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Murtagh's pick hard to winkle out

Ballydoyle jockey holds strong hand but keeps Derby ace close to his chest

Being stuck between a rock and a hard place is one thing; easing yourself out and finding a boulder, a slab of concrete and a brick wall looming is quite another. Johnny Murtagh will soon have to make a decision that makes him simultaneously the most and least envied man in the weighing room. He must pick his mount for the Derby.

It is a choice that will be left until the last possible minute, for although his retaining Aidan O'Brien stable accounts for no fewer than nine of the 20 colts remaining in contention for the Investec-sponsored premier Classic, any of them could – though heaven forfend that such a thing could be found on the Ballydoyle gallops – step on a stone and bruise a precious foot.

Though few of his colleagues will have been in his particular position, there is a certain amount of sympathy. "It's a call I wouldn't mind having to make," Eddie Ahern, whose best Derby finishing position from three rides was eighth on Hazyview five years ago, said yesterday, "but it's a tough one. And if he gets it wrong there won't be much mickey-taking from the rest of us; it's a professional decision he'll make with the best possible advice but, horses being horses, it's one he might not get right."

Instances of jockeys doing just that when faced with a powerful string are legion. Murtagh himself was the beneficiary on the most recent O'Brien Derby winner, High Chaparral in 2002. That day, the outfit's then No 1 rider Mick Kinane opted for the favourite Hawk Wing, who finished two lengths runner-up. Earlier in the year Murtagh had won the 2,000 Guineas on one of the Ballydoyle "neglecteds" when Rock Of Gibraltar beat the market leader, the hapless Hawk Wing, a neck.

"You wouldn't mind getting on second strings like those, would you?" Ahern added. "And the thing to remember is, even if he picks the wrong one for the Derby, he'll be on it another time. He may be down on his percentage on the day, but he'll get it back the next day."

That may be some consolation but, its £800,000 first prize apart, the Epsom showpiece is the one race every rider wants on his CV and should Murtagh get it right, his tally of four (he also won on Sinndar in 2000 and Motivator four years ago) would leave only seven men since the first Derby in 1780 ahead of him. Only two of those, Lester Piggott on nine and Steve Donoghue on six, have come in the past 100 years. The others are Jem Robinson (six) and John Arnull, Bill Clift, Frank Buckle and Fred Archer all on five. Six riders won four Derbys, most recently Willie Carson.

A myriad of factors will come into play come D-day; the decision must be made by a week today. If money talks, Murtagh has already made it – witness the recent gamble on Rip Van Winkle, on whom he finished fourth in the 2,000 Guineas, with the son of Galileo poised to leapfrog his stablemate Fame And Glory, the winner of Ireland's main trial, in the betting, and may even supplant Guineas winner Sea Of Stars as favourite come the day. Murtagh has also test-driven High Chaparral's brother Black Bear Island (when third in France), Age Of Aquarius (winner of the Lingfield trial), Freemantle (inched out by Black Bear Island in the Dante Stakes) and Masterofthehorse (second to Golden Sword at Chester) this season.

"The great thing is they work as a team down in Ballydoyle," Ahern said. "There'll be a day when they sit down and have a coffee and a chat, Johnny, Aidan, Colm [O'Donoghue], Seamie [Heffernan] and the work riders, to consider the ground, breeding, racecourse form and homework. All the cards will be there on the table. And sometimes you pick up the right ones."

* The Sir Michael Stoute-trained Leocorno, who was as short as 7-1 for the Oaks, is to miss the Epsom Classic a week tomorrow. The trainer has other entries in July Jasmine and Phillipina.

Chris McGrath

Nap: Ithbaat (9.15 Newcastle)

NB: Espiritu (3.40 Yarmouth)