OISIN MURPHY says his big race mount Count Octave is bred to win the William Hill St Leger. “He’s improving with each race and will definitely stay,” says the rider ahead of today’s Classic.
Equally, it could be said that the 22-year-old was born to win races like Doncaster’s showpiece test. And, while he’s firmly focused on the future, and prefers not to look back, Murphy’s meteoric-like rise to prominence requires context.
Five years ago, he was a work rider. Four years ago, he announced his arrival with a 9,260-1 four-timer on Ayr Gold Cup day. In 2014, he became champion apprentice. Two years ago, he won the Ebor on Litigant and was retained by Sheikh Fahad’s Qatar Racing operation. And, in 2016, he recorded his maiden century of winners.
And this year? A landmark first triumph at Royal Ascot – courtesy of Benbatl – and a realisation that he wants his career to be defined by Group One and Classic triumphs. He’s impatient for a first win at this elite level.
Yet, while today’s St Leger field is one of the most illustrious in the recent history of the one-mile and six-furlong test, it would be remiss to discount Count Octave. Beaten by a neck at Royal Ascot by Stradivarius who is well-fancied for today’s test, this progressive colt was then second at Goodwood after appearing to be unsuited by the Sussex track’s contours.
“I think he has a good chance, certainly a place chance,” Murphy told The Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview. “If he’d won at Royal Ascot, he’d be one the favourites. He’s by Frankel and he’s a half-brother to Treasure Beach who won a Irish Derby. If he wasn’t good enough for the Derby, a race like the St Leger was always going to be the plan. I’ve sat on him about 10 times. You get to know their quirks and what they’re like. He’s very laid back and one of those horses that has a relaxed mind. Nothing, touch wood, startles him.”
With each day, it gets harder and you have to be more confident in your ability. I’m very self-critical. I know when I’ve got it right and I know when I’ve got it wrong.Oisin Murphy
Murphy, a product of Ireland’s pony racing circuit, will have no shortage of support on Town Moor. His uncle Jim Culloty has won the fabled Cheltenham Gold Cup as both a jockey (three times on Best Mate) and a trainer (Lord Windermere). “He speaks to me every day. He knows the ups and downs and still thinks like a jockey,” reports Count Octave’s rider.
He has similar respect for the horse’s trainer Andrew Balding after joining the famous Kingsclere stables in 2013. “He’s brilliant with apprentices. He puts you on a handicapper with no pressure. If it goes wrong, it goes wrong. There’s no point turning back. He doesn’t mind if you don’t totally follow instructions as long as there is a reason.”
He’s equally effusive about Balding’s legendary father Ian who trained, amongst others, the great Mill Reef. “He rides out with the apprentices and picks up on things. I was a bit stick happy at the beginning and he helped me out.”
And then Sheikh Fahad whose claret coloured silks are donned by this likable rider after Pearl Secret’s Temple Stakes victory at Haydock in May 2014 for North Yorkshire trainer David Barron. “A gentleman,” reports the jockey. “He’s young and ambitious. I’m just very open and honest with him. He’s a good race-reader and wouldn’t have needed convincing about running Count Octave in the Leger.”
Murphy, now in touching distance of last season’s career-best 114 successes, will, at the end of the season, return to Hong Kong where he spent last winter. He says he learned much more about the importance of “gate speed” and the skill of holding race position on its tight tracks. “You make split-second decisions in milliseconds,” he explains.
Yet he’s acutely aware of the scrutiny that jockeys face. Two lengthy bans this year, he concedes, were “self-inflicted”. “Every step up the ladder you climb, the fall is much greater and faster,” he ventures. “With each day, it gets harder and you have to be more confident in your ability. I’m very self-critical. I know when I’ve got it right and I know when I’ve got it wrong.”
Murphy is speaking in the weighing room at Doncaster wrapped in towels after a soul-destroying session in the sauna. He apologises for his demeanour. “Saunas don’t agree with me,” he says, after losing a couple of pounds to make 8st 9lb.
Yet, while he’s intense about his riding, he is a natural in the saddle – horses run for him better than most – and his reaction after Lightning Spear’s last-gasp win in Goodwood’s Celebration Mile showed what the sport means to him. After challenging late, he stood up in his stirrups and punched the air when the photo-finish result was declared. Not just once, but on multiple occasions. He knew he had done nothing wrong tactically. “If I didn’t get there, I would have said it was my fault,” he said.
There will, says Oisin Murphy, always be days when it does not go to plan. That’s racing. But, he says, a day not learning about riding is a wasted day when there are major races, like the St Leger, to be won.