Soumillon favourite to fill Murtagh's seat

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The Independent Online

Whether he jumped before he was pushed is open to debate, but one of the sport's worst-kept secrets – the deteriorating relationship between those who run Ballydoyle and their stable jockey Johnny Murtagh – was finally made official yesterday with the rider's resignation from his post.

Murtagh has ridden as retained No 1 for trainer Aidan O'Brien and the Coolmore Stud partners who supply the horses for the past three seasons, with top-level winners on all the great stages, including a tally of 11 this year. The most recent, Roderic O'Connor in France nine days ago, was Murtagh's latest success of any type for the powerful Co Tipperary operation; all his four mounts at the Breeders' Cup were unplaced.

A formal statement issued by his agent brought closure. "Johnny Murtagh has informed Mr John Magnier, Mr Derrick Smith and Mr Michael Tabor [the Coolmore associates] and Mr Aidan O'Brien he will not be renewing his contract next season. He would like to thank Mr Magnier, Mr Smith, Mr Tabor and Mr O'Brien for the wonderful and successful three years that we all enjoyed together."

Murtagh, the fourth retained Ballydoyle rider in an eight-year span, took over from Kieren Fallon, who in turn had been appointed after a brief tenure by Jamie Spencer, the replacement for Mick Kinane.

The man backed yesterday to take over what seems a fairly hot seat was French-based Belgian ace Christophe Soumillon, who had replaced early favourite Pat Smullen, the Irish champion, at the head of the bookmakers' lists by close of play. Others reckoned by punters to be in the frame are Fallon, the former British champion Ryan Moore and Colm O'Donoghue, already in-house at Ballydoyle.

Over jumps, Ruby Walsh has the beginning of February, a month before the Cheltenham Festival, pencilled in for his return to action after successful surgery to repair the double fracture of his right leg he sustained in a fall at Down Royal on Saturday. "The operation went well," he said yesterday, "and I'm looking at 12 weeks out."

The 31-year-old Irishman is, like most in his profession (one of the few in which the practitioners are routinely followed round by an ambulance as they get on with their job), used to hospitals. "These things happen," he said philosophically, "and there's no point in being all doom and gloom. At least I'll get the chance to spend some time with my family."

Walsh is at the top of his game, able to split his services between the best yards in Britain and in his own country, those of Paul Nicholls and Willie Mullins respectively. His being on the sidelines for three months is not ideal, either for him, his employers or the racing public, but it will not materially affect his circumstances.

Spare a thought, then, for teenager Jack Doyle, just starting to make his way up the weighing room ladder. At Hereford on Sunday he, too, broke his tibia and fibula and likewise faces a long unwanted holiday.

Turf Account

Sue Montgomery's nap

Royal Charm (2.50 Exeter)

Hurdles winner over course and distance and likely to be better as a chaser.



Next best

Catspan (1.00 Sedgefield)

Competent winner of his bumper and can follow up first time over hurdles.



One to watch

Willie Hall (W Amos) shaped with promise on his hurdling debut at Kelso until he ran out of puff in the closing stages.



Where the money's going

Hey Big Spender and Big Fella Thanks have been cut from 20-1 to 14-1 for the Hennessy Gold Cup by Ladbrokes.



Chris McGrath's Nap

Victory Parade (2.20 Exeter)

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