downplay the struggle to make weight that has plagued him for much of his near 30 years as a jockey, characterising it as merely a requirement for the job, the same as a librarian needing books.

Few if any job requirements though require such iron-discipline, the daily battle to deny the body which ultimately is much more of a mental struggle than a physical one.

That Murtagh occasionally lost the battle was hardly a surprise. Tall for a flat jockey anyway, he also possesses the broad-shouldered athleticism that once made him a promising young boxer. He has also admitted to struggling with alcohol in the past. So the scale of Murtagh’s achievements can only truly be measured in terms of the staggering mental strength required to repeatedly bounce back from setbacks that would have flattened most men, even men with full stomachs.

Resilience and persistence
If it is brilliance that characterised Murtagh in the saddle, resilience and persistence have been the mainstays out of it. That brilliance was behind over 100 Group One winners ridden worldwide. They include a St Leger dead-heat on Jukebox Jury in 2011 that completed a clean-sweep of the Irish Classics.

Perhaps the race that defines great careers more than any other, the Epsom Derby, was won three times in six years, the first of them on Sinndar who also landed Europe’s other signature contest, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, in 2000.

That was the breakout year for Murtagh on the world stage. He had already tasted international success on the brilliant filly Ridgewood Pearl in 1995, and been champion jockey on three occasions, but 13 top-flight victories from the US to Hong Kong that year sealed a reputation as a jockey for the biggest of stages anywhere.

A decade before Micheal Kinane had broken the mould in terms of jockeys based in Ireland being good enough for the local but not when it came to overseas: Murtagh copper-fastened that the old prejudices were old-hat.

That Sinndar was the horse that did most to propel the jockey was apt since it was trainer John Oxx who perhaps more than anyone is the single most significant figure in the former jockey’s career.

“I was 15, and had never ridden a horse before, when I went from RACE to John Oxx’s. I wound up there for 18 years. He has been a big part of my life, of me growing up, a big influence,” Murtagh acknowledged yesterday.

Those 18 years were not continuous. But no one appreciated Murtagh’s talents more than Oxx. When Murtagh left in 2003, to be replaced by Kinane, many predicated it might be the prelude to a decline in the younger man’s career. Instead he became a freelance gun-for-hire whose services were so prized, and produced such success, that the call eventually came in 2008 to take racing’s most coveted position as number one jockey at Ballydoyle.

Remarkable success
Two years of remarkable success riding for Aidan O’Brien and the Coolmore Stud partners ended controversially but it was noticeable that it was Murtagh who took the initiative and jumped. Many thought that if he remained it would have been only a matter of time before he was pushed as O’Brien’s son Joseph became entrusted with more and more rides, but timing has always been a Murtagh hallmark.

So has been dedication. The effort of keeping on top of his weight was a full-time job in itself. Combining it with a training career became a balancing act carried off with aplomb in the last couple of years, including a remarkable run of Group One victories last summer that included getting crowned leading jockey at Royal Ascot again. But the demands were huge.

“I went for a run the other day and during it I started to think about the amount of effort that I have to put in this season and I just don’t think I have the time to give to being a jockey anymore,” Murtagh said yesterday.

“I have 45 horses in training here and nine or 10 new owners. It’s not like having one owner and one phone call covers everything: now its constant phone calls and I’ve been thinking about this for a while. You know me; I’m 100 per cent or nothing. And it just wouldn’t be fair to anyone to keep trying to ride and train,” he added.

As he said it, he was tucking into a sandwich. Rarely can something have tasted so good. Or been so well-earned.