Sandwiched between his stints as the No. 1 jockey for the powerful John Oxx and Aidan O’Brien stables in Ireland, Johnny Murtagh was so often the “go to” name in the jockey ranks on a global stage.
He officially retired from the saddle in 2014 to concentrate on his training career and last year marked a breakthrough year for him, with Classics success in the Irish St. Leger at The Curragh.
That victory by Sonnyboyliston helped Murtagh break into the top five trainers in Ireland in terms of prize money and now the Curragh-based handler is hoping that the improving five-year-old can provide him with a springboard back to the big time during the Saudi Cup weekend, which starts on Friday at King Abdulaziz Racetrack in Riyadh.
Murtagh made his mark as a rider on multiple occasions in Canada, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Dubai, the US and the UK, as well as his native Ireland, and has made no secret of being similarly ambitious in his pursuit of success as a trainer.
“I rode in Saudi Arabia many years ago and while I haven’t seen the grass track, it’s an absolutely beautiful dirt track there and a brilliant spot for the horses,” Murtagh said prior to arrival in the Kingdom.
“It’s great to have horses rated high enough to get into these types of races for this type of prize money and it’s a new experience for us but we want to be competing on the world stage.”
As a jockey, Murtagh regularly delivered winning runs for some of the biggest owners in the world on horses bred in the purple but his first Group 1 winner as a trainer, Champers Elysees, was a filly he picked up for $32,000 as a yearling. Sonnyboyliston was a similarly priced steal.
“We bought Sonnyboyliston at the yearling sales at Tattersalls for $29,500,” Murtagh said. “He is by Power, who is a bit underrated, and the dam side is good.
“Liam Clarke runs the Kildare Racing Club, who own Sonnyboyliston, and he knew the breeder and was very keen on this lad going to the sales. They’ve all been very patient with him until things really started to click and now here we are.”
Connections are hopeful that this week’s trip to Saudi Arabia will be just the first leg of an internationally focused campaign for the modestly priced yearling, whose earnings to date of close to $1m could be multiplied with victory in Saturday’s $2.5 million Longines Red Sea Turf Handicap.
“We’ll see how Saturday goes but he is a horse that will travel because there are plenty of races for him,” Murtagh said. “We had a great end to the season with him last year but he has done really well over the winter and he definitely strengthened up on his break and looks strong.
“Saturday will be his first run of the season, obviously, but we brought him to Leopardstown racecourse for a gallop a couple of weeks ago and we were happy with that. I think he is pretty fit and we are looking forward to the weekend.”
Already such a famous face in the sporting world, Murtagh’s endearing personality might well lead him to impress a whole new audience in another guise on Saturday.