OISIN MURPHY has experienced every twist and turn on Flat racing’s roller-coaster on the special day that he is finally crowned champion jockey for the first time in his career.
“Sleepless nights. Early mornings. Bad horses. Good horses. Highs. Lows. And the traffic travelling up and down the country,” he tells The Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview at the end of a gruelling 2019 campaign which has left him physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted. “I am pleased because it is a lifelong ambition. But relieved because I didn’t want to let anyone down.”
Then the softly-spoken rider reveals another endearing personality trait which has helped to win over the hearts of racing devotees as he reaches his sport’s top tier just six years after making his breakthrough.
He does not just want to be known as the 2019 champion jockey. Under Murphy’s law, he wants to be regarded as a big-race winner and global ambassador for the sport which has made him. “I would like to be viewed as a good role model for racing – someone racing enthusiasts would look up to,” continues the horseman as he dashes between early morning commitments on the gallops and the racecourse.
I am pleased because it is a lifelong ambition. But relieved because I didn’t want to let anyone down.Oisin Murphy
“If I am asked to do a school visit, and I have enjoyed doing them, it can only be a positive. I was that young boy once asking jockeys for autographs – my heroes were my uncle Jim Culloty, who won three Gold Cups on Best Mate, and Kieren Fallon, who was champion jockey six times. I know what it means.
“It’s when I saw this little lad – Alfie – at Windsor and Goodwood and we arranged for him to have riding lessons, and make a small film. When he asked for my goggles, he reminded me of my little self. You appreciate where you started.
“I had a very good grounding with my parents and grandparents. Whether I can also be a multiple champion, I don’t know. This year has taken a lot out of me physically and mentally. It has been hard going and hard work...”
The fatigue is discernible in Murphy’s voice – one of racing’s most effervescent personalities – as he heads to Ascot for the ninth Qipco Champions Day where over £4m is on the line.
For Murphy, this special day will be anti-climatic if he fails to win a big race – his main hopes appear to be The Tin Man in the sprint; Japanese raider Deirdre in the Champion Stakes and Benbatl in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes which the jockey won so memorably 12 months ago when the great grey Roaring Lion, and multiple Group One winner, scrambled home on bottomless ground. “It will be all about the races,” he stresses.
Yet this is also a deeply thoughtful sportsman whose humility has been matched by a determination to win, and beat the odds, from the moment that he was born 24 years ago.
His mother, Maria, was travelling on the road from Killarney to Cork when she abruptly went into labour – and gave birth to her son in a pub before medical help arrived. Eleven weeks premature, the young Murphy weighed just 2lb 14oz and needed round-the-clock hospital care until he built up his then fragile strength and physical development.
“I’m an impatient person, for sure,” says the jockey when asked whether his early arrival is a character trait which explains why his career, as a professional rider, has been one of perpetual progress after a childhood racing ponies and learning to ride thoroughbreds under the tutelage of Culloty, peerless Aidan O’Brien and Grand National legend Tommy Stack amongst others.
He won his first race in 2013 when an improbable 9,260-1 four-timer on Ayr Gold Cup day was quickly followed by an equally unlikely treble on Racing Post Trophy day at Doncaster where this correspondent still remembers Murphy’s incisive knowledge of the form book and fierce determination in his post-race interviews. “If I had told you then I’d be champion jockey now, it is definitely what I was hoping,” the jockey confirms.
From being crowned champion apprentice in 2014, his calendar year tally of winners kept increasing to 198 last year – Murphy rues missing out on a double century – to 215 (and counting) this year.
While last year was characterised by multiple Group One wins, notably with Roaring Lion, who won the Eclipse, Juddmonte International, Irish Champion Stakes and QEII Stakes before the great grey succumbed to colic this summer, Murphy had to adopt a different mindset in his pursuit of a first title.
Even though he says his primary job, as a jockey, is to give owners a memorable and enjoyable experience, he concedes that he derived little professional and personal satisfaction from winning moderate races late at night just to maintain his advantage over Daniel Tudhope. “You couldn’t let standards slip,” he explained. “The small ones, it is just another race. The big ones, you do get a buzz, but it doesn’t last when you’re in a title race like this. I don’t know if I will ever ride this number of winners again,” he reveals. He estimates that he has spent £50,000 on flights to and from extra meetings in addition to having an invaluable team – agent Gavin Horne, form analyst Terry Norman and chauffeur Sue McNulty – in his corner.
While Murphy was mortified when he was stood down at Salisbury in early June for failing a breath test – he had to get to the races very early to sweat for a couple of hours in the sauna – his contrition stood him in good stead with connections, and supporters, who knew that this was a one-off aberration.
Supportive text messages from, amongst others, John Gosden, the champion trainer, helped in a period when an unstoppable Tudhope surged 12 winners clear in the title race before Murphy regrouped. Grateful for the support of retained owner Sheikh Fahad and Qatar Racing, who gave Murphy the latitude needed to chase winners up and down the country, he heeded the advice of Yorkshire-born trainer William Haggas and focused on race-riding rather than riding work on the gallops.
He also drew on the experience gained last winter from riding against the world’s best in Japan – and is already looking forward to returning to the Far East next month for another stint. This Japanese connection led to him securing the winning ride on the brilliant Deirdre in Goodwood’s Group One Nassau Stakes – and the self-critical Murphy then admonishing himself when his five-year-old mount was a fast-finishing fourth in last month’s Irish Champion Stakes.
He went for a daring run up the inner before encountering trouble. “She should have been a lot closer. Japanese-bred horses are not used to stopping and starting like this,” says Murphy, who says the inner Ascot track, where the ground is less testing, will suit the mare in the 10-furlong Champion Stakes.
As for the future, Murphy’s first thoughts are for others. “I would like to win more Group Ones, a first Classic and keep winning for the same people... just keep them happy,” he adds.
They are also champion qualities from the boy wonder who is now racing’s No 1.