Murtagh 'the best trainer riding'
JOHNNY MURTAGH, who rides Novellist in today's King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, established his international reputation as the go-to jockey for the big occasion back in 2000 when winning the Epsom Derby for the first of three times on the Aga Khan's Sinndar.
"It was a good year," he recalled. "Kieren Fallon was off injured, so I was riding a lot for Michael Stoute and I ended up with 12 Group Ones, including the Derby, Irish Derby and Arc."
Now it is a rare Group One in England or Ireland that starts without him. He has won the King George three times – Alamshar in 2003, Dylan Thomas in 2007 and Duke of Marmalade in 2008 – and his Group One tally stands at 104.
But it is a curious feature of his profession that as soon as a jockey so much as mentions an alternative career or, worse still, retirement, the world in which he lives is all too ready to abandon him overnight.
It is why nearly every jockey eventually retires without a word of warning.
When that alternative career is as a trainer, it naturally compounds the situation; those trainers previously willing to put him up no longer see him as a great jockey, but as potential competition and, suddenly, no more want to introduce him to their owners in the paddock than they would want to introduce their wife to Daniel Craig on the beach.
Indeed, Murtagh's day-to-day involvement in his Fox Covert Stables on the Curragh had already brought to an acrimonious end his long and successful association with the Aga Khan when a horse from the yard, with Tommy Carmody as the nominal trainer, beat the Aga's Hartini in a Group Three last season. The Aga could not fire out a P45 quick enough.
Since Sinndar, Murtagh (43) has also been first jockey to Ballydoyle for three seasons – including O'Brien's most successful year when the pair combined to land 21 Group Ones.
But if some trainers had their doubts about Murtagh's commitment and focus to riding after he was granted his licence to take over from Carmody earlier this summer, Royal Ascot reaffirmed that, when it comes to freelancers, Murtagh remains the best hired gun in the business.
The Meath man went into the meeting with two booked rides on the Tuesday, one on Wednesday and one on Thursday and was 33/1 to be leading jockey. He gave Sole Power a sublime ride from the back of the field to win the King's Stand and earn the wonderfully Irish observation from his trainer Eddie Lynham that "Johnny is the best trainer riding".
Murtagh went on to win the Windsor Castle on Extortionist, the Wolferton on Forgotten Voice and the Hardwicke on the ill-fated Thomas Chippendale to lift the leading jockey title for a fifth time. He bucked the widely held perception that a jockey cannot successfully combine two careers.
"I was thinking going in that I was glad I had a few to train because I wasn't as busy as I once was, but since then it's been all go again," he explained.
"We've 33 horses. To be competitive in Ireland you need 100 and that's what I'm aiming for. We've had 12 winners this season, won a Listed race and we had a winner on Oaks day at the Curragh. They said training and riding couldn't be done but I've great belief in myself.
"I always do my own thing. I was never a sheep as a jockey, and I've never followed the flock. I enjoy picking out races for horses and seeing their little personalities." (© Daily Telegraph, London)