Racing: Jumping game eases the burden for Murtagh

A Derby-winning jockey tells Chris McGrath how the pain of keeping his weight in check drives him close to the edge
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The Curragh can seem bleak even on summer days when the plain quivers in the heat. Yesterday morning every blade of grass, every twig, was crusted in frost, and fog reduced the sun to an icy disc. Yet somehow the place had lost some of its severity, had gained intricacy, intimacy.

No doubt this impression owed something to the fact that Michael Halford's prosperous stables are sheltered in a pleasant hollow of lanes, hedges and trees. But it also mirrored a midwinter bloom in his stable jockey, for whom a sabbatical riding over hurdles seems to have maintained a precious equilibrium.

Johnny Murtagh normally plies his trade here between spring and autumn, when the Curragh is headquarters of Flat racing in Ireland. His overall harvest over the past six years has been abundant, including three winners of the Derby at Epsom. But he is also a man for whom the summer months can be as withering, as numbing, as any frostbite.

Murtagh, understandably, tends not to discuss the mental and physical attrition he endures to keep his weight under control. Here, in woolly hat and sheepskin collar, he did so with a candour that was mildly terrifying.

"Fred Archer," he said. "The greatest jockey of the 19th century, and he shot himself. For why? That was the net result of one thing only. We don't want that any more. There are times when it does wreck your head that mad, you might do something stupid."

Only last week the Irish authorities raised the minimum weight on the Flat to 8st 4lb and Murtagh is impatient for similar enlightenment in Britain.

"Dieticians and all, they're very good, but it's not as if you are getting ready for the Olympics," he said. "This is seven days a week, from March to November. I see apprentices coming through, and they don't know what's ahead of them. Their boss asks them to do 8st 4lb and they go into the sauna. I tell them if their weight is 8st 6lb, they must say no ­ otherwise they won't be able to do 9st a year down the line.

"Sometimes I am asked to do 8st 9lb and I say: 'No problem'. And then I have to kill myself to do it, because you don't want to let people down. You can't be doing that, and you can't be riding your best if you do.

"Wasting all the time, you can never relax. You have road rage before you get into the car. You have to get some kind of balance."

That has been Murtagh's abiding purpose ever since he salvaged his talent from an alcoholic whirlpool a dozen years ago. Unfortunately his body has instead been prey to this second, simmering torment, which appeared to boil over towards the end of last summer, when he swung a punch at Pat Smullen at the end of a race at Leopardstown. A 21-day suspension disqualified him from riding his latest Derby winner, Motivator, at the same track and there were some grim sages who wondered if he could retain control of body and soul during his absence.

But such a precarious existence can tip you one way as easily as the other. "Looking back, it was exactly what I needed," Murtagh said. "Of course, at the time I thought it was terrible. But then I told myself that there was nothing I could do about it, and that I might as well make the most of the time off ­ it was the holidays, and it did me a lot of good to spend that time with the kids."

Murtagh finished the season feeling so fit and focused that he offered to ride Halford's team of hurdlers. Their partnership had flourished on the Flat ­ only three other Irish trainers surpassed Halford's total of 54 winners ­ and Murtagh sensed that the experiment might keep him fresh against the rigours of his vocation.

Tomorrow he takes his family to Dubai, where he intends to ride for six weeks, but he will be back on 19 February to ride Golden Cross at Navan. Third to Brave Inca at Leopardstown on Sunday, Golden Cross is being prepared for the Ladbrokes World Hurdle at Cheltenham, and it is not just the fact that he has been able to eat eggs and bacon before riding that has stimulated Murtagh in recent months.

"The boys have made me very welcome from day one," he said. " A few of them were probably asking: 'What's he trying to prove?' I did think that if I jumped the last upsides, I'd surely ride the boots off them, but I'm after getting beat in three photo-finishes. I must say they are a different breed. They have a different mindset altogether, really don't seem to care about anything.

"I have had only one fall so far, when I was brought down at Christmas. OK, I could get a fall and be out six months, but the same would be true just riding out here for Michael. That didn't even enter my head. If it did I'd say I'd hang up my boots."

As it is, building on a solid base with Amanda Perrett in Britain and Halford here, Murtagh hopes to remain one of the handful of jockeys automatically considered for the sort of vacancy that arose on Motivator last spring. After all, at 35 he remains at the height of his powers, still animated, still exploring new dimensions of his craft. "At first I was probably trying too hard to get them jumping, whereas now I let them get into more of a rhythm, and try not to commit too early," he said. " On the Flat it's quicker and tighter, but nobody gives anything away over jumps either. Riding longer, you use your upper body more, and I definitely feel stronger.

"Nothing can compare to the Derby for a Flat jockey, but I have really noticed the buzz you get from a jumping crowd in Ireland. They are so passionate. I have never even been to Cheltenham but I've seen the sort of reception horses get going into that winner's enclosure. To ride a winner there, that would be something to tell your grandchildren round the fire some day."