The sporting landscape is littered with talents whose worldly diversions threatened the expression of their finest attributes on the playing fields. In some cases, men like George Best, Paul Gascoigne and one of South Africa’s finest reinsmen, Jimmy Anderson, he of the gifted “hands”, succumbed to the demon alcohol, never quite to recover. Others fell prey to the temptations around them, but somehow conjured a way to pick themselves up and come back for more, shedding the lures of the fast lane. In the sights here, you’d have to be thinking Herschelle Gibbs, and to bring it closer to home, the redoubtable Kevin Shea, whose admirable role of parade ring presenter for Tellytrack is his new day job. Beyond human comprehension and still completely unmanageable, is Andrew Fortune, whose rehabilitation saw a kid who’d gotten up off the floor more times than most of us can count, earning himself a jockey’s championship and who still plies his trade with the best in the game.
With the Dubai Carnival now most fans’ idea of Thursday evening’s prescribed viewing, my mind casts back to a parallel story of escape from the maladies of life. It’s only a season or two since our man was still riding at the top of his game, and in the northern hemisphere off-season was one of a clutch of Mike de Kock’s retainers at the Carnival. Gulam Bodi’s fall from grace this past weekend following allegations of cricket match-fixing, recalls this theme that so often afflicts the careers of elite athletes, and brought back the day a supreme talent first crossed my radar following his scintillating victory on the Aga Khan’s Sinndar in the English (now Investec) Derby at Epsom.
Minutes after the Derby hero passed the post in that country’s biggest horserace, someone stole the show. It might have been the freshly rampant Aga Khan himself, consolidating his return to the big league with his fourth victory in the event, all the sweeter for the fact that it was with a homebred. You would understand if it had been John Oxx, one of the game’s barometers of decency and a winner there with his first runner in the race. But it was neither. Enter Johnny Murtagh, who stood in front of the television cameras with a master class in how to handle the shining hour.
None of this monosyllabic “it hasn’t sunk in yet” twaddle. Here was a man who knew the weight of the event down to the last ounce; he simply produced a memorable mix of joy and gratitude, plus a degree of humility, in what was no mean moment of personal vindication. Murtagh’s tale is an extraordinary one, all the more so for the way he tells it. No self-pity, no “poor me”, just a starkly honest account of how he climbed up all the ladders from non-racing son of a steel-fixer to become apprentice champion and then, with the world lying doggo at his feet, proceeded to slide headlong down every available snake.
He transformed himself from the happy-go-lucky lad everyone wanted to know to, as he put it, “someone people didn’t like anymore”. And that included himself. On the occasions I’ve conversed with Murtagh in the higher echelons of the great grandstands of racing normally reserved for the “gods”, it’s hard to imagine this genuinely likeable character on his uppers. Though Murtagh’s rehabilitation of himself was not unique, few sportsmen have managed to reverse the trend after too long spent leaning on the self-destruct button.
At 15, as a graduate of a two week assessment at the Irish Apprentice School, he was assigned to the care of the good man, John Oxx, after a change of plan from another trainer. As Alistair Down once said, “so there is a God”. Much has rightly been made of Oxx’s role in Murtagh’s career off the record, but it ignores the history of a man of almost infinite patience, who speaks with insight and compassion about the problems young jockey’s face without the right guidance. Out on the gallops with Oxx, you can see why. Each lad, from the over-50s to the under-20s, was treated like an intelligent human being, with plans tweaked against the rider’s offerings after careful listening. Here was an object lesson in mutual respect and teamwork.
Oxx was a brilliant “cuts man” in Murtagh’s corner, fixing and papering over the cracks as and when they arose. Yet he’d be the first to insist that the pivotal role was played by Murtagh’s wife, Orla, daughter of one of Ireland’s sporting legends, the hurling star “Babs” Keating, no mean help to Murtagh himself and by all accounts worth fifty other people in the foxhole, when the muck and the bullets were flying. As Murtagh himself relates, “I was never bad when I was around Orla. It was when I was away from her that things would go wrong”. Yet if you know Orla, they say, you’d have to ask yourself why anyone would ever want to spend time away from her.
