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Murtagh's blazing in the saddle

BETWEEN Ireland and Britain last year, Johnny Murtagh reached more than a half-century of winners and had a decent time of things in the saddle, despite losing his retainer with the Aga Khan.

And although this year he has yet to reach 20, the flamboyant Meath man will take a lot of solace from the fact that he has proved over the past six to eight weeks that he remains a world-class jockey.

Struggling to get opportunities in Ireland in the early part of this season (and to an extent, even still), being crowned leading rider at Royal Ascot would have been enough to prove his point. But instead it was just the kick-start to a season which has since seen him add the Pretty Polly Stakes for Roger Varian and, on Saturday, the Darley Irish Oaks for French trainer Alain de Royer-Dupre.

Ten days prior to the Irish Oaks, the top French trainer had acted to secure Murtagh's services for a filly who, albeit still a maiden, was clearly talented and thus sent off at odds of 9/2.

De Royer-Dupre never doubted the filly, despite the fact that she had yet to win a race, and his thoughts were justified as Chicquita survived a stewards' enquiry to give the trainer a second win in the race and Murtagh a record sixth.

The reason for the enquiry was that the winner ran right across the track in what is now a regular trait of hers and while she did cause the slightest of interferences with the runner-up Venus De Milo, it wasn't deemed enough to alter the result.

When De Royer-Dupre won this race with Shawanda in 2005, she came to the Curragh unbeaten and left it unbeaten. This time, Chicquita came without a win and left with the lion's share of €400,000 prize money and an Irish Classic to her name.

Two starts ago the filly was on the deck after running into a hedge, and after that she was second to Treve in the Prix de Diane when running across the track on that occasion too, something her trainer cannot explain.

"She is very quiet in training and never does anything at home. I think she wants to come back home too early every time!" he said.

The Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe was mentioned as a possible target and the trainer added: "I know she is a great filly and I wanted to try another Group One rather than go for an easier race after the Prix de Diane. This is the best filly I have in the yard, definitely."



The trainer was also complimentary to the Curragh as being one of the best tracks in Europe, and such a glowing reference is the latest boost in what has been a positive year for HQ.

Murtagh added afterwards: "If she didn't drift she'd have won easy, but she has done it before, Seamie (Heffernan) never had to stop riding.

"At the line, she really went wide and nearly threw it away. She's a very high class filly, she has a lot of energy and a lot going through her mind, but if the trainer can channel that energy in the right way she is a very, very good filly."

Of course for Murtagh, it was the middle leg of a treble on the day and as a trainer he will this week have runners at Naas and Leopardstown. Next week he is set to be double jobbing again with runners at Galway and riding at Glorious Goodwood.

By his own admission in an interview with the Herald prior to Guineas weekend in May, Murtagh had low expectations of having many opportunities at the likes of Royal Ascot or Glorious Goodwood. A couple of months down the line and he is the man everyone wants. Another case of class being permanent, while form is temporary.