IT is a measure of Oisin Murphy’s meteoric rise that he is riding Roaring Lion – the Investec Derby second favourite – less than five years after winning his first race.
A first Classic win on John Gosden’s grey, the runaway winner of York’s Dante Stakes last month, would be another landmark in the career of a jockey who has not looked back since Imperial Glance’s triumph at Salisbury on June 16, 2013.
After all, Murphy is constantly striving for improvement and is determined to eclipse last year when his first Royal Ascot success on Benbatl was followed by Group One triumphs in Canada and France.
He has already won a Group One race in Dubai this year on Benbatl and rode Consort to an impeccably timed triumph in Hong Kong last weekend. He has more than shown that he belongs on the world stage.
Yet the 22-year-old, driven by a desire for perfection, is also acutely aware of his debt to all those who have supported him on the way to the top as first jockey to Sheikh Fahad’s Qatar Racing.
From his parents, John and Maria, to uncle Jim Culloty, the triple Cheltenham Gold Cup-winning jockey, to Grand National hero Tommy Stack, the legendary trainer Aidan O’Brien, whose 2000 Guineas winner Saxon Warrior is favourite for the Derby, and his current chief, Andrew Balding, his mentors all have champion pedigrees.
On bare form, Saxon Warrior deserves to be favourite but that doesn’t mean we can’t beat him and it’s not a two-horse race.Oisin Murphy
“When I was four years of age, I started going to the riding stables in Milltown 10 miles from where we live,” he told The Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview. “My first pony was Rusty. I wanted to be a show-jumper. We’d go to the Royal Dublin Show and I’d watch my uncle Jim on television.”
This was the era Culloty was winning three successive Gold Cups on Henrietta Knight’s Best Mate as well as partnering Bindaree to Grand National glory. “I wasn’t nervous because I didn’t realise there was any danger,” recalled the Killarney-born rider.
“It was made very clear, from my parents and my family, that Jim was in a very privileged position and not all jockeys were fortunate to ride such good horses. My grandmother definitely made it clear that I still had to do well at school.”
From 14, Murphy combined studies with riding after moving to Culloty’s stables. “I had never ridden a racehorse before,” he admitted.
Soon, he was schooling future Gold Cup winner Lord Windermere and top staying chaser Spring Heeled over fences when Culloty realised his nephew had a God-given talent and telepathy with horses. Still Murphy was unfazed when his uncle recommended a summer’s work experience with Tommy Stack, the trainer who won the 1977 Grand National on Red Rum.
“Jim wanted me to be a Flat jockey,” he said. “He was well aware of the injuries and you got more opportunities on the Flat to ride internationally.
“Tommy Stack was very good to me. I didn’t have a licence. I rode on the simulator and was nothing like a jockey. It was a shock to the system. It motivated me to work harder. He was an absolute gentleman. He couldn’t help you enough and he’s from Kerry, the same county as me.”
The next summer, Murphy spent at Ballydoyle where, under O’Brien’s tutelage, he learned many of the subtleties required to ride top-class thoroughbreds.
“There were very few young lads apart from Aidan’s sons Joseph and Donnacha,” he said. “It was my 16th summer. He’s a very motivational person. I respect him as much as anyone else in the world. Every day, he would have something to say. Little things he’d spot.”
From there, Murphy moved to Balding’s stables at Kingsclere, a renowned riding academy, where he took out his licence. Not even nine other apprentices fazed the raw recruit, whose work ethic paid off when his first win at Salisbury was soon followed by a 9,260-1 four-timer on Ayr Gold Cup day, including the feature, and a treble at Doncaster’s Racing Post Trophy meeting.
Yet his big-race win on Hot Streak, trained at Thirsk by David Barron, in Haydock’s Temple Stakes in May, 2014 brought the rising star to the attention of Sheikh Fahad who, through Qipco, is a principle sponsor of Flat racing in Britain.
His understanding has helped Murphy progress through the ranks. Murphy has had three previous rides in the Derby, but Roaring Lion is his best chance by far and victory would mean as much to Sheikh Fahad as it would to the young jockey and all those integral to the making of a future champion.
Roaring Lion would also be just the fifth grey winner in 239 renewals. “It’s not often you have a live chance in a Classic, let alone the Derby,” said Murphy. “What he’s achieved so far would be good enough to win the Derby some years. On bare form, Saxon Warrior deserves to be favourite but that doesn’t mean we can’t beat him and it’s not a two-horse race.
“Sheih Fahad understands racing very well and knows things can go right and wrong. He takes winning and losing admirably. I wish I could be more successful for him. Good jockeys need good horses. You can be doing very well one minute and really struggling the next. I’m trying to keep as cool as I can and it’s worked so far. You can never be good enough – you’re always looking forward to the next race.”
Starting with the Epsom Derby, the biggest race of all.