Still hours before the first Breeders’ Cup race and there’s the lonely man, the running man, making a long and arduous trip around Santa Anita’s turf course. Johnny Murtagh circles the track, shedding the last few pounds and thinking about what’s in store. Coolmore’s contract jockey, Murtagh, could have a big weekend. He rides Man Of Iron in the Marathon, Lillie Langtry in the Juvenile Fillies Turf, Viscount Nelson in the Juvenile Turf, Alfred Nobel in the Juvenile, Mastercraftsman in the Dirt Mile and Rip Van Winkle in the Classic.
Last year, the Europeans dominated the Breeders’ Cup. The fact that none of them came from Coolmore didn’t escape Murtagh.
“Last year we had three seconds and it wasn’t fun going home on the bus after having three seconds at the Breeders’ Cup and no winner. It’s a wonderful venue for the Breeders’ Cup, it’s a wonderful track, this year we’re bringing a strong team and hopefully we’ll get some wins on the board,” Murtagh said. “We have a lot of horses with great chances, we always bring over a big team, but this year, they’ve been trained for this meeting, they’ve had a break during the season and Aidan really targeted this meeting, this year. I think in all we’ve got a lot of strength and depth.”
Murtagh rides the highly regarded Rip Van Winkle in the Classic.
“He’s been my favorite from day one, he’s always had a lot of class, he’s a brilliant mover, he runs a mile really well, we’re really looking forward to a big run by Rip,” Murtagh said. “He’s a class act back in Europe. I just hope he can perform over here on this track, I don’t think there’s any reason why he won’t. He’s got tactical speed, he moves well, he likes firm turf, everything points to that he will handle the Pro Ride here at Santa Anita.”
Mastercraftsman rates a long look in the Mile Dirt.
“He’s a massive big horse with a great cruising gear, he’s got loads of speed, he finishes really well in his races, he’s a very straightforward horse,” Murtagh said. “He’s fought his way all year and this will probably be his greatest fight this year, but he coming into this race in top shape.”
Lillie Langtry attracted morning line favoritism in the Juvenile Fillies Turf. After a trip to Ireland, this writer thinks she looks like a filly who will love the firm turf of America.
“I think she will, she’s a class act, she’s a filly I liked from day one, she was always well thought about at Ballydoyle, she’s one of our best prospects for next year,” Murtagh said. “We’re very hopeful for a big run from her, she’s got speed, the trip won’t be a problem, she has about everything needed to win a Breeders’ Cup race.”
Murtagh, before he landed the Coolmore job, spent a winter riding over jumps back in 2005-06. Struggling with his weight, and Irish at heart, Murtagh enjoyed his stint.
“I did that once. It was a wonderful experience, I must say, you guys are tough,” Murtagh said. “I had a little problem with my weight (on the flat), I soon realized after a few rides over jumps that it was much easier to go for a jog around the track and hop in the (hot) box instead of riding around there. It’s a tough life, one I really enjoyed for the season I did it.”
He nearly won one of the Cheltenham classic races, the World Hurdle with Golden Cross, in 2006.
“I must say I was never so nervous in my life, I was down at the start and I looked around, there was Ruby Walsh, Tony McCoy, Mick Fitzgerald, I said to myself, ‘What am I doing here? What am I doing here?’ After jumping the first hurdle it all left me,” Murtagh said. “I was never so confident about winning a race in all my life, ever, unfortunately we missed by a head, I will say it was one of the most nerve-wracking experiences in my life and one of the biggest disappointments of racing, not beating those jump guys in Cheltenham.”
Needless to say, Murtagh didn’t bring up the alternative lifestyle when interviewing for the job at Coolmore.
“It didn’t come up but I wouldn’t have liked to ask Aidan O’Brien or John Magnier, ‘Can I ride over hurdles for the winter?’ There was no doubt, the position I’m in now, I couldn’t afford to do anything like that,” Murtagh said. “My job is a special job. I’m very lucky to have the job and the thing is I know I’m lucky. Any jockey in the world would want to be in the position I’m in this week.”
Murtagh knows he holds a coveted riding assignment.
“It’s all about confidence, if those people have confidence to give you the job . . . you see the riders that have had that job at Ballydoyle and Coolmore, Lester Piggott, Mick Kinane, Pat Eddery, Kieren Fallon, all those great riders have been a part of that history that’s down there, for me to be in the same bracket as those, it gives me great confidence, and those good horses definitely make my job easier,” Murtagh said. “When you go inside the gates of Ballydoyle and Nijinsky is there, a big statue of Nijinsky, I’m blessed to have that job, I giggle to myself every time I drive inside the gates, I ride out there three or four times a week, I never take it for granted, I’m blessed to have that job and very grateful. It hits home to you when you’re here and the horses walk around you, Rip Van Winkle, Mastercraftsman, Alfred Nobel, Lillie Langtry . . . the list goes on. The Breeders’ Cup is a special event and to have eight shots of winning, words can’t describe it. Please God this is our year.”