Wednesday 26 April 2017

Saddled with unfair burdens

John O'Brien

FIVE days on, Mike Smith remained inconsolable. At Churchill Downs last Saturday night, the jockey had come within inches of immortality when steering Zenyatta into second place in the Breeders' Cup Classic. Those inches were haunting him now. John Shirreffs, the wonder mare's trainer, had absolved him from blame. The world had moved on. But Smith still couldn't let it go. "This is one I will never get over," he said.

He spoke of how, in front of 70,000 people, that sad stretch of dirt on the Louisville course felt like the loneliest place on the planet. He hadn't merely failed narrowly to win one of America's most prestigious races, he had dashed the dreams of millions who had invested emotionally in a horse that, in recording 19 victories in 19 races, had managed to transcend her sport and become a symbol for Americans of everything they like about themselves.

That's the burden Smith had to carry. He was riding a horse that played to the crowds that adored her, seeming almost to understand the enormity of the place she held in the nation's heart. There was talk of an Oprah Winfrey special in the event of victory. A book deal would surely follow while the movie rights would make Zenyatta's connections even wealthier than they already were.

The fly in the ointment was Churchill Down's dirt surface. The mare had won twice on dirt previously, but her distaste for the surface was well known. The notorious kickback irritated her and, in the event, exaggerated her customary waiting tactics and left her trailing by an alarming margin early in the race. Inevitably, she came with her thrilling late surge but, for once, it wasn't enough and she failed by a nose to haul back the appropriately named Blame.

And yet in agonising defeat Zenyatta actually managed to enhance her lofty reputation while Smith was mostly pardoned for what was, at best, a questionable ride.

The tears he shed after the race elicited widespread sympathy and the manner in which he fronted up, accepting full responsibility, brought admiration. "Weep no more Mr Smith," ran a blog in the New York Times, "for your imperfect race with your best girl was, indeed, her finest hour."

Smith was fortunate he wasn't born on this side of the pond. For it is a near certainty that the hand of redemption would have been denied him over here. You only have to recall poor Greville Starkey's doomed attempt to win the 1986 Derby on Dancing Brave, a failure that haunted him for the remaining 24 years of his life. The press and racing public, denied the crowning of a great champion, never forgave him.

It was unfortunate that the racing channel At The Races had exclusive rights to cover the Breeders' Cup here last week, because their coverage was ludicrously over the top. Before the Classic, Matt Chapman somehow felt the need to hype the race to an outrageous degree when, clearly, the occasion already spoke for itself. And in seeing the wonder mare vanquished he predictably pounced upon the easiest available target -- Mike Smith.

Aided by his sidekick, John McCririck, they put the boot in. McCririck was incensed by the "worst ride" he'd ever seen and further rebuked the jockey for the beating he gave Zenyatta in the straight, ignoring the fact that worse floggings occur every day on British racecourses and go unremarked. At one point they invited an American colleague to join the lynching but, sounding embarrassed, she resisted the temptation. "Perhaps we're just not as hard on jockeys over here," she said.

Those words sprang to mind when, three days later, it was announced that Johnny Murtagh would not be renewing his contract to ride for Aidan O'Brien at Ballydoyle. Immediately the rumour machine spun into overdrive as to who would succeed him but you had to think back to Saturday night and the belligerence that regularly passes for racing analysis and wonder who, in their right mind, would want to?

On the surface, Murtagh's decision makes little sense. True, the stable hasn't been dominating the international Flat racing scene like it once did but, with 11 Group One victories this year, you couldn't say it has slunk into irreversible decline. Nor had Murtagh displayed any visible signs that, at 40, his riding powers were on the wane. Clearly, he still has plenty of good years to come.

Perhaps, it was argued, Murtagh had become sated with his success and simply wanted a more relaxed way of life with his wife and five kids at home. It is a plausible theory, yet flies in the face somewhat of what we think we know about driven sportsmen. Murtagh hadn't won an Epsom Derby for Ballydoyle or a Prix de l'Arc. Would the ambition that burns inside not demand that he soldier on and put that right?

For sure the pressures of riding the world's most expensive thoroughbreds must be immense. The fate of those who have accepted the challenge is mixed. Kieren Fallon thrived but the job turned Jamie Spencer into an old man overnight. Years before, Cash Asmussen was an expensive flop when he came to ride for Vincent O'Brien. And while Murtagh and Mick Kinane enjoyed good years at Ballydoyle, they both left while still having much more to give.

What is clear is that riding Ballydoyle horses isn't exactly a straightforward business. Among the rumours that had been circulating before the split, it was said that Murtagh was unhappy that more and more rides were being diverted to other jockeys, including the trainer's son, Joseph. It was also claimed his services as a work rider were no longer required and, in this, there are clear echoes of Kinane's situation during his last year in 2003.

In an interview with this newspaper last year, Kinane spoke pointedly of how he'd savoured Sea The Stars Derby triumph more than his previous two victories on Commander In Chief and Galileo. He had been an integral part of Sea The Stars' journey in a way he hadn't been with the previous two. At Ballydoyle, he didn't ride out in the mornings and that had left him feeling isolated. "It wasn't my choice," he said without elaboration. "I didn't make the rules."

Who does is a fascinating question. As trainer O'Brien must call the shots, you feel, but with the interests of John Magnier, Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith -- the so-called Coolmore mafia -- to take into the account there has always been a suspicion about Ballydoyle of there being more than one master to serve. And for a jockey recalling the symbiotic relationship that once existed between Lester Piggott and Vincent O'Brien, it must come as a blow to realise that your opinion isn't as valued as you'd like.

"It was great while it lasted," Kinane said of his half-decade at Ballydoyle. "But the relationship wasn't as good as it should have been over the last year and a half. It was time for them to move on and for me to move on. I didn't enjoy the job that last year and I'm not one who likes to be around any job I don't enjoy. The relationship got a bit stale."

You wonder what O'Brien makes of it all. That such a fussy and demanding trainer would endorse a situation where his leading rider isn't riding regular work flies in the face of all we think we know about him. And without an Epsom Derby victory for eight years and a dismal showing in America last week, the pressure on Murtagh's successor to deliver is likely to be greater than ever.

So who wants it? Anybody? Not Pat Smullen anyway. On Wednesday, Smullen took the unusual step of ruling himself out of a job that hadn't even been offered. And who could blame him? A sixth jockeys' title in the bag. A sweet life working for Dermot Weld on The Curragh. All that pressure, all that hassle. Why would anybody want it?

johnobrien@independent.ie

Sunday Independent

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