St Leger: Johnny Murtagh no stranger to taking on the best as Ottoman Emperor heads for Doncaster Classic

For over 25 years, Johnny Murtagh was widely viewed as one of the greatest big-race jockeys and won almost every major prize on offer – but there was one feature that always eluded him.

The former rider supremo enjoyed four Irish Derby triumphs, won the Epsom Derby three times and the 2000 Guineas twice, but never tasted victory in the St Leger.

He has since turned his attention to ticking off major landmarks as a trainer and could find a first Classic success in the famous Doncaster contest.

He goes to war against the might of Irish Derby champion Hurricane Lane with Glorious Goodwood victor Ottoman Emperor, winner of the Group Three Gordon Stakes in July.

Mixing it with the biggest names has always been a driving force for Murtagh, both in the saddle and now as the main man at Fox Covert Stables.

“I’ve always wanted to compete and test myself to see how good I was,” Murtagh told Sky Sports Racing.

“When I was an apprentice jockey, I was competing against Michael Kinane, who was riding for Dermot Weld, and Christy Roche, who was with Jim Bolger.

Murtagh was never able to win the St Leger at Doncaster as a jockey

“I was a 20-year-old cocky young fella and they had a bit more experience than me, but I was never intimidated by them. You learn pretty quick and I got a few harsh lessons riding against them.

“I went to England and rode against Frankie Dettori. He was a little bit special and had that X-factor. On those big days, he’s the man.

“When you start racking up the winners, that’s when you get respect. They know you’re serious and they know you’re hard but fair. That’s all I’ve ever wanted.”

Murtagh certainly earned the respect of his colleagues in the weighing room, but admits he may have rubbed a few trainers up the wrong way in his later years with something of a know-it-all attitude.

Murtagh with Prince Anne after riding Novellist to win the 2013 King George at Ascot
Murtagh with Prince Anne after riding Novellist to win the 2013 King George at Ascot

That is when Murtagh knew he should be his own boss.

“I was riding for some trainers and telling them what to do and where to go,” Murtagh said. “They’d probably say I was a nightmare.

“I don’t think they learned from me but they got pretty f****d off with me, the way I would be now if a jockey started coming in and telling me what to do.

“I got a good feel for training pretty early on with a couple of horses and then I knew. I know now that I really love horses and being around them.

Johnny Murtagh major landmarks as trainer

First Group Three – Royal Diamond (Irish St Leger trial – Aug 2013)

First Group Two – Belle De Crecy (Blandford Stakes – Sep 2013)

First Group One – Champers Elysees (Matron Stakes – Sep 2020)

“The key is knowing their personalities, what they like and don’t and then fitting in to them rather than having a system and making them fit to that.

“It’s like managing a team. Some of them need a good rollicking and some need your arm around them. Horses are no different.”

Murtagh’s tactics are proving as effective as ever, picking up notable victories on both home soil and when travelling over to Britain.

This season’s highlights include Create Belief taking the Sandringham Stakes at Royal Ascot and Sonnyboyliston’s win in the valuable Sky Bet Ebor Handicap at York last month.

Ottoman Emperor’s rapid rise though caught Murtagh by surprise.

Ottoman Emperor beats Sir Lucan and Third Realm to win the Gordon Stakes at Goodwood
Ottoman Emperor (left) beats Sir Lucan and Third Realm to win the Gordon Stakes at Goodwood

After finishing sixth on debut at Dundalk in March this year, the three-year-old son of Excelebration has since gone four unbeaten, the latest coming on the big stage at Goodwood.

“He’s definitely improved out of all sight this year,” Murtagh said.

“He ran at Dundalk first time out and was very green but caught the eye coming home nicely, then won his maiden at Cork.

“I thought he was a nice horse and could improve but I didn’t see him improving as rapidly as he has.”

Ottoman Emperor gets a well-earned pat down the neck from jockey Ben Coen after victory at Goodwood
Ottoman Emperor gets a well-earned pat down the neck from jockey Ben Coen after victory at Goodwood

Goodwood was not only a step up in class for Ottoman Emperor but also a first lesson in handling a large crowd.

Reflecting on the Gordon Stakes win, Murtagh said: “He probably got to the front a little bit sooner than ideal but it was good to see his reaction to it.

“He’s a lazy horse in the race and Ben [Coen] was pushing him along but as soon as Ben grabbed hold of him and gave him a slap down the shoulder, he quickened up really well.

“There was a big crowd there on the day and it’s the first time he’s experienced a crowd, the noise and the excitement. I think it’s done him the world of good. Mentally, he’s grown up again.

“We don’t think he needs a run in between, he’s a horse that is naturally fit and has been busy all year.

“Doncaster is beautiful track, fair and galloping with a six-furlong straight, so they get racing early. I think it’ll suit him.”

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Watch the final British Classic of the season, the Doncaster St Leger, live on Sky Sports Racing on Saturday, September 11 at 3.35pm

Murtagh expects another lively atmosphere on the Town Moor on Saturday and hopes to be celebrating once more with the Yorkshire locals.

“The people of Doncaster love their racing and they’re passionate about it,” Murtagh said. “This is their big weekend, their Royal Ascot or York.

“It’s the last English Classic of the year and it’d be lovely to get my name on it. To win a Classic is what we’re here for, it’s why we work hard every day.”

Speaking from his Kildare base, in the shadow of the Curragh racecourse, Murtagh seems cool, calm and collected, but admits that will not be the case on St Leger day.

“I do get more nervous now,” Murtagh said. “All the control is gone when you need it most, but we’ve put the work in at home and I know when the horses turn up that they’re in the right race, with the best jockey riding them and they’re there to do their best.

“If we can turn up in the best shape possible then that’s our job done.”

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