Sport Horse Racing

Monday 16 December 2019

'I must admit I probably cried down the phone to my mother a couple of times'

Globetrotting jockey Oisín Murphy has overcome the odds after leaving Kerry as a teenager to take his place among the world's finest

Jockey Oisin Murphy poses in the changing room as he prepares to be crowned 2019 Champion Jockey during the QIPCO British Champions Day at Ascot Racecourse on October 19, 2019 in Ascot, England.
Jockey Oisin Murphy poses in the changing room as he prepares to be crowned 2019 Champion Jockey during the QIPCO British Champions Day at Ascot Racecourse on October 19, 2019 in Ascot, England.
Michael Verney

Michael Verney

MOST teenagers would throw in the towel if they were sent to England alone to start a new life, but Oisín Murphy has paid his dues in the racing game and stands as one of the world's finest Flat jockeys just seven years later.

Having grown up hoping to emulate the feats of his three-time Gold Cup-winning uncle Jim Culloty (following his exploits on Best Mate), Murphy had "no choice in the decision" to leave Kerry and head across the Irish Sea aged just 17.

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Oisín Murphy chats with Frankie Dettori, one of the Kerryman’s racing heroes. Photo: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images
Oisín Murphy chats with Frankie Dettori, one of the Kerryman’s racing heroes. Photo: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images

The call to accelerate his equine education abroad was made by Culloty and Aidan O'Brien after Murphy worked at Ballydoyle in the summer of 2012, but the opening weeks with Andrew Balding came as a major shock to the system.

Homesickness is the scourge of many young professional soccer players heading across to England with high hopes of dazzling in the Premier League, and it was no different for Murphy.

"I must admit I probably cried down the phone to my mother a couple of times in the first month or so, but after that I just welcomed the situation and said 'Right, I can't go home, I have to stay here'," Murphy recalls of his early days.

"I just started to get my head down and focus on trying to make Andrew see that I was capable enough that he might send me on my apprentice's course. When I look back at it, I'm delighted that Jim and Aidan came to that choice for me, but it was tough at the time."

Murphy poses with the Champion Jockey’s trophy at Ascot in October. Photo: PA
Murphy poses with the Champion Jockey’s trophy at Ascot in October. Photo: PA

The competition for a riding license at Balding's yard was stiff but Murphy got the nod before joining the weighing room the following summer and scoring on his first ride for the Newbury trainer aboard Imperial Glance.

Being thrust straight into the spotlight has been the norm for Murphy with a four-timer later that year - which included the Ayr Gold Cup aboard Highland Colori - making headlines and quickly sending his star into orbit.

Just 51 weeks after his maiden triumph, he finished fifth on Red Galileo in the 2014 Epsom Derby before being crowned champion apprentice later that year in a stunning climb up the riding ladder.

That would pale in comparison to what he achieved earlier this year, however, when crowned English champion Flat jockey having ridden 221 winners from 1,120 rides.

There were several bumps along the way after surging into an early lead and he was always looking over his shoulder as Daniel Tudhope overturned his lead mid-summer.

That was a chastening time for the 24-year-old as the winners dried up while he was stood down from riding at Salisbury on the eve of Royal Ascot and left "embarrassed" after a failed breath test.

Murphy tested well below the drink driving limit but not under the stringent racing level, and it was an invaluable lesson, one which set off a disastrous dry spell in his drive for the jockeys' championship.

"It was a kick up the backside for me because I genuinely thought I would blow zero. I should have known straight away that I was dehydrated but I just went and blew in the yoke and thought I'd be fine.

"I wasn't fine and it was just really embarrassing for my family and things. I did double meetings all that week for lots of favourites and I got beat on all of them. Then you start questioning 'what am I doing wrong on all of these?'

"You don't make the same good decisions because you second guess yourself and that happened for like three weeks. I was riding four winners a week when normally I'd be riding 10 and I found it very hard to sleep.

"When things are going well, you're buzzing and you can't sleep and then when things are going badly, you're stressing about where your next winner is going to come. The hardest part is trying to stay positive when everything is falling down around you."

Small things can spark a change in fortunes and Murphy (pictured) recalls a message from Frankie Dettori which brought him back to life after he sent congratulations to his close friend on the Irish Oaks victory of Star Catcher.

