When a rider of the calibre of Johnny Murtagh acknowledges that he will have to up his game in the future, the assumption must be that he is taking his new responsibilities as John Magnier's No 1 very seriously indeed. The 37-year-old Irishman reflected yesterday on the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead this year at Ballydoyle.
"There is no doubt that the team at Coolmore, men and horses, is a great one," he said, "and I'm just looking forward so much to being there and being part of it. I've been lucky enough for them over the years, I've got plenty of experience, I know what it takes to win and I feel very fit and very sharp. I'll have to improve again, but I think I'm capable of that as well."
Murtagh is in Dubai, where he will be riding until after the Dubai World Cup at the end of March. At this afternoon's Carnival meeting at Nad Al Sheba he has six chances to celebrate his elevation to the weighing room's plum job, notably on Kayak for his chief employer there, Mike de Kock.
Murtagh's last retainer was with John Oxx, a position he resigned at the end of the 2003 season because of ongoing battles with the scales, every jockey's nightmare. But his selection by Magnier and his partners Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith represents a vote of confidence in that department.
"I think you can see from the last couple of years that I have been pretty consistent with my weight," said Murtagh. "But you have to be. And I suppose it gets a little easier over the years as you learn how to deal with it better. I have a bit more discipline now and I think I have it pretty much under control at the moment. It's as good now as it ever has been."
After Murtagh left Oxx, with whom he started as an apprentice 20 years ago and who proved a staunch ally in the dark days of an earlier battle with alcohol, he found support from two smaller trainers, Ger Lyons and Michael Halford, and yesterday paid tribute to the pair. "They were vital to my career at that stage," he said, "and are very good friends. And when this offer came along they were very understanding and very supportive."
Murtagh's appointment is just reward for not only his ability, but his ability to overcome difficulties and get an innate talent back on track. He has won a hatful of prestige prizes over the years, including three Derbys, but after a blank 2006 at the highest level, he set his stall out at the start of last year to get back into the big-time, to the stage where his judgement and coolness are at a premium.
His reward was 10 Group One races in Britain, Ireland, France and Canada. Significantly, five were for Aidan O'Brien, for whom he rode nine winners from 39 mounts when Kieren Fallon was unavailable because of suspension or injury. At the top level he scored thrice on Peeping Fawn, on Dylan Thomas and on Listen for the Ballydoyle maestro and his other elite strikes included a particularly well-judged one in the Coolmore triumvirate colours on Jeremy Noseda-trained Simply Perfect in the Falmouth Stakes. The filly's name may have been portentous for her rider. "This is simply a great job to get," added a happy Murtagh. "and I'm really looking forward to a big season."
Already three times Irish champion, Murtagh has been installed as 6-4 favourite by bookmakers Hills to win his fourth domestic title in 2008.
Closer to home on the betting front is the Grand National and although the lists will not truly spring to life until the announcement of the weights on Tuesday, the protagonists were revealed yesterday at 150-strong. Numerically, the entry for the £800,000 Aintree showpiece has been exceeded only once in modern times, when 152 subscribed three years ago. With six of the past nine winners trained in Ireland, the contingent from across the water has never been stronger; 38 are prepared to make the journey, including the only previous winner in this year's field, 2005 hero Hedgehunter.
David Pipe and Peter Bowen each have 11 entries; the latter's include last year's runner-up McKelvey. Champion trainer Paul Nicholls, yet to win the great race, has seven, including early favourite Mr Pointment.
NB: Dancing Rock
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