Weekend Interview: Medical miracle Connor Murtagh is onto a winner

Defying the odds:  Jockey Connor Murtagh.
Picture: Tony Johnson
Defying the odds: Jockey Connor Murtagh. Picture: Tony Johnson
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PICTURE the scene in the hospital consulting room. Aspiring jockey Connor Murtagh is meeting the world-leading heart surgeon to whom he owes his life.

The teenage rider is recovering from major surgery for the third time and is itching to return to the saddle. It is exactly six weeks to the day since a complex operation on his heart. He had been told it would be three months before he was back riding.

Jockey Connor Murtagh
 at Ladies Day at Beverley Racecourse (Picture: Tony Johnson)

Jockey Connor Murtagh at Ladies Day at Beverley Racecourse (Picture: Tony Johnson)

“Can I ride out tomorrow?” he asks impatiently after being given the all-clear.

“I wouldn’t advise it,” cautions Dr John O’Sullivan.

“You’re not saying ‘no’?” probes the patient who, by now, is pushing his luck after weeks of ‘boredom’ staring at walls.

The consultant paediatric cardiologist simply shook his head in disbelief – the bravado of all jockeys is such that there is no medical rule book.

By any standards, Murtagh’s first full season – he only turned 17 in March – has been remarkable. Fifteen winners from more than 175 rides when he was just expecting to graft away at Musley Bank stables and perhaps ride in 50 races if he kept his head down.

Connor Murtagh

“I just went out and did it,” said the rider, recounting the life-changing exchange to The Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview.

He has not looked back. He became apprentice to trainer Richard Fahey’s all-conquering Malton yard in January.

His very first ride in public was a winning one when the aptly-named 25-1 outsider Symbolic Star, trained by his parents, Barry and Sue, won at Newcastle in March, ironically just a short canter from the city’s Freeman Hospital where he has been treated for the extremely rare condition tetralogy of fallot which left his heart with three chambers rather than four.

Yet, while his proud mother said her son redefined the phrase ‘born lucky’, this was, in fact, no beginner’s luck story. Far from it. He has since ridden for Fahey at Epsom’s Derby meeting and then Royal Ascot. He told assistant trainer Jess McLernon she had made a mistake when she broke the news that he was to ride the classy Another Touch in the Royal Hunt Cup. Though 11th, Murtagh said: “I was buzzing and I was on a high for the next week.”

Jockey Connor Murtagh aboard Ballesteros at Beverley earlier this week (Picture: Tony Johnson)

Jockey Connor Murtagh aboard Ballesteros at Beverley earlier this week (Picture: Tony Johnson)

More recently, he rode Growl to fourth in the Stewards Cup at Goodwood. He will, in all probability, race for the first time at York’s prestigious Ebor festival next week, a tantalising prospect he describes as “every rider’s dream”.

By any standards, Murtagh’s first full season – he only turned 17 in March – has been remarkable. Fifteen winners from more than 175 rides when he was just expecting to graft away at Musley Bank stables and perhaps ride in 50 races if he kept his head down.

He has more than done that. It is why he was riding at Ayr on Monday and then Ffos Las in deepest west Wales on Tuesday where he won aboard Fahey’s Ventura Dragon before partnering Ballesteros to a better than expected third at Beverley on Wednesday.

The best compliment of all is that this talented teenager did not look out of place, either in the paddock talking to connections or in the saddle as he used all his strength to do justice to a horse named after Severiano Ballesteros, a gladitorial golfer who personified the courage and adversity shown by Murtagh.

He looked a natural – both his parents were riders and his older brother, Lorcan, is becoming an accomplished jump jockey in the North.

Yet, when he was just 10 days old, his hands and feet turned blue and he was rushed by ambulance to hospital. Without his GP being a heart expert, and appreciating the urgency, Murtagh may not have made it to the operating theatre in time to rectify a pulmonary valve that meant his blood was not receiving sufficient oxygen.

When 18 months old, he had further surgery to replace the valve and place a ‘patch’ over the hole in the heart before his surgeon deemed a third operation necessary last year after his heart started to swell.

Murtagh was mystified. Sports-mad, he had never felt healthier. “He said: ‘If you don’t have the operation, you will be back in six months for a heart transplant – or you will be dead’,” said the rider. “It was a case of getting the operation. The less I knew the better. It will be a year on September 6 since I had my last op. If you’d told me then that all this would have happened, I would have told you ‘no chance’.”

Yet it helped he was naturally fit. Growing up on his family’s Cumbrian farm, he was riding before he could talk and the pony racer was always destined – health permitting – for a career in the saddle.

A week’s work experience at Fahey’s yard last year led to the offer of an apprenticeship at a racing academy renowned for its tutoring of young riders from Paul Hanagan, the dual champion jockey, to last year’s Ebor hero Adam McNamara.

Not only did this spur the still boyish-looking Murtagh to pass his necessary riding qualifications – but he also had to undergo additional health checks to satisfy the British Horseracing Authority that he would not pose a risk to himself or others. “I’m as fit as a fiddle,” he declares before explaining a typical day.

“We start at 6.30am but I’m at the yard at 5.30am because the apprentice is expected to be. I trot up horses that have raced the day before, turn others out in the paddock, put some on the walker.

“I usually ride out six or seven lots, it depends if I’m racing. Sometimes it’s 10 or 11 but the great thing is I’m with experienced riders like Paul Hanagan and Tony Hamilton. You learn so much just watching them. Richard is great, too. He goes through my rides with me and helps sort lifts to the races.”

Afternoons are either spent at the races – or sleeping, before evening stables where young Murtagh is tasked with cleaning out the water butts in each stable. It is another motivation to get more rides. “It’s quite smelly,” he discloses.

The fact that the Fahey stable is home to Royal Ascot hero Ribchester, one of the best milers in Europe, is another incentive – the ultimate ambition, says Murtagh, is to ride horses of this calibre in the premier races.

Though he loves the thrill of riding over jumps, and always will, his light eight-stone frame makes him a natural for the Flat where he prefers long distance races to sprints. “I don’t envy my brother when it’s hammering down with the rain at Kelso over three miles and having to push the whole way.”

Both his father, a one-time apprentice to National Hunt legend Jonjo O’Neill, and his mother have reminded their sons about the importance of being level-headed in a sport where there are more losers than winners.

It is a close-knit family epitomised by the emotional scenes when Symbolic Star won – the victorious rider was led up by his elder sibling.

Yet, while a fresh-faced Connor Murtagh is destined to make his name as a jockey rather than a ‘medical miracle’, there is also recognition that he is only living his dream thanks to the NHS and Freeman Hospital in particular.

“I would like to thank them,” says the grateful jockey. “They have been great to me ever since I went there as a little kid. I owe them my life. Without them, I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing today.

“I hope to make them proud one day.”

He already has.

The Connor Murtagh story...

CONNOR Murtagh’s first victory came when Symbolic Star, trained by his parents, won at Newcastle on March 1 at unlikely odds of 25-1.

He was led up by his brother Lorcan, a jump jockey.

His first success for trainer Richard Fahey came later in the same month when Lady Turpin won at Southwell. It was just his third ride.

Murtagh’s biggest victory came in June when Oriental Class, trained by North Yorkshire’s Paul Midgley, landed the £26,000 first prize in the William Hill Tartan Trophy Consolation Race Handicap at Musselburgh.