His career kicked off in May 1987 with 12 winners in his first season, 22 in his second and with 34 in 1989, he was crowned champion apprentice. By 1991, he was stable jockey to John Oxx, but what had seemed to be the light at the end of the tunnel was in fact a train coming, with his alter-ego at the controls and soon to set off on a course beyond control.
What started out as the sort of bingeing many of us know from our adolescent years soon became a habit, and he never really saw it coming. By 1993, when he returned from a holiday stint in India, he was struggling to lose the 4 or 5 pounds his social excesses had imposed upon him, and he was deluded into believing that everything was okay because he happened to be upon good horses. It all came to a head at Leopardstown, where he rode a filly in a Listed race 3 pounds overweight and was beaten a neck. He’d been to a party on the Thursday night, been off on the Friday, and Saturday came around just too soon. Basically, Murtagh had gone to the end of his choke-chain, and the correctional tug was now inevitable. He and Oxx had reached the cul-de-sac. Typically though, he thought he could do without the trainer: in the next month he rode 10 winners, but then overdid it again on the eve of an Irish festival and took the Thursday off, saying he was sick. Which of course, he was. Soon after, he had a full card booked for Leopardstown, and simply didn’t turn up. Instead he got on a boat to England and didn’t want to be a jockey anymore. When Murtagh bunked off like this, the rumour mill took on extra staff. “He’s hanged himself” was one theory, while the general consensus was that he was gone and finished.
From England he rang friends to see whether Orla, with whom he was going out at the time, had been in touch. Yes, was the answer, and she was rightly and deeply worried. Murtagh returned and saw a psychiatrist, who told him bluntly he had a drink problem, but the jockey, with all the problem-drinkers’ infinite capacity for self-deception, still wouldn’t have it. Then after a two day binge, he woke up one morning and somehow managed to grab the grating before sliding completely down the drain. “Jesus, Johnny, there’s something wrong with you; normal people just don’t do this,” and promptly checked into St. Patrick’s in Dublin, a well-known waterhole for those who spend too much time in watering holes, confined for 6 weeks. With the unstinting support of Orla, it was a question of relearning life’s alphabet, this time from A to Z.
The moment he checked out of St. Paddy’s, Murtagh went straight to John Oxx. On the first day of the 1994 season, his mentor put him up on a winning favourite, and 49 more winners followed. There may have been the occasional blip since, who knows? But you can’t abuse the sort of trust Murtagh had received from his wife, friends, family, employers and a raft of well-wishers. In terms of book-learning, Murtagh may not be a genius, but he is no fool and probably had the most priceless form of knowledge, that of himself. On the night before the Derby, he told his 4 year old daughter he was going away to ride in the big race. “But you never win the big race, Daddy”, came the confidence-boosting reply. Without the need for any more motivation, Murtagh walked the course before the first and looked around. The infield was packed and with 90,000 at Epsom on Derby Day and a horse with a great chance, this was his idea of what being a jockey was all about.
With a furlong and a half to go, Sinndar had his head on the ground, giving his all, and Murtagh reminded himself, “Don’t do anything stupid now. It’s hard to describe what it was like; the last time I felt like that was when my kids were born. But I’d still say it meant more to me to win the race for John Oxx than it did winning it for myself.”
More than a few sportsmen could do worse than take a leaf from Murtagh Mark Two: yes, his wounds were self-inflicted, but he had the inner strength to crawl out of the pit of his own digging, albeit with the help of a hundred outstretched hands. You might hesitate to call Murtagh’s tale inspirational, but you simply have to admire it. A whole man where once there were only holes, he grasped his second chance, and when he finally hung up his boots, he left a void in the professional ranks that was going to take a monument to fill it.
Johnny Murtagh / Metro News UK (p)