Talking Horses: Murphy needs to meet demands of his champion status

The celebrations were not quite all that they could or should have been when Oisin Murphy finally secured the Flat jockeys’ title for the third year running at Ascot on Saturday, after a final week of struggle with William Buick when the crown seemed to be slipping through his fingers. The emerging news overnight that he had been involved in a drunken “fracas” in a Newmarket pub a few hours before failing a pre-racing breath test on day one of Future Champions Weekend only added to the sense of a defending champion staggering over the line.

Sheikh Fahad al-Thani, Murphy’s staunchest supporter since his apprentice days, seemed to sense it too, and leapt to his jockey’s defence on ITV Racing. “Nobody reads the tabloids,” the Sheikh told Ed Chamberlin, ITV’s main presenter. “That’s just tabloid rubbish.”

Unfortunately, neither statement is correct. The Daily Mail, the tabloid in question, shifts just under 1m copies every day, and Murphy confirmed to its reporter that their story was accurate. He had little more to say after finally getting his hands on the trophy, and waved away a question about whether he had any regrets about the events running up to Champions Day.

As Murphy himself is only too aware, the best way to avoid stories about drunken fights and failed breath tests in the last week of the championship race is to have a few quiet nights in. Easier said than done, of course, not least when your only rival for the title is gaining ground hand over fist, but still not the sort of thing that a hugely experienced 25-year-old professional jockey should really need to be told.

And the real shame of it all is that it removed at least some of the shine from the crowning moment of the best season of Murphy’s career to date. He was the leading rider at Royal Ascot for the first time in June, added three more Group One wins to his record and – perhaps most significantly from the average punter’s point of view – got the very best from dozens of horses from one week to the next, at tracks the length and breadth of Britain.

The question of who is the most effective jockey in the weighing room is inevitably subjective, but the evidence that Murphy makes more of a difference, and more frequently, than any current rider on the Flat in Britain is persuasive.

The company Racing Research, for instance, has crunched the numbers on how horses perform for different riders for many years and their “Riding Effect” figures for 2020 suggest that Murphy, who was top of the list, was nearly 2lb better than the average rider last season.

The figure for 2021 remains to be seen, but the sense that horses frequently improve on their previous form when Murphy climbs aboard is also backed up by figures from the six months of the championship campaign.

His strike-rate in handicaps when riding a horse for the first time, for instance, was 20%, and anyone backing all 223 qualifiers would have shown a level-stake loss at SP of just 5.6%. The market is likely to react to Murphy’s booking in the first place, but even then, you could almost back them blind (and at the Betfair SP, incidentally, you would be looking at a healthy profit).

Murphy is around evens to defend his title next season, which feels like a big price if he is of a mind to go all out for a fourth straight success. David Redvers, Sheikh Fahad’s racing and bloodstock advisor, spoke of the need for “lifestyle” changes, which might have an impact on Murphy’s workload if there is a feeling that another title run could be too pressurised.

He would be the first rider to win four in a row since Pat Eddery in 1991, however, which would be another significant step towards being ranked among the greatest of all time.

If it were to fail a breath test again, he would face a ban of up to 21 days, or a season-busting 90 days if he “blows over” before June 2022. The hope must be that he will refocus his mind on the professionalism that a champion’s status demands, because even Sheikh Fahad’s patience is likely to have its limits.