Murtagh relishes Soldier Of Fortune role in Arc
The trial of Kieren Fallon, the jury for which will finally be sworn in today, has already had a tortuous prologue. Fallon – who denies allegations of race-fixing, in common with five others – has not been permitted to ride in Britain since being charged, 15 months ago. It will perhaps strike him as ironic that the man who has gained most from his travails, lawyers apart, should be Johnny Murtagh.
Back in 2000, when Fallon suffered a career-threatening shoulder injury at Royal Ascot, his employer at the time turned to Murtagh and together they shared a dazzling run of success. Murtagh ended up riding a dozen Group One winners that year, eight of them for Sir Michael Stoute. Now, during this fresh nadir in Fallon's career, Murtagh could yet surpass even that annus mirabilis.
Having been rather out in the cold at first, Murtagh has worked his way back to the top of the list of replacements whenever Aidan O'Brien has had runners in Britain. On Sunday, both Fallon (Dylan Thomas) and Murtagh (Soldier Of Fortune) ride for the Ballydoyle trainer in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe – one of the few great races still to elude O'Brien, but one each rider has won already.
On the equivalent afternoon in 2000, Murtagh crowned his season with three Group One winners: Petrushka, Namid and, in the Arc itself, Sinndar. But somehow that pinnacle was surrounded by fairly loose scree. There was an unfulfilled air to some of Murtagh's subsequent experiments: a stint in Britain, a brief sabbatical, dealing with weight problems, even a spell riding over hurdles.
"After a year like that, there's a danger you start taking things for granted," Murtagh admitted yesterday. "But it doesn't take long to be reminded that you can never do that in this game. I've had a few lean times since. Last year I didn't ride a single Group One winner. I had set out to establish myself back in Ireland. I just wanted to show everyone I was working hard, giving 110 per cent every day, and making myself available as much as possible."
There could be no anticipating the opportunities that Murtagh was finally granted, back in the spring. Again it began with Stoute, who was able to offer him Notnowcato in the Tattersalls Gold Cup only because Ryan Moore had broken an arm. "Then I was lucky enough to pick up the spare ride on Peeping Fawn in the [Irish] Oaks when Kieren got injured, and it has just snowballed," Murtagh reflected. "I've gone on to win three Group Ones on that filly, and that's what happens. I think I'm riding the same way I've always ridden. But when you're riding very nice horses, they give you confidence, and keep you in the public eye."
Only a jockey riding with such freedom would have attempted the sort of stunt Murtagh pulled off at Ascot on Saturday, creeping away from a huge field on Candidato Roy and coming home alone up the stands' rail. He also won his ninth Group One prize of the year on Listen, for O'Brien, but plays down the role of a stable weight regime in his resurgence. "The weight's always there, but everyone has to do it," he said. "It's part of the job, and I'm sure there are some who have to work at it even harder than me. It's a lot easier to put on a sweatsuit and run round the block when you've got Group One horses to ride."
Murtagh has won on both the Ballydoyle Arc runners, including when acquainting himself with Soldier Of Fortune in a rehearsal over the Arc course and distance last month, and leaves little doubt as to which will be best suited by the softer conditions expected at Longchamp.
"Dylan Thomas definitely wants faster ground," he said. "When I rode him at York, he just got bogged down when he hit a few patchy bits. Soldier Of Fortune will go on any ground, as he went over it well enough in the Prix Niel, but I feel he'll be a bit better with an ease. The Niel's always a nice prep. It has a good history, and there's a nice gap of time in between the two races.
"There will always be a couple of French-trained horses prepped for Arc day, but Authorized is the one we all have to beat. He sets the standard: the trainer's happy, and the jockey's very bullish. But the Ballydoyle team is in great form, and they're sending two very exciting horses."
Further Group One opportunities beckon Murtagh at Newmarket tomorrow, namely Elletelle in the Skybet Cheveley Park Stakes and Achilles Of Troy in the Shadwell Middle Park Stakes. Authorized's trainer, Peter Chapple-Hyam, had the likely favourite for the latter prize, but Winker Watson will now not run again this season following a setback.
As for Fallon, the trial finally gets underway on Monday, following a delay caused by burst waterpipes in the courtroom.
NB: Blackat Blackitten