x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Johnny Murtagh's bittersweet run at Royal Ascot

Jockey-cum-trainer went through a myriad of emotions at this year's event, experiencing victory, defeat, even bereavement, writes Geoffrey Riddle.

Johnny Murtagh riding Thomas Chippendale wins the Hardwicke Stakes at Royal Ascot. Alan Crowhurst / Getty Images
Johnny Murtagh riding Thomas Chippendale wins the Hardwicke Stakes at Royal Ascot. Alan Crowhurst / Getty Images

LONDON // If one of the most dramatic and moving Royal Ascots in a generation had a key figure, it was surely Johnny Murtagh.

The Irishman, who now combines being a rider at the highest level with trying to eke out a career as a fledgling trainer, was crowned the top jockey of the meeting, for the fifth time, with four winners.

Queen Elizabeth's victory as the owner of Estimate in the Gold Cup on Thursday brought down the house, and the emotional storyline throughout the week of Lady Cecil, Sir Henry Cecil's widow, featured highly. But Murtagh was the unheralded puppet master to the unfolding drama.

Thomas Chippendale's tragic victory in the Hardwicke Stakes on Saturday was Murtagh's 40th winner at the Royal meeting. Of all the riders currently plying their trade, Murtagh trails only Frankie Dettori, who endured his first blank for eight years, in numbers of winners at Royal Ascot.

In all of Murtagh's wide experience of riding around the world, there is little to prepare a man for a horse dying underneath him in front of 70,000 people. As soon as the 43-year-old rider felt something was amiss, he dismounted Thomas Chippendale immediately.

Thomas Chippendale had been Sir Henry Cecil's final Royal Ascot winner. Lady Cecil was waiting joyfully in the winners' enclosure, unaware that her charge had suffered a fatal heart attack. Moments later she was in tears, alongside Luis Villarroel, Thomas Chippendale's groom.

"I felt him do a little shimmy when I was just pulling him up after the line and when I jumped off of him he lost his balance. I don't know what happened, he just collapsed behind me," Murtagh said. "I'm devastated at the way it's finished. It is heartbreaking for everybody involved."

Murtagh's also had a significant role in the uplifting Gold Cup, which resulted in Queen Elizabeth becoming the first reigning monarch to win the race in its 206-year history.

It was Murtagh on Simenon who was locked in a bitter struggle to the finishing post in the final furlong and a half with Ryan Moore on Estimate. Murtagh could not prevent the brilliance of Moore, the grit of Estimate and tide of goodwill from the grandstands that seemed to drive the filly to victory.

Given the rousing cheers that met Queen Elizabeth's success, and the personal congratulations from Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, it is understandable why Murtagh kept a low profile with his feelings at the defeat.

"I don't like saying it; finishing second in the Gold Cup was devastating," he said.

It was the same feeling he inflicted on Mike de Kock's team on Tuesday when he denied Shea Shea a first victory at the meeting for South Africa by driving Sole Power to victory in the King's Stand Stakes.

Murtagh secured a double on the day by providing Olly Stevens, one of Sheikh Fahad Al Thani's trainers, a first win at Royal Ascot when riding Extortionist in the Windsor Castle Stakes.

Yet it was Murtagh's ride on Forgotten Voice, who had not run on the flat for nearly three years, in the Wolferton Handicap on Thursday, which highlighted that he remains an elite jockey even as he transitions into training.

"As a jockey I'm as hungry as ever. I'm a bit more relaxed," he added. "Maybe the horses sense that. Maybe I'm getting a bit wiser as I get older. After this week maybe people will realise I'm still as keen as ever."

With Aidan O'Brien taking the top trainer award it was a clean sweep for the Irish, who posted eight victories throughout the week.

O'Brien secured wins with a double on Tuesday when Declaration Of War took the Queen Anne Stakes, in which Animal Kingdom ran his last race, and War Command ran out an impressive winner of the Coventry Stakes.

Gale Force Ten added to that tally with a win in the Jersey Stakes on Wednesday, while Leading Light capped a memorable five days for the Ballydoyle handler by scoring in the Queen's Vase on Friday.

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