Friday 20 September 2019

Globetrotting Murphy making his mark on world stage

Oisín Murphy: Showjumping’s loss is racing’s gain. Photo: Getty
Oisín Murphy: Showjumping’s loss is racing’s gain. Photo: Getty

Marcus Armytage

In Flat racing, there are jockeys who do well enough domestically to win a Derby or a title and, indeed, hold their own in most circumstances. But there is also an altogether more rarified level, where demand for a rider's services is of a more inter-continental nature.

Ryan Moore has enjoyed that status for some time. "World's best" is a very subjective description, particularly as many of the best Americans do not seem to possess a passport. Whether Moore still retains that title is therefore open to debate but, on the evidence of last year, one of those pushing him hardest for it is Oisín Murphy.

No one gets to this level overnight but the rise of Murphy has nevertheless been rapid. It is coming up on nine years since he, then a budding showjumper on a couple of Irish teams and with a string of jumping 12 ponies, went to ride out for Aidan O'Brien at Ballydoyle one summer and decided on a different path with horses.

The application to Ireland's Army Equitation School, which annually boasts a couple of international show jumpers, might still have been written had his best 14.2 hands pony not been sold. But showjumping's loss has become racing's gain.

The seed, however, was always there. Kerry-born Murphy's uncle is Jim Culloty, Best Mate's jockey who in 2002 not only won the Gold Cup but the Grand National three weeks later on Bindaree.

"I was six or seven at the time," recalls Murphy. "I remember my own excitement at him winning those races. I'd take my pony out and gallop it flat out around the field afterwards. At that stage I'd just begun to take riding more seriously. I wanted to ride every day but I wasn't big enough to reach up to tack up the pony on my own!"

At Ballydoyle, the old former jockeys took him under their wing and O'Brien let him ride work. He still goes back there to ride out and "letting me ride in two Group Ones for him" is, despite all the winners, clearly a high-water mark in Murphy's career. But O'Brien does not really do apprentices, so Murphy joined Andrew Balding, whose sideline is, to all intents and purposes, an apprentice academy. In June 2013 he rode his first winner Imperial Glance. "Andrew told me two weeks before the race it would win," he recalls.

A year later, he was champion apprentice. He was soon appointed second jockey to Andrea Atzeni for Sheikh Fahad Al Thani's Qatar Racing and, when Atzeni decided to return to Roger Varian, the owner took the arguably brave decision to promote from within.

Neither Murphy nor Qatar Racing have looked back since, to the extent that Murphy is also ambassador to the Qipco British Champion Series which begins with the Guineas in a fortnight.

A couple of minor Group Ones in 2017 were followed by a deluge last year when he rode nine - some of the best jockeys domestically do not ride that many in a lifetime - which included four on Cartier Horse of the Year Roaring Lion.

He ended the season making three trips to Australia, four to Hong Kong, two to America, one to Canada, while in a seven-week winter stint in Japan, where contracts are rarely awarded to foreign jockeys, he was an instant hit, riding 43 winners - they only race at weekends - including a five-timer on his last day.

Next weekend he will fly to Hong Kong to ride the Japanese horse Lys Gracieux in the Queen Elizabeth II Cup and one senses that the only thing between him and a first British jockeys' title is the time he spends in airport lounges.

"I'd love to win it," he says. "I was second last year without getting close to Sylvestre de Sousa. I tried last year but wasn't good enough. He was 40 clear by mid-July. I closed him down a bit but was never going to beat him. I think James Doyle could have a big chance riding for Charlie Appleby and William Haggas this year. He's very hungry - though he wouldn't say it publicly."

There was a time when Murphy was described as "unpopular" in the weighing room but you never hear that now. He brims with a natural confidence - in the teenager that is usually taken for "cockiness" - but now, as well as a good team around him, he has a maturity to match his drive and determination.

This time last year, 2018 hardly looked like it would be his breakthrough year at an international level. Roaring Lion, touted all winter as Qatar's flagship three-year-old, had just been beaten nine-and-a-quarter lengths by Masar in the Craven Stakes.

Their best older horse, Lightning Spear, which would go on and win the Sussex Stakes, was not only seven but one of the great nearly horses while Andrew Balding's horses were not in form.

In relative terms the season looked a little bleak. "When you're young and optimistic," he said, "and you've been looking forward to the beginning of the season all winter and you're not riding as many winners as you want, it's disappointing.

"But then it took off and when you start riding winners, as any jockey will tell you, your confidence grows and, whether people admit it or not, it then flows. Day to day you don't make plans, you do things off instinct."

But even a jockey in his position still has to try and make things happen. When Telecaster finished second to Bangkok at Doncaster at the start of the season, Murphy spotted it and asked his agent to put him in for the ride next time.

He subsequently rode the colt to a nine-length win at Windsor last week and, one day, Telecaster may add to Murphy's Group One haul and prove that whether getting to the top, or staying there, a jockey can never sleep.


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