Johnny Murtagh boxing clever at York again to win Sky Bet Ebor
The only trainer to have saddled two winners of Europe’s richest handicap in the last 10 years, the horse named after boxing icon Sonny Liston had to withstand the challenge of Quickthorn, ridden by Malton’s Jason Hart, in a frantic finale.
And while Murtagh never rode an Ebor winner during a decorated career in the saddle, his pride was palpable after Ben Coen, Ireland’s rising star of the saddle, followed instructions to the letter.
Now the horse, owned by Kildare Racing Club, could head to Australia to contest the Melbourne Cup as Murtagh’s second career, as a trainer, continues to gather strength.
Captivated by his success with the Louis Steward-ridden Mutual Regard in 2014, he now targets the Ebor each year and the horse’s win – from stall 14 – was further evidence that high numbers are not a disadvantage.
“It’s all the hard work everybody does at home. It’s me knowing the kind of horse it takes to win these races, like when I was riding in them,” said a rain-drenched Murtagh after a downpour dampened Ebor day.
“I’m going back to my experience as a jockey. That’s the kind of horse we need for this track or that race. The last time he ran here he ran very well, and I liked the way he came home. He came on for that run, and that gave us confidence. He’s out of a good staying mare. Fair play to Ben. He was good.”
Sonnyboyliston is entered in the Comer Group International Irish St Leger at the Curragh on September 12, while Murtagh also nominated him for the Melbourne Cup at Flemington on November 2.
He said: “I have him in the Irish St Leger, and we’ll have to think about that first now before we consider Australia.
“Last year when he won (on) Irish Champions weekend over a mile and a quarter, I always thought when he stepped up in distance he’d get better.
“At the start of the year I thought he might end up in the Ebor. It doesn’t always work out like that, but today it did – by a head.
“He is a pretty good stayer. He has to improve a lot for the Irish St Leger – but he’s probably going to get a hike for that. It’s the next logical step.
“There have been a lot of people looking at him before today, and I’m sure they will be on again after today, but my plan is to go for the Irish St Leger.”
York chief executive William Derby reported crowds for the four-day meeting, sponsored by Welcome to Yorkshire, to be in the region of the 2019 attendance of 83,000.
He added: “We’ve been really encouraged by the response of the crowd to racing – the feeling of people being back and relieved to get back to live sporting events.
“This is the first time we’ve reached our capacity on the stands’ side for Ebor day. The crowd figures are there or thereabouts to our 2019 level. We had a record for a Friday at the Ebor Festival.
“We saw some brilliant action on the track, highlighted by the three Group Ones with world-class performances by the winners – Mishriff, Snowfall and Winter Power.
“They were special, each in their own right with their own story, plus the magic of Stradivarius on Friday winning an amazing race in the home straight.”
The final day action saw Attagirl take the Julia Graves Roses Stakes for Leyburn trainer Karl Burke and jockey Danny Tudhope while Space Blues oozed class in the Sky Bet City of York Stakes over seven furlongs.
A Group One winner last term, Space Blues had claimed a big-money prize in Saudi Arabia earlier in the year – but subsequently disappointed on Dubai World Cup night and was given a break until reappearing at Goodwood.
Fourth on his return, Space Blues had clearly taken a big step forward for the outing and was travelling supremely well with two furlongs to go as early leader Lord Of The Lodge dropped away quickly.
William Buick had to get to work on the Charlie Appleby-trained winner in the final furlong, as stablemate Glorious Journey and John Quinn’s admirable Highfield Princess tried to peg him back, but the favourite had enough in hand.
This is a Group One race in all but name and Buick reported: “It was a good performance and in many ways it was what we wanted to see from him.”