"I text him through the sectional times because I'm a bit weird and I'm into all that sort of thing and he text back: 'I don't have a clue what all this means but thanks for the message'," Murphy recalls.

"Then he put another paragraph 'remember, riding horses is all about instinct, believe in yourself, you will be champion'. I was 10 behind when he text me and two or three weeks later I was 10 in front again. It made a huge difference for my confidence."

Dettori, along with Kieren Fallon, is Murphy's racing hero and he has already emulated the legendary rider with his globetrotting success, most recently when Suave Richard landed the prestigious Japan Cup.

Tokyo - from where he takes a call last Tuesday during some down time - is a far cry from his hometown of Killarney and his memories of days playing football with Kerry star David Clifford.

Not only did Murphy and Clifford attend Two Mile Community National School together, but they also had the same child minder with Bridget Dineen nurturing the talents of two future superstars.

The pint-sized Murphy follows the Kingdom's fortunes on social media and offered an insight into Kerry's 'Boy Wonder'.

"It's really nice knowing that I played football every afternoon as a child with someone that's as good as him. His brother Paudie was actually better than him when they were kids, I've no doubt about that, but David is a bit taller and that might have worked to his advantage."

Given the air miles he keeps and his thirst for winners, Christmas will be celebrated in Asia once again where he will spend the winter riding in Japan before heading back to Newmarket in the new year. While most would kick their feet up back home in Ireland and reflect on the year gone by, Murphy's globetrotting hasn't allowed him to return to Kerry in two years, and he offers insight into the mentality that has made him champion.

"I'd love to be back in Ireland at Christmas and it'd be lovely to be there but there's important races here and I wouldn't want to be sat at home eating turkey while there's a Group One on in Japan," the baby-faced assassin says.

"I was supposed to do a Barbados jockey challenge last week. You go for the week, all expenses paid, business class flights, the whole shebang, proper hotel and you ride one day in four or five races.

"I agreed, but when I knew I had a good Japan Cup ride, I couldn't go. If I was sat in Barbados on the beach and missed winning the Japan Cup, how do you live with that?"

Murphy - who has one of racing's most prized posts as retained rider for Sheikh Fahad Al Thani's Qatar Racing and who struck up a memorable partnership with Roaring Lion last season - is not one to gaze into the past with his focus always straight ahead on the next winner.

"I never really look back, not because I don't want to or I don't feel I should, but I rode more horses than anyone else so I don't really get a chance. I'd feel guilty typing into Google 'Oisin on Deirdre (Nassau Stakes winner)' or whatever anyway, I don't do that really.

"I'm very fortunate to ride for so many good people and if I'm proud of anything, it's that everyone is happy to use me in Ireland or England, if I can maintain that for my whole career then I'll have done a good job."

His first love may have been showjumping - he represented Ireland - but once the racing bug grabbed hold he has thought of little else and daily trips to the gallops regularly leave him "dreaming of the next big horse".

Murphy could break down each of his 15 Group One victories in minute detail - once the floodgates finally opened two years ago they have continued to flow - and he "lives and breathes" for the big day.

"When I ride a nice horse in a gallop and I like it and I think it has a future, that's like winning a small race for me and I get a huge buzz out of that. Winning ordinary races on the all-weather, I have to do it and I know it's very important to that owner and trainer, but there is no buzz really," he says.

"It's just about trying to get the numbers up to be champion jockey. I live and breathe the big races. It took me a long time to win one, I was champion jockey last season and that was a huge thing, but there's nothing like those big days."

Having encountered plenty of turbulence on his way to the top, the softly-spoken rider is also a huge source of knowledge for younger jockeys. David Egan, a native of Kildare and son of jockey John Egan, is a prime example having also left home in his teens and already enjoyed considerable success in England.

"I do mentor him, I help every apprentice, every apprentice is my friend. They would look up to me because they know that it wasn't very easy for me and I make sure that it's easy for them," Murphy says.

"Before any big races, I'll tell them what's going to happen in the race and they're good because there's a respect thing, if they're not going well and can't win and I need a bit of space and give them a shout, they will move out of my way.

"I earned that respect because I'm always kind to them, even when they make a mistake I'll speak to them one-to-one rather than shouting and calling them idiots."

Another illustration of Murphy's class and when Kerry's prodigal son eventually returns, he's sure to get the homecoming his extraordinary achievements deserve.

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