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Relishing a new challenge; Johnny Murtagh talks to Rodney Masters about plying his trade in Britain.

WITHIN the last month, the expression 'squeezed up' has taken on a second and rather unsettling connotation for some jockeys, who once engaged the phrase only in a debriefing to trainers or during a changing room lambasting to remiss colleagues.

With the arrival on their daily circuit of first Gary Stevens and now the three-time champion of Ireland, Johnny Murtagh, the squeeze for rides will pinch that much tighter.

Inevitably, a few are going to feel the hurt, though publicly, at least, no yell is yet heard for protectionism, and privately there are no discernible smoke signals of resentment.

"Everyone has been most hospitable," insists Murtagh. "The jockeys here have gone out of their way to make me feel welcome; when I've asked for a lift to the races nobody has ever said no!

"It's not as if I'm a stranger. I'd struck up friendships with quite a few of the lads during our winter stints in Dubai.

"Frankie [Dettori] has been one of my closest friends since the occasion we rode together as youngsters in Japan, and I had nine holes the other afternoon with Willie Ryan. I'd like to think I'm a fella who is easy enough to get along with."

Murtagh, 29, is more or less doing a Richard Dunwoody and a Norman Williamson in reverse. When his usual workplace is quiet, and he is not required by John Oxx, he intends to ply his trade in Britain, perhaps three, sometimes four, days a week.

"I appreciate this will involve many hours of flying and motoring," he says. "I'm so fresh and keen that right now I don't envisage the extra travelling as a deterrent. It's better to be doing that than sitting on my backside at home piling on the weight.

"While my first loyalty will remain to Mr Oxx, who has been so loyal to me over many years, this extra experience can only make me a better jockey.

"I'm always striving to improve, and the day I stop doing that will be the day I should quit. I've this ever-constant desire to be that bit better than the next guy.

"I'm aware that I need to keep my whip nice and low. Sometimes it gets too high, and up there it's out of control. I'll get it right. With the whip guidelines in Britain so strict I'll have no choice but to improve in that area.

"My style may look smart enough when I'm winning by three or four lengths, but I know I don't look too tidy on the losers, and I need to polish that part of my game. You watch Frankie-he looks neat even when he's on one that's getting beat!"

Murtagh lives on 25 acres of The Curragh, and when available will ride several lots a day, including Sunday, for Oxx.

Using no more than a blend of competence and inspired timing, he could hardly have trumpeted more loudly this fresh, two-nation phase to his career if he had signed up publicist Max Clifford with a five-figure fee.

A week on from that memorable Ascot Gold Cup success on Enzeli, Murtagh breezed back to Britain to blow like a whirlwind with doubles at Chester and Yarmouth.

One of those Yarmouth winners was for Clive Brittain, and a link was forged; the next morning the jockey booked an extra-early alarm call at Dettori Towers-he is lodging with Frankie in Newmarket-to ride first lot at Carlburg.

"Johnny's a proper horseman, and really strong," enthuses Brittain. "I'll be using him whenever he's over."

Murtagh's mannerisms are strikingly similar to those of countryman Mick Kinane. He thinks carefully before responding to a question, and the answer will be worded to leave no confusion over its meaning. They also share the indisputable, deeply-rooted conviction that winning is everything.

The son of a Navan builder, Murtagh had no family affiliation to racing. At one stage he stepped along the same painful route as Lester Piggott, Jimmy Lindley and Ray Cochrane, by embarking on a flirtation with riding over hurdles.

Conspicuously less successful than the other trio, he failed to partner a winner, and after three months decided it would be far easier to shed the poundage that had initially forced him to make the switch from the Flat.

A never-to-be-forgotten kamikaze lap of Naas convinced him that jump racing is a sport best watched on television.

"At the first two flights my horse had kicked the hurdles out of the ground, and with a circuit to go and six more to jump I said out loud, 'God, I promise if I get round here in one piece I'll never ride another over hurdles'. That was a promise I've kept."

At times during 1992, three years after winning Ireland's champion apprentice title under Oxx's counsel, he waged war with visiting demons.

He is now loath to recall memories of that black period, when weight and personal problems sent him into a spin that required hospital treatment.

"I'm determined not to tell the story again, because that part of my life was finished a long time ago and there's no point in trawling over it," he insists.

"Let's just say I was fortunate that John Oxx had faith in me and was willing to give me a second chance. I think I'd proved to him it was a chance I wouldn't squander, and I haven't."

MENTALLY and physically, he is in better shape now than ever before, and the medically supervised Neutrone diet-which includes downing two litres of Evian a day- allows him to ride at 8st 6lb.

In Enzeli's last piece of serious work before the Gold Cup, Murtagh had been on his lead horse, and as they pulled up, Enzeli's rider, who, evidently, is not prone to embellishment, said: 'Johnny, this will win at Ascot'.

"That was encouraging because Enzeli's not one to show much at home," says Murtagh. "I'd been expecting a big run, but the way he quickened must make him a bit special. He's not just one of those out-and-out stayers, and I'm certain he can be competitive in the top races at a mile and three- quarters.

"I rode his dam, Ebaziya, who was tough and genuine, and her three foals have all won Group 1s."

Following a sluggish first half of the season at home, Murtagh, the current champion, is struggling to keep tabs on Kinane and Pat Smullen, who have double his number of winners.

"It has been disappointing," he admits. "Mr Oxx usually starts off the season with at least 40 good three-year-old maidens, but this time they didn't seem as good as usual. They are starting to pick up now, however, and I think quite a few will improve for better ground."

When Murtagh came to Britain to ride All The Way in the Derby, Richard Ryan, who works for the colt's trainer Terry Mills, suggested he should engage an agent in Britain, and recommended Tony Hind, who acts on behalf of Jimmy Fortune, Richard Hughes, John Carroll, Royston Ffrench and Richard Mullen.

"When I rang Tony he seemed to have four telephones calls on the go at the same time," says Murtagh. "That convinced me he was a guy I can work with. We agreed terms there and then."

Following last week's three-day Irish Derby meeting-Murtagh calls it Ireland's Royal Ascot-he was back in Britain on Monday, clearly relishing the challenge of this exciting new dimension to his career.
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Copyright 1999 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:Sports
Author:Masters, Rodney
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Jun 30, 1999
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