Clare Balding pays tribute to Aidan O’Brien & Johnny Murtagh
World records were tumbling at the Beijing Olympics but racing is on course for its own record breaking flat season thanks to the exploits of the Irish champion trainer Aidan O’Brien and his jockey, Johnny Murtagh. As O’Brien moves with impressive ease towards the world record total of 25 Group 1 wins, Murtagh has proved the most able and reliable of team-mates.
‘Frankie & Johnny’ was a hit film in 1991 but the racing re-make will have to be called ‘Aidan & Johnny’. Attention to detail is their catchphrase. Always at the big meetings you will find them walking the course, plotting their route and finding out where the best ground might be.
Both O’Brien and Murtagh were successful in their own right before they teamed up at the beginning of this year (on the suspension of Kieren Fallon for a positive drugs test) but it seems that together, they have reached a higher plane. O’Brien has paid tribute to the tactical brain of Murtagh, his intensity and his evident enjoyment of race-riding.
“He is unbelievably special,” said O’Brien of his stable jockey, “The difference he has made has been unbelievable. Everybody can see it in his work, his races, the way he treats people. He has really stepped up to the plate big time and everybody finds him a joy to work with.”
O’Brien is a shy person, uncomfortable with the attention that his level of success brings. He constantly resorts to his mobile phone as a comfort blanket and although unfailingly polite, he lacks the presence and self-confidence of Murtagh. However, this season it seems that Johnny’s natural exuberance has brought Aidan out of his shell. Although the intensity never drops, Aidan seems to be allowing himself to relax a bit more.
“It’s a great team here,” Aidan said of the Ballydoyle set-up, “But Johnny has been a great plus. He has always been a great jockey, always been a great fellow, but now he has the experience and everything else behind him. I can’t say enough about him, he’s a very special fellow and he’s made all the difference to us.”
Murtagh is a one of the most popular jockeys in the weighing room but he can be ruthless when he needs to be, as was proven in the Arlington Million when he made sure that Archipenko, formerly trained by O’Brien but now in the care of South African trainer Mike de Kock, was kept boxed in on the rail. Murtagh has ridden for de Kock many times in the past but there is no doubt that he now represents one team and one only.
O’Brien is his Alex Ferguson and Ballydoyle his Manchester United. The respect between jockey and trainer is entirely mutual and it is clear that they are loving their mornings on the gallops as well as their afternoons at the racecourse.
“Aidan is the leader,” explained Johnny, “and everyone is willing to go that extra length to make sure that we do end up on top on these big days. I know when I go out there that Aidan knows the horses so well that when he asks me to do things, it’s the right thing.
“Aidan is a genius, the way they come out every race, every day 100% – they never lose a battle, whenever they get into a battle they always come out on top.”
With their domination of Royal Ascot, Glorious Goodwood and the Irish Classics complete, expect the O’Brien/Murtagh tandem ride to continue through the Ascot Festival, the Arc meeting at Longchamp and the Breeders Cup at Santa Anita.