“It will be quite a moment,” Oisín Murphy says as he looks forward to this Saturday afternoon at Ascot when he will be crowned champion jockey. The 24-year-old from Killarney is eloquent and assured and, apart from being able to speak four languages, carries the same addiction to winning as all the great champions.
Murphy has also overcome resentment in the weighing room and taken punches from older jockeys who did not like the speed of his rise after he left Ireland for England six years ago. He is now a model champion and could become the jockey that racing will rely on most to fill the giant hole that Frankie Dettori will leave when, eventually, the little master retires.
“I grew up watching Kieren Fallon being champion jockey,” Murphy continues. “And in the last few years I’ve looked up to champions like Sylvestre De Sousa and Jim Crowley. I’ve got huge admiration for them and wanted to become champion. Now that I’ve done it I want to do it again. Money doesn’t motivate me in any way. I just want to win many championships.”
Murphy smiles on a crisp and sunlit morning in Newmarket as he compares himself to racing’s most famous champion who will turn 49 in December. “I’ve won 13 Group Ones. Frankie Dettori has won well over 200 Group Ones. I think he’s ridden 17 this year. That’s phenomenal. I’ll never get to his level. At 24, Frankie was streets above where I am now.”
He leans forward to stress his enthusiasm. “I still idolise Frankie Dettori. I actually named my dog Frankie. I never told Frankie about the dog but we get on really well. We just have to try and avoid each other because we’re too mad together. I really look up to him. But when I was a kid, back in Ireland, I wasn’t allowed to look up to him. My grandad said I couldn’t because his favourite rider was Timmy Murphy [the Irish jockey then known for his exploits over jumps].”
Dettori steadied Murphy during the young Irishman’s slump this summer – soon after he got into trouble after failing a breath test in June. “May was going supremely well.” Murphy remembers. “I had a really good week and I was excited about Royal Ascot. I had more rides there than everybody except Frankie and Ryan Moore. I thought I had some genuine chances. Then came a massive reality check.”
On 16 June, Murphy’s breath test reading was well under the drink driving limit (35 micrograms per 100 millilitres) but he still exceeded the accepted limit for drinking as a jockey and Murphy does not attempt to excuse himself.
“It was my fault,” he says of a misdemeanour that cost him a day’s racing at Salisbury. “If you’re dehydrated the day before and you consume alcohol, don’t go to bed on time, don’t hydrate the next day and don’t eat anything, you’re in trouble.”
Did the failed test affect his racing? “Yes. It was going round in my mind that I missed three winners that Sunday. You’re thinking: ‘If I lose the championship by three winners then it’s my fault.’ All the trainers I ride for texted me and I obviously also rang Sheikh Fahad as I’m the retained jockey for Qatar Racing. Everyone was really supportive. But it was so embarrassing. Even now I’m ashamed of it.”
He allowed that season low to knock him off kilter. “I went from about 12 in front to about 12 behind. I was getting on favourites but my instinct and feel had gone and they weren’t winning. So you get in that rut and you overthink it. But there was a turning point. In late July things started to pick up. Frankie won the Irish Oaks on Star Catcher. I texted him after the race and he said: ‘Thanks kiddo. Remember I want you to be champion jockey. Forget about the numbers at the moment. Start riding off instinct. I believe in you.’ So the next fortnight I did not look at the championship table. I had the strength not to do it. I was one or two in front and then I got four winners. I had that belief back.”
After 166 victories so far this season Murphy is 33 winners clear of the runner-up, Danny Tudhope, and 69 ahead of Crowley in third place. It feels like the start of a new championship reign – as well as the culmination of a long journey. When he was a boy Murphy wanted to become a champion show-jumper and, as many of the best riders in that sport were based in Germany, he worked hard and learned German. But his life changed when he finally sat on a race horse for the first time at the age of 14.
His uncle, Jim Culloty, had won the Grand National and the Gold Cup, but he was merciless in dissecting Oisin’s technique. “In Ireland we have pony and horse races – it depends on the course. We call them flappers and normally the big races are over two miles. They’re actual race horses, ridden by children, so you develop fantastic horsemanship skills but also lots of bad habits. Like interference-wise. It becomes quite competitive. The falls can be bad and the tracks are tight. I had a couple of concussions. Most Irish boys will start riding race horses aged 10. I was 14. It didn’t come naturally. I remember watching the video replays with my uncle Jim and he made me cry because I was really bad.”
Murphy points out that Fallon was much older than him when he first got on a horse in Ireland. Fallon became a six-time champion jockey and, after Murphy began racing seriously in England in 2013, he often put his fellow Irishman in his place. “Oh yeah,” Murphy says amid much laughter. “Numerous times. It’s a bit different now and interference rules are stricter. When I started, if a senior jockey wanted your position, he just took it. I love riding for Hughesie [Richard Hughes the former champion jockey turned trainer now] now. But he taught me some lessons. I used to float up into second or third place and Hughesie would decide: ‘Oh, I’d like to be right where Oisin is now.’ He wouldn’t say anything. He’d just manoeuvre himself into position and push me out the way.”
Did Murphy attempt to fight his corner? “It really used to depend on my mood and how confident I was on the day. If I had a chance, normally I could keep them off.”
Would someone as feisty as Fallon take it out on Murphy afterwards? “Oh no. He’s actually very good to me. Often he would encourage you. He’s a good person.”
I like Fallon too but I’ve heard he once knocked Murphy down in the weighing room. “No,” Murphy stresses. “Kieren Fallon never punched me. He never laid a finger on me. Other jockeys did. They would get physical.”
Murphy is almost amused about the fact that he took a few punches from older jockeys when he began to succeed in England. “I was probably a little cheeky. I suppose I still am – but nobody would punch me now. If a young lad rides badly in a race, it’s my job to discipline him. But you achieve a lot more saying something quietly, and explaining what was wrong, than losing the plot.”
When he was hit by older jockeys did it increase his determination? “Of course. That’s what happens when you’re trying to prove yourself. I was handed loads of opportunities. Lads see that and there’s envy. It was easy to take because I was just riding winners all the time. But a jockey’s confidence is tempered on a daily basis. No matter how good you are, you’re going to suffer from that all the time. It’s a constant battle, believing in yourself. No jockey is that cocky, actually.”
Murphy rejects the claim that the weighing room is much more cut-throat on the flat than in the less lucrative world of jump racing. “I can’t have that. You wouldn’t find a closer knit weighing room than ours at the moment. James Doyle, Harry Bentley, Andrea Atzeni, Luke Morris, Sylvestre De Sousa and I hang out very often. I get on with all the apprentices. I’m not in the jump jockey’s weighing room but they all work in the same yards and try to steal each other’s rides. As flat jockeys we all have our own jobs.”
His relationship with Dettori was evident again when the Italian was disappointed not to win the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe for a third year in a row this month. “I tried to help before and after the Arc. Before the race he was nervous so I tried to calm him down. I got him joking a bit. So he was fine. In the race he sat even further back then he would have done normally, the pace was strong and, on slow ground, it turned into a war of attrition. The strongest stayer [Waldgeist] won. We just had to accept that. The best horse in the race doesn’t always win.”
Is Dettori the best jockey Murphy has ever raced against? “Yip. Ryan Moore’s very good but I love the way Frankie rides. He doesn’t get into traffic because his hands are so good. He can light them up from the gate, and then get his hands on their neck. That’s such an asset. You often don’t appreciate that because you just see him do it automatically. But swap jockeys and those horses couldn’t be ridden as aggressively. He’s just different class.”
Unlike Dettori, who focuses on the big races, Murphy still wants to win multiple championships while also racking up Group One victories. Is it possible to maintain this relentless strategy for the next few years? “It is. I want to stay as champion jockey and I think I can do it. I got my license in May 2013 and haven’t been on a holiday since then. I don’t feel it because most of my horses are winning. So it’s good.”
Today is a rare day off racing but, as much as he is relishing Champions Day at Ascot on Saturday, Murphy suddenly winces. “I had a look at the racing in Chelmsford this evening. I could have ridden two or three of the top favourites. So that’s thrown me now. I could go and jock some young riders off those horses but I’m not doing that. So I’m waiting for Ascot.”
How will he feel when he walks down the tunnel of applauding jockeys to collect his trophy as champion jockey? “A bit weird. It will feel good for five minutes and then I will have to try get another winner. The buzz is almost over now. It’ll be nice to lift the trophy but I’m already thinking of doing it again next year.” – Guardian