Johnny Murtagh was last night confirmed as Kieren Fallon's replacement as the No 1 jockey to the Coolmore operation. The 37-year-old Irishman, currently in Dubai, said: "I'm absolutely delighted with the appointment, and to be riding for John Magnier, Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith."
Murtagh has been a supersub in the past on Ballydoyle stars, notably when he took the 2002 Derby on High Chaparral, beating better-fancied stablemate in Hawk Wing. And if his new position is not the final nail in the coffin of the career of Fallon's association with the Ballydoyle team, it is surely a heavy blow, for up until now Magnier and his partners had maintained that they would not find an official replacement but merely use "the best available".
For Murtagh himself, life and riding has not been plain sailing, and pulling on the Coolmore shirt marks the peak of a remarkable comeback after weight and health problems. "I am over the moon," he added. "It is a great opportunity and I am really looking forward to riding for the team. I am 37 now and my best years lie ahead of me."
Aidan O'Brien, who trains the majority of the Coolmore partnership horses, said yesterday: "Johnny has already enjoyed plenty of success as part of the team at Ballydoyle and we are delighted to have him on board."
The Coolmore operation stood by Fallon throughout his court case at the Old Bailey, which ended with all charges against the six-times champion being dismissed. But he was hit with an 18-month worldwide suspension by France Galop last week after testing positive to a prohibited substance, although he has launched an appeal.
Murtagh's first high-profile winner of the season was the South African-trained star Asiatic Boy at Nad Al Sheba last week. Irish trainer Ger Lyons, one of Murtagh's staunch supporters in recent seasons, said: "It took them [Coolmore] long enough and I'm surprised he didn't get it years ago.He's one of the best jockeys in the world, if not the best."
Meanwhile, for progressive young hurdlers, the road at this time of year tends to be fairly clearly signposted. And after making it two from two over obstacles at Folkestone yesterday, the exciting prospect Numide duly galloped his way up the betting lists for one of the novice contests at Cheltenham, in his case the Supreme Novices' Hurdle. Should he make it to the Festival, though, his sat-nav will have sent him there via the scenic, rather than direct, route.
The five-year-old first saw the light of day near the Normandy coast in Calvados (bred by the same operation that produced last year's US Flat champion, Curlin), was trained in the shadow of the Pyrenees at Pau, and won his first two races at Toulouse, in the majestic Garonne valley. His best victory came within sight of the Eiffel Tower, when he took the Prix Hocquart at Longchamp, his best performance alongside a pretty chateau, when he was a length behind the winner when fifth in the French Derby at Chantilly.
Now, resident at Gary Moore's yard at Woodingdean, near Brigton, he has the South Downs as a backdrop, the English Channel as a view. His next test will be in less lovely Sunbury-on-Thames, but if he passes it, picture-postcard Cleeve Hill will be waiting.
Moore first spotted Numide when he was sent to market in Paris last October, and secured him for €100,000 (£75,000). The price made him something of a $64,000 question, for he had failed to build on his smart three-year-old form – he beat subsequent Irish Derby runner-up Gentlewave in the Hocquart and would have beaten Darsi & co given another stride and a half at Chantilly – in his third season.
"When we bought him, the attraction was his ability as a Flat racer, which was there in the formbook," said Moore yesterday. "And he was also a really nice, well-made type of horse who hadn't been over-raced. But still, it was a lot of money to take a chance on. Not now, though; luckily it has turned out all right."
Yesterday was Numide's 14th outing, his four-length on-the-bridle success under his trainer's son Jamie confirming the excellent impression given on his hurdling debut at Leicester three weeks earlier. "He's going the right way," added Moore, "getting better with experience. We'll step him up in grade next time - he'll run in the Dovecote Hurdle at Kempton next month and if all goes well there, he'll go to Cheltenham."
Numide – 1-5 yesterday, now around 12-1 for the Festival opener – runs for Banstead-based businessman Howard Hunt, for whom Altilhar finished second in the Fred Winter Novices' Hurdle at Cheltenham last year.
Perks of the job: Four top Coolmore prospects for Murtagh to savour
SOLDIER OF FORTUNE: Last year's Irish Derby hero stays in training and, after his bold fifth in the Arc, he is likely to be competitive in all the middle-distance Group One races.
MYBOYCHARLIE: Kieren Fallon failed his drugs test after riding this leading juvenile to victory at Deauville. Trained by Fozzy Stack and may be kept to the top sprints.
JUPITER PLUVIUS: Unbeaten in two starts, this son of Aidan O’Brien’s Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Johannesburg is among the leading fancies for the 2,000 Guineas.
WASHINGTON IRVING: Even during pre-Cheltenham fever this son of Montjeu continues to be backed for the Derby. Has had only one start - fourth in a Curragh maiden
Nap: Beshabar (Exeter 1.50)
NB: Edgeover (Leicester 3.00)