Sunday 26 February 2017

Aidan O'Brien, his son Joseph and how Johnny Murtagh walked away from racing's most coveted job

Just five months ago Aidan O'Brien was celebrating winning his fifth consecutive Irish Derby with Johnny Murtagh and his mount Cape Blanco
Just five months ago Aidan O'Brien was celebrating winning his fifth consecutive Irish Derby with Johnny Murtagh and his mount Cape Blanco

It's the question on everyone's lips -- why? Why has Johnny Murtagh resigned his position as No 1 jockey for Coolmore?

Why has he turned his back on arguably the most coveted job in the world of Flat racing, which, given the vastly commercial nature of the gig, it's reasonable to assume is a handsome six-figure earner? Why, why, why?

The four-time champion jockey gave nothing away in his statement on Monday. Rumours have abounded for months that his partnership with Aidan O'Brien was on borrowed time, but the Meath man won't make a drama out of a crisis.

All of Murtagh's predecessors have been utilised by O'Brien subsequent to the cessation of formal links with the Ballydoyle operation, so he's unlikely to stray far from a dignified and diplomatic announcement. He knows better.

The simplest rationalisation of Murtagh's motive is to conclude that he has become increasingly frustrated at the seemingly arbitrary riding arrangements for O'Brien's horses. Since very early in the season, it was obvious that things were changing, as the trainer's son Joseph came in for an increasing number of rides.

Progression

Back then, Joseph's progression was chiefly at the expense of those further down the food chain, with Seamie Heffernan, previously the de facto No 2 rider for O'Brien in Ireland, losing out most.

However, as the season wore on and Joseph went in pursuit of the apprentices' title, Murtagh often found himself either demoted to a second string or twiddling his thumbs in the weighing room.

Murtagh appeared to always have his pick in Group Ones, but there is no denying his status was undermined by the day-to-day arrangements.

Significantly, given that he was just seven behind Pat Smullen in the championship going into last night's Dundalk fixture, Murtagh's bid for a fifth jockeys' title is likely to be a casualty of the new pecking order, or lack thereof.

The 40-year-old is too big a character to admit as much, but the whole thing must be profoundly unsettling for him.

Murtagh is, after all, one of the best and most accomplished Flat jockeys this country has ever produced, yet his treatment at the hands of his employers in recent months could easily be described as baffling.

In three years in the job, Murtagh has ridden a massive 38 Group One winners on Ballydoyle horses alone. In all that time, you would struggle to name a single big race that was lost because of jockey error on his part. He is at the top of his game.

So, is he really walking because of Joseph's ascendance, or is the simplest explanation too simplistic? Most likely there's more to it, and the history of jockey-trainer relations at Ballydoyle may offer some clarity. As far back as when Christy Roche was riding for O'Brien in the early days of Ballydoyle's second coming, things were less than straightforward.

After a couple of years, it was decided that Roche would no longer be used on the stable's runners outside of Ireland, with Mick Kinane the rider of choice abroad.

More than any other, Kinane's subsequent tenure in the hot seat mirrors Murtagh's. During an incredible 2001, he rode 17 Group One winners out of Ballydoyle's huge tally of 23 for the season. Two years later, the partnership was no more.

Kinane would later talk of how the relationship broke down, suggesting a lack of dialogue contributed to its demise. It was well known that, at the behest of O'Brien, Kinane rarely rode out at Ballydoyle during the latter stages of their affiliation.

The similarities with Murtagh are uncanny. Two years ago, during a glorious campaign, Murtagh rode a mammoth 19 Group One winners for O'Brien when the trainer matched his landmark 2001 haul.

And, despite beginning this season as a regular at Ballydoyle on work mornings, word on the racecourse is that his services have not been required at the world famous training centre for months. Now he is on the way out of the job.

Given the intense pressure of the position, maybe it's no surprise that the turnover of first-choice jockeys is high. Nonetheless, Aidan O'Brien is now in search of his fifth jockey in seven years.

Indeed, Roche, Kinane, Kieren Fallon -- who masterminded his own exit -- and Murtagh could all have been said to positively thrive under pressure. Only Jamie Spencer, who simply wasn't ready for such a demanding role when appointed in 2004, actually found the spotlight deeply uncomfortable.

In the aftermath of his walking away after a year, John Magnier's talented godson said plainly: "It doesn't matter how rich you are if you go to bed unhappy."

Others who have been in Spencer's position may be able to identify with that sentiment.

O'Brien is clearly a gifted horseman and a worthy successor to his namesake Vincent. Similar to his predecessor, attention to detail is a key part of his make-up.

As part of an operation that is judged by the highest of standards, meticulousness is to be expected, but the problem seems to be that such a controlling environment becomes erosive when two uber-talented and strong personalities come together.

The net result is that someone as garrulous as Murtagh cannot take complete ownership of his role simply because he isn't given the freedom to do so.

Consider, for example, the frequent and often ill-advised use of multiple Ballydoyle pacemakers, when every jockey sporting Coolmore silks knows their exact brief.

Irrational

Such tactics have got Team Ballydoyle into trouble in the past, and are perhaps underpinned by an irrational lack of trust in the No 1 on the trainer's part.

What's more, the whole team ethos, in what is essentially an individual sport, doesn't sit well with punters at large, and it's hard to imagine that someone as competitive and ambitious as Murtagh would really buy into such an artificial construct.

Certainly, when he partook in over-the-top on-course celebrations after Heffernan had beaten him into third in the 2008 Irish Derby at the Curragh, it just didn't look right.

Whatever about a tiresome PR policy that requires Murtagh to describe potential stallions as 'pacey', 'athletic' or 'the best I've ridden', it's something else altogether to expect him to continue to be satisfied when others are winning on horses he should be riding. And that is what has happened more and more in 2010.

So, while the easiest way of explaining Murtagh's decision to quit Ballydoyle might be to point to the change in riding arrangements, the chances are that particular issue is just symptomatic of a greater and ongoing dysfunction at the Tipperary outfit.

After all, Joseph O'Brien hasn't even ridden for the past month due to suspension.

Ultimately, the system in place under O'Brien at Ballydoyle, for all its virtues, repeatedly manages to alienate the one member of the 'team' who, in a more proactive environment, would be considered the trainer's most indispensable ally. Instead, it's beginning to look as though the exact opposite is true. Pity.

Irish Independent

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