MAN of the moment Johnny Murtagh could not be more bullish as he attempts to continue his rich run of form – as both a trainer and a jockey – in Doncaster’s Racing Post Trophy.
He is only running Altruistic in the Grade One race for rising stars because he has an excellent chance of winning; he believes that he is now riding “better than ever” at the age of 43 and he is driven by a desire to usurp the all-conquering Aidan O’Brien as Ireland’s champion trainer.
“I’m a great believer in looking forwards, not back,” the likable Irishman told the Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview ahead of today’s Grade One test on the very Town Moor turf where he rode Dilshann to victory in 2000, and then the O’Brien-trained St Nicholas Abbey four years ago.
Victory today will be even sweeter than those two successes – he trains and rides Altruistic for his County Meath stable’s primary backer Andrew Tinkler of Eddie Stobart road haulage fame – and the top-class race comes just seven days after his last-gasp win on stablemate Royal Diamond in Ascot’s Qipco British Champions Long Distance Cup over long-time leader Harris Tweed, who is owned by Yorkshire textiles tycoon Brian Haggas.
That success on Royal Diamond in the final stride of a gruelling two-mile race left Murtagh on an emotional high. He claimed that it was “the best day of his life”, even eclipsing his three Epsom Derby wins on Sinndar (2000), High Chaparral (2002) and Motivator (2005).
The reason is this: several influential racing commentators doubted whether Murtagh, one of the finest horsemen of his generation with countless big race successes around the world following his first success on Chicago Style at Limerick in 1987, could combine the training and riding roles simultaneously without compromising the professionalism associated with a jockey who has struggled for two decades to keep his weight in check.
“It meant a lot,” said Murtagh whose 68 rides in Britain this summer, mostly in races at the very highest level, have yielded 15 notable winners at a phenomenally high strike rate of 22 per cent.
“A lot of people said I couldn’t do both. Last Saturday showed that I could do it at a very high level.
“As a jockey, you get off a horse and normally that’s it. As a trainer, you are with them 24/7. It’s great to ride them and train them. And to then win on Champions Day ... well, you couldn’t write it.”
In many respects, the 2013 British Flat racing season has been defined by Murtagh’s flying visits across the Irish Sea. He was an unexpected leading jockey at Royal Ascot thanks to wins on horses like King’s Stand speedster Sole Power and the ill-fated Thomas Chippendale, who collapsed and died moments after winning an already emotional Hardwicke Stakes for Yorkshire owner Sir Robert Ogden and a heartbroken Lady Jane Cecil, who was still mourning the loss of her husband Sir Henry 10 days earlier.
There followed King George glory on German champion Novellist – Murtagh was the beneficiary of uncertainty over Northern Racing College graduate William Buick’s availability – Cambridgeshire success on Middleham trainer Mark Johnston’s Educate and then the raw emotion of Royal Diamond’s win.
Today’s race is a slightly different proposition – champion trainer-elect Richard Hannon’s Chief Barker is well fancied, while the aforementioned O’Brien saddles Century, Buonarotti and Johann Strauss as he seeks an eighth win in 17 renewals. Pinzolo represents Sheikh Mohammed’s resurgent Godolphin operation.
A quality field, far superior to Newmarket’s much-diminished Middle Park and Dewhurst Stakes for two-year-olds, also includes Roger Varian’s favourite Kingston Hill; Hambleton trainer Kevin Ryan’s The Grey Gatsby and Somewhat for Middleham trainer Mark Johnston.
Not surprisingly, Murtagh is undaunted by the challenge. “Altruistic has had two runs. First time out, he was very impressive at Navan,” he said.
“He ran a second race in a Group Two at The Curragh and was third to the Ballydoyle horse Geoffrey Chaucer. He’s come out of the race well and deserves his chance as long as it is not too heavy. He’s pretty straight-forward and pretty genuine. It’s the big race at the end of the season, and it is very important to see where horses are ahead of next year and the Classics.
“I won on St Nicholas Abbey – that was an early inkling that he was going to be a top-class horse. It’s a big day for English racing, a big day for Doncaster and great to be part of it.
“We’re going there because we think we have a chance. He has to improve, but it is only his third race and I still think there is a lot of improvement to come.”
Not only is Murtagh’s big race record superior to most jockeys, but he is in the fortunate position to have served his racing education with training titans like John Oxx (of Sea The Stars fame) and the all-conquering Aidan O’Brien.
Now training rivals, their attention to detail is uppermost in Murtagh’s thoughts when his alarm goes off at 6am to feed his 40-strong string before beginning morning gallops an hour later.
“Their eye for detail, and keeping horses happy and healthy, that is what I have learned most of all from them. Looking after little things,” says Murtagh, who will also partner Take Cover in the big sprint for up-and-coming Bawtry trainer David Griffiths.
“I’ll be honest. I’m not doing this to make up the numbers. I want to be champion trainer and to train 100 horses. Hopefully, it won’t take too long to get there.
“I think that’s good for racing. I’ve never wanted to be second in my life. Never. In Ireland, you are competing against the best trainers all the time and that’s how I want to be judged.
“I didn’t expect to be riding so much this summer, but since Royal Ascot everyone has seen how well I was riding and doing both has worked out. It’s good to get the call for the big races. Training, and then riding at weekends, I actually think I’m a better rider because I’m that much fresher. And I’m enjoying it. I am so busy that it is definitely benefitting my riding, definitely.
“Training and running a yard is supposed to be a hard job but I don’t find any of it hard, because I’m enjoying it so much. I’m busy all the time and the weight has become less of an issue because I’m grafting all the time.
“I’ve ridden some great horses, it would be wrong to single any of them out, but I can’t tell you how much it means to train a big race winner – and put all that experience to use. I’ll do both for as long as I can. As long as I’m enjoying it, that’s all that matters. It makes the winning a lot easier.”
Especially on days like this.