Johnny Murtagh, a three-times Derby winner and one of the most successful jockeys of recent decades, has spoken at length about his struggle with alcohol addiction during the first 10 years of his riding career in a video released in an attempt to raise awareness of addiction issues in the weighing room.
The 15-minute video, which was shown to an audience of 30 apprentices at the British Racing School on Thursday and can also be watched on YouTube, encourages any jockeys who are struggling with addiction to seek help.
It also includes an interview with Tony McCoy, the 20-times National Hunt champion jockey and a lifelong teetotaller, and quotes from the autobiography of the former Flat champion jockey Richard Hughes about his own struggle with alcohol.
Murtagh, who retired after the 2013 Flat season to concentrate on his new career as a trainer, rode as the principal jockey for Aidan O’Brien’s Ballydoyle Stable and the Aga Khan’s powerful bloodstock operation during his long and successful career.
However, Murtagh says in the film that for the first 10 years of his career in the saddle as a leading jockey, and even after a six-week stay at a clinic specialising in addiction problems at the age of 21, he struggled to control his drinking. “For 10 years I never got one year sober,” he says.
“I might get nine months, I might get 11 months, I might get six months but I was never sober. I’d say, I deserve a night out, I’d go out and have a few drinks and wake up the next morning, and I think that’s what got me in the end.”
Murtagh says in the early years of his career "I rode Derby winners, Royal Ascot winners but I was never satisfied, there was always something missing in my life".
He finally decided to face up to his addiction on the balcony of an apartment in Dubai. "Thankfully, looking over the balcony, something happened to me and I just got down on my knees and said: 'Please God, help me, something's wrong with me,' and that was the turning point in my career," Murtagh says.
"You will not meet your true potential [if you are] drinking and drugging. You can't. You can get so far and there might be times of brilliance but, I think if you look back at the last 15 years of my career, I was consistent, consistently good, whether it was Roscommon on a Monday, Royal Ascot on Saturday, The Curragh on Sunday, that's what I wanted to bring into my life. Before that I might be brilliant for one day but I wasn't consistent as a person and in my job."
Murtagh also adds that strict alcohol and drug-testing regimes mean jockeys are now much more likely to be caught if they are regularly drinking or using drugs. “I get some young jockeys calling me and they know they’re drinking too much and I say: ‘Would you like to go to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting?’” he says.
“That word puts them off straightaway, they’re too young. They know they have a problem but they don’t want to admit it but the quicker you throw in the towel, the better it will be for you in the long run.”
Paul Struthers, the chief executive of the Professional Jockeys' Association, said on Wednesday that the PJA was grateful for Murtagh's contribution to the film, which is part of a series called Jockey Matters produced by the Jockeys Employment & Training Scheme.
“We entirely echo Johnny’s comments and are very grateful to him for his powerful and important contribution,” Struthers said. “Through our helpline and one-to-one support, which we provide through our mental wellbeing partner, Cognacity, we can help jockeys struggling with addiction issues and would very much encourage them to get in touch to access that support.”