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Chastened Murphy eager to get back doing what he does best – The Irish Times


Oisín Murphy was just 20 when he hired Sue McInulty to be his driver.

He was flush with money and talent and ambition, and having a driver gave him an edge that only the most successful riders could afford. Sue’s only condition was that her client would sit in the front so that she didn’t feel like a chauffeur. There were days, bum days, when silence would flood the car until every word had drowned; on most other days they talked about everything.

At times, Murphy’s drinking put a strain on their relationship. If they had an early start, and he was still floored from the night before, and she was outside, banging on his front door, and he wasn’t stirring, “she would be going mental,” Murphy says. Every so often she would threaten to quit, and even though the gun was cocked and pointed, it was never loaded.

When alcohol began to inhabit Murphy’s daily life, his drinking would start in the car after racing. He would text Sue from the weighing room, asking her to pick something up: maybe a bottle of Ruinart champagne, depending on where they were.

“Ruinart was my favourite, and I’d know that you could buy it close to Sandown, for example, whereas you couldn’t buy it close to Kempton. But you could buy a Veuve Clicquot. Or I might go through a phase of drinking Sancerre, or Gavi di Gavi, which was like £22 in most M&S service garages.

“Sue would try to stop me but, at the end of the day, if she doesn’t buy it for me, I’ll make her stop on the way home and I’ll just buy it myself. That was my routine and I would call my trainers on the way home. That might mean just one bottle of wine, but you get to a stage of alcoholism where one bottle of wine hardly touches the sides.”

On October 7th, last year, Sue drove him from an evening meeting at Chelmsford to a friend’s birthday party. On the following day Murphy was booked to ride for his principal trainer, Andrew Balding, and his retained owners, Qatar Racing, on a Group One card at Newmarket; the race for the Flat jockey’s championship had entered its final couple of weeks, and in pursuit of his third title in a row, Murphy’s lead over William Buick had been reduced to single figures. None of that added up to a quiet night.

“I drank, I don’t know, a bottle of wine – maybe two. And then went to the pub afterwards. Blacked out completely. Woke up the next morning with no recollection of the night before. Pitch up to Newmarket and there’s no breath test there. And then the breathalyser arrives. All of a sudden I’m in this state of panic. How am I going to pass this? I had already weighed out for the first race. I blew in the breathalyser – under the drink drive limit but over the riding limit.”

It was the third time in as many years that Murphy had failed a breathalyser test at the races. In the background, the British Horseracing Authority [BHA] were preparing a case against Murphy for serious breaches of Covid-19 regulations, stretching back to the previous year. No date for that hearing had been