Friday 23 February 2018

Oisin Murphy: The student destined to become the master

Killarney teenager Oisín Murphy taking testing times in stride, writes Aisling Crowe

Oisin Murphy: 'The way things are now, I never get time to reflect'
Oisin Murphy: 'The way things are now, I never get time to reflect'

Aisling Crowe

Early June and the spectre of the Leaving Cert haunts thousands of Irish teenagers. Instead of cramming proofs for theorems into his brain and fervently praying to St Anthony that Seamus Heaney would appear on Paper Two, Oisín Murphy has been studying the form figures in the racing pages and looking to the skies for weather clues not exam guidance.

For his former classmates at Coláiste Mhuire, school will soon be out forever, but for the apprentice jockey taking English racing by storm, he has already proved a Grade A student. The education system's rite of passage won't mark Murphy's growth from boy to man but in racing, he has proved himself top of the class.

His remarkable four-timer at Ayr last August which included the coveted sprint handicap, the Ayr Gold Cup, ensured he was allowed skip a grade or three, but the 18-year-old from Killarney has developed an advanced philosophy to deal with the success and acclaim with which he has been showered.

"Even now, it hasn't really sunk in. Maybe in 10 years' time if I'm struggling or retired or whatever has happened, maybe then I can look back and think it was amazing and how lucky I was. The way things are at the moment, I never get time to reflect, you keep looking forward and trying to control the present and dream about the future." Yesterday was a prime example of how the speed of his rise to the top leaves no time for contemplation. After riding a winner at Epsom, he had to dash off to Lingfield to partner a short priced favourite for Andrew Balding. That too yielded a winner.

The biggest exam he has faced came at Haydock a fortnight ago. Hot Streak was a speedy juvenile last year which appeared to fulfil that promise on his first sprint start as a three-year-old. A standard-bearer for the Qatari royal family's investment in the sport, he was favourite for the Group Two Temple Stakes. Qatar Racing's retained jockey, Jamie Spencer, was required at the Curragh, but when racing manager David Redvers looked for a jockey to entrust with the pressurised ride, he turned to the young apprentice.

That was the biggest opportunity of his career so far, but youthful exuberance was curbed by his dedication to his career. "I was excited all week and on the Friday evening I was a bit nervous, but once Saturday morning came, I was planning ahead, what I was going to do in the race, how I was going to ride the horse. I expected that if things went my way the horse should win."

It was a test for horse and jockey and one both gained first-class honours in. "I suppose you just have to think of it as another race. Obviously it is much more important, Hot Streak is stallion material and it was important that he won. He was the best horse in the race and there was pressure, but if there is pressure it means that you have a chance. If you can't enjoy that pressure going into a race like that to ride a horse with a chance, there is no point being a jockey."

Murphy's coolness and preternatural maturity ensured, not only that he gained the biggest success of his career, but that further opportunities arose. Just 51 weeks after his first winner, he rode Red Galileo in yesterday's Epsom Derby. An outside ride, for Ed Dunlop, it is a measure of how far he has come in such a short time and the heights his talent is expected to take him to when he graduates.

"It was unreal really. I never really dreamed about getting these chances. You can wish on things and everything but from the time I started riding, I've set out every day to ride as well as I can, to learn as much as possible and to keep improving and it just so happens that people have given me good chances and a few of the horses have won and it has led on to better things. I'm living the dream at the moment, but I do realise that it could end very quickly and I'm in a very fortunate position," is his sensible philosophy.

His education so far has been overseen by his uncle Jim Culloty. The Gold Cup-winning trainer and jockey has tutored his nephew from an early age when his love of horses and talent in the saddle began to flourish. When Culloty returned to Ireland to train, his nephew's family moved from their native Killarney to north Cork where Jim is based.

From 14, Murphy began mixing his formal learning with his racing education. Friday mornings were spent on the schooling ground under his uncle's instructing gaze and Saturdays were given over to riding out. Culloty was training young horses and a young jockey.

With an eye to furthering Murphy's education, his uncle sent him to Tommy Stack for the summer when he was 15 and the following year to Ballydoyle and Aidan O'Brien. As opportunities go, this was like gaining entrance to Harvard for a jockey. His tutors thought that the best way to further his education would be to move to Andrew Balding's historic yard in Berkshire, from where Mill Reef electrified the world.

Weeks after his 17th birthday, Murphy bid farewell to school and classmates and joined the staff at Balding's yard in October 2012. The change was seismic, initially.

"I had never really been abroad on my own before, but at Andrew's there are lots of apprentices and it wasn't too hard to settle in. It took me a while to start enjoying it again because it is hard to go from somewhere that you are riding really nice horses and you are the only young lad so everyone is looking out for you, to going somewhere where there is 20 young lads and the horses are all handicappers and things. It was very different, but it seems to have been the right move."

Epsom aside, not much has changed for Murphy. He still rides work in the mornings for Andrew Balding and when not racing he mucks out the stables and works in the yard, just like all the other staff. He thinks it is the way it should be, not getting ahead of himself, learning his craft and honing his skills. His thought process and words illustrate a maturity not evident in those ten years older than him, but he is driven by ambition.

Balding, and agent Sara Metcalfe, have carefully structured his career so that his claim isn't wasted. He has 10 winners left before he loses that claim and it gives him a chance of big handicap winners at Royal Ascot next week, but it also curtailed his drive to be champion apprentice. With the shackles loosening and about to fall off, he can give free rein to that desire.

"It has been my ambition since I got my licence to try my best to be champion apprentice, but last year Tom Brown was in the yard as well and he was in front in the title race," he explains. "Hopefully I will have every opportunity to be champion apprentice this season. Last year, the boss didn't want me to be champion apprentice in my first season. This year he has been supportive and hopefully it will happen."

Back in Buttevant, how the students fare in the Leaving Cert will shape their futures. In Berkshire, how Murphy deals with losing his claim will decide his. He has aced every test so far and the feeling is he will pass this toughest one of all.

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