Murtagh and Oxx reunited
Two of the Turf's biggest names went back to basics yesterday.
First connections of Kauto Star rejected a hazardous experiment in his historic bid for a fifth consecutive success in the William Hill King George VI Chase, deciding to keep him fresh for Kempton on Boxing Day rather than take in the Hennessy Gold Cup.
And then Johnny Murtagh, who had announced his departure from Ballydoyle a week previously, cast that decision in a fresh light by accepting a contract to ride the 120 horses trained for the Aga Khan in the Republic of Ireland.
As a result, Murtagh will renew the partnership that first introduced him to the riding elite.
The Aga Khan's principal trainer in Ireland is John Oxx, to whom Murtagh served as stable jockey from 1992 to 2003.
During that time, he rode 18 Group One winners in the famous green and red silks, notably Sinndar in the 2000 Derby and Arc. Nowadays the Aga Khan also has 30 horses with Michael Halford, with whom Murtagh also worked closely prior to his successful, three-year stint at Ballydoyle.
The revival of these old associations is said to have been merely opportunist, albeit you could hardly be surprised had Murtagh at least been given some tacit encouragement before quitting a position as coveted as the one at Ballydoyle.
The Aga Khan has a parallel arrangement in France, with Christophe Lemaire, and his stud manager, Pat Downes, explained that no slight was intended on Oxx's stable jockey, Fran Berry.
“Johnny obviously became available, and we have always had a retained rider in France,” Downes said. “His Highness and Johnny have had some very good days in the past. His Highness saw an opportunity to renew that partnership, and that has been sorted in the last 48 hours.
“Fran is a very good rider and has done great for us, but he doesn’t yet have the international experience of Johnny, who is a world-class jockey.”
That perception is clearly injurious to Berry's credentials for the vacancy at Ballydoyle, where the dilemma remains whether to promote Colm O'Donoghue, who himself lacks that breadth of seasoning but certainly warrants the chance, or to prise an established name from commitments elsewhere. The decision regarding Kauto Star was presumably rather more straightforward.
The stakes on Boxing Day are simply too momentous.
Giving so much weight to top-class handicappers would have exposed Kauto Star to a hard race at Newbury on Saturday week. Paul Nicholls, his trainer, will instead saddle Denman in what will itself be an unprecedented quest for a third Hennessy.