Friday 15 November 2019

Aga Khan cuts Murtagh loose

Richard Forristal

Johnny Murtagh was last night in the unfortunate position of having to vacate a second high-profile job in as many years after it was sensationally revealed that "differences between the parties" had prompted leading owner and breeder the Aga Khan to end their association.

The five-time champion jockey is currently sidelined with an injury, having not ridden since fracturing a bone under his eye in a fall at the Curragh on August 12.

Murtagh and the Aga Khan's Irish Stud Farm manager Pat Downes issued brief statements confirming the shock split, but both were more conspicuous for what they didn't say than what they did.

"I was informed yesterday afternoon that my contract to ride for His Highness the Aga Khan was terminated with immediate effect," Murtagh's statement read.

"I would like to take this opportunity to thank His Highness and his staff in Ireland and France for the very successful years we have had together. I would also like to wish them every success in the future."

Downes said of the partnership's cessation after 20 months: "I can confirm it is true. I don't have a whole lot more to say, other than there were differences between the parties and it was agreed that we would part."

John Oxx, who has supplied the lion's share of Murtagh's winners for the Aga Khan, was unavailable for comment.

Since the Co Meath native's appointment as the Aga Khan's number one jockey in Ireland, he has effectively ridden as stable jockey to Oxx, recently securing a Goodwood Cup victory on the yard's Michael O'Flynn-owned Saddler's Rock.

In all likelihood, Murtagh (right) will continue to partner many of the stable's runners. However, it is of note that, since being passed over for the Aga Khan job in 2010, Oxx's then stable jockey Fran Berry has not ridden for the stable during the past two years.

Berry was yesterday quoted at 14/1 to replace Murtagh as the Aga Khan's nominated rider.

Shane Foley, who has ridden four winners from 16 mounts for the owner in a fantastic first season as Mick Halford's number one, has been installed the 11/10 favourite to fill the position, with Oxx's former champion apprentice Ben Curtis next best at 7/2.

Speculation inevitably now turns to what caused such a breakdown in relations between a partnership that, to many, appeared a perfect fit.

Back in November 2010, just a week after Murtagh's decision to walk away from his position as Coolmore's number one rider, the Aga Khan wasted no time in securing Murtagh's signature to ride his horses in Ireland.

It amounted to a renewal of a link-up that first showcased Murtagh's riding talents.

During

his original stint as Oxx's stable jockey between 1992 and 2003, the 42-year-old amassed 18 top-level victories for the trainer's chief patron, the highlight of which was Sinndar's sensational treble in the Epsom and Irish Derbies and the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in 2000.

It is often said that you should never go back, and Murtagh's second stint has certainly been far less fruitful, his only top-level success for his employer coming when he sprung a 25/1 upset on second string Valyra in the Prix de Diane in June.

Incidentally, Valyra suffered a fatal injury during exercise on the beach in France on Wednesday, while Christophe Lemaire, the Aga Khan's appointed rider in France, had his contract extended on Monday.

Given that Murtagh is still widely perceived to be one of the finest Flat jockeys in the world, that he was not granted the same commitment is alarming, not least in light of the Aga Khan's comments after Valyra's triumph.

"I had my secret weapon on board," he gushed of Murtagh, "who is the best man in a finish in Europe, if not the world."

In the absence of any other explanation for the Aga Khan's sudden change of heart, the only discernible reason for the split might have its foundations in Murtagh's association with the increasingly powerful Tommy Carmody stable.

The Pollardstown yard on the Curragh is owned by the jockey and it was through him that Carmody was installed as the sole Irish trainer to Eddie Stobart supremo Andrew Tinkler, for whom Murtagh rides regularly.

Both Murtagh and his wife Orla have a hands-on involvement at Pollardstown on a day-to-day basis. Only last Saturday, in a superlative first season back training after seven years in exile, Carmody was narrowly denied a famous victory in York's Ebor Handicap.

The same day, Ursa Major provided him with a career-high triumph in the St Leger Trial at the Curragh, beating none other than Oxx's Aga Khan-owned odds-on favourite Hartani into second.

With Carmody on duty at York, it was Orla Murtagh that represented the stable in the winner's enclosure afterwards.

No one has come out and said so, but it doesn't stretch the bounds of plausibility to conclude that the Aga Khan or his advisors deemed such a situation to represent a conflict of interest for Murtagh.

Either way, the sidelined jockey is now in limbo in more ways than one.

Irish Independent

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