Kerry jockey Oisin Murphy is returning to the saddle next month. He talks about his preparations and reflects on the lessons learned during his time away from racing.
If there is one thing horse racing has in abundance, it’s false starts. Those brief moments when prospects take a pull only to readjust and start over again.
False starts are not indefinite quandaries; the opposite is to get going, whatever the odds. It’s as much a truism of life as it is of racing - that we all have an innate ability to want to restart from a position of adversity.
It’s not the most unoriginal simile when describing Oisin Murphy’s return to the saddle next month after a 14-month absence due to suspension. To learn is to move on. Oisin is no exception.
Everyone has had their say about his indiscretions by now – the experts and not so expert alike: his brush with alcohol addiction, the pressures of his sport, and his disregard for COVID rules. It’s all been placed in the tumble dryer of opinion and given a lengthy spin this past 14 months.
It’s still four weeks away from Oisin’s return to action when he takes my call. Fresh from riding out the morning’s string of horses - the new prospects ahead of a new season - he lays his comeback feelings on the table like playing cards for all to see.
When the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) dropped the gavel on his suspension in February 2022, Oisin never envisaged what it would feel like being away from race riding for so long, particularly at his young age.
“When I first stopped riding, I didn’t know what to do with myself or how to pass the time,” he says.
“Riding out, show jumping, and hunting kept me busy. Now, with the return so close, I’ve had to lose a stone and get fit again. Looking for horses to ride abroad is another thing. You have all those meetings in Saudi, Qatar and Dubai coming up thick and fast within the first six weeks of my return. I’m a bit nervous, that I won’t be as good or as sharp as I was. But I’m doing everything I can to try and be the best I can be again.”
Regardless of how much we elevate sports starts, they are as susceptible to breaking point as any of us. Oisin has taken his medicine and is moving on. The 27-year-old served his time and used it to face the truths of his addiction, and to recalibrate his perspectives.
“I felt like it took a lot of strength to keep going over the past few years,” he says.
“I was always waiting on the BHA and France Gallop to say, ‘this is your last day riding’. That took its toll. [but] It was also nice to be stress free and not worried about trying to ride winners each day. I’ve ridden a horse everyday I’ve been off; even riding out there was no pressure looking to find the next superstar.
"Normally, I work mornings, you’re having a feel to see if this one or that one is any good. The dreams begin in the morning. Whereas I didn’t have any of that over the past 14 or 15 months,” he says.
“Lots of people say it [suspension] may better for my career in the long-term, the mental and physical break from it all. Obviously, when you’re in the moment [race riding] it’s very hard to appreciate it. I’ve had an opportunity to get off the drink properly and just get into a good head space.”
Oisin continues: “I found the toughest period of all was the first two months [of suspension] when I said I was going to stop drinking. From October until I got the suspension in February 2022, when I had the hearing, that was probably the toughest period. I was very determined to stay sober, but it was all very new. I felt like I wasn’t getting an easy time in the press. A lot of people were making judgements. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. I found that period the most difficult.”
Oisin may appear stoic and able to cope with the pressures of his trade. But as the world he knew and cherished started to come tumbling down, he ran out of road and was left floundering.
“As a result of what was happening, I got myself into a place that I didn’t know how to come out of and what steps to take,” he explains.
“I felt an awful lot of pressure to ride winners, to be champion jockey and to get on fast horses, aligned with the fact I was drinking every day which meant I was less sharp; I was able to do less. I know my riding wasn’t affected but I knew I was putting pressure on myself by wasting hours of the day drinking.
"When it came to dealing with the BHA and breaking COVID rules, not knowing when they would tackle me with those rule breaks was something I couldn’t cope with. That, and the fact I didn’t tell anyone about what I was going through, was tough,” he explains.
Four months before Oisin’s suspension it became impossible to shut out the barrage of negativity directed at him. The Breeders’ Cup that November (2021) provided solace; it was the perfect place to make his point and demonstrate his worth as a rider.
“It was all going on around me and I had to grit my teeth and stick my head down and get on with it. At that Breeders’ Cup I was rewarded because I managed to win the Distaff on Marche Lorraine for the Japanese. I remember pulling up, I had been a month or so sober at that point. If there was ever a motivation to stay sober and keep going - to believe in myself and that I was going to be fine - that was the moment,” he says.
Being surrounded by the right people is necessary at any time in life, more so when your back is to the wall. Oisin’s family stood by him over the past 14 months, as did close friends and some not so close.
“My family are brilliant. They’ve been coming to visit throughout my suspension. Dad has done a great job of the garden, while mom is there to make a home of my house. Family have really been there for me. But it’s often the people you least expect that just give you a call at random times to see how you’re going. That means a lot, that people are still interested,” he says.
As Oisin closed in on that controversial British Flat Jockeys Championship title in the autumn of 2021, the pressures of the sport began showing on the face of the Killarney man. Stories of his drinking were published on the day he was crowned champion, but the stress of it all had set in long before that point.
“Obviously, you’ll have certain periods when things are going great and you’re looking forward to riding certain horses. Other periods are when you go racing and you don’t believe you’ve got great chances, particularly doing light weights and when you have seven or eight rides a day,” he says.
“It can be physically tough. But it’s more a mental struggle. I found periods in September and October of 2021 very tough. It was harder than it had been in recent years. Often, by that stage in the year, it can be quite a struggle in the championship anyway because I’m running out of ammunition.
“When you take William Buick, for example, Godolphin have a lot of maidens that come out in September and October by the better-bred horses. It’s a real struggle for me to get on horses that can win. Compared to May, June and July when it’s a little easier for me as the pool of trainers I tend to ride for have more ammunition at that time of year. That’s what it comes down to,” he says.
With jockeys championships under his belt - and given his awareness of the struggles and strains involved in pursuing them - his return to the saddle in February will come with a fresher set of objectives.
“It’s very hard to pick races out, and what I want to win in the next five years. But at the same time, that’s what motivates me to come back. I’d love to win an Arc [Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe]. That would be number one; an Epsom Derby, and more Group 1 wins in Ireland,” he said.
"I’ve only one win so far [the Irish Champion Stakes]. I don’t think I’ve had lots of chances; I think I was second in a fillies Group 1 at Leopardstown. When I talk about the jockeys championship, yes, I would certainly love to win it again. Before, it was the most important thing in the world to me. But I don’t think it is as we speak,” he explains.
Come the autumn, if Oisin is not caught in another tailspin of trying to win the jockeys championship, he hasn’t ruled out a trip to Killarney or Listowel to ride. The change of scenery and riding before home crowds might be a more enjoyable way to round off the flat season.
“Having spent so much time there [Kerry] as a child it’s absolutely amazing that I’ve never managed to ride there. I would love to get on the score sheet at both tracks,” he says.
Lastly, once athletes reach a certain level, they become public property: expectations weigh heavier on young shoulders. Some will thrive while others are visibly unaccustomed to the anxiety.
The beneficiaries of life experience are those willing to take note of it. Oisin’s advice to those who may be entering the same dangerous territory as he did, is to be receptive to the signs and open to discussing them.
“I think, on a personal level, when things are going well you start believing in yourself and the fact you got so far. Whatever you’ve achieved, you’ve probably done it on your own, it’s taken you to get out of bed in the morning; it’s taken your own brain to work out how to be successful at something,” he said.
"It’s when things get to a point when you think you can cope but can’t, don’t be afraid to reach out. I had the weight of the world on my shoulders. But I placed it on my shoulders and didn’t want anyone else to help me. That was a mistake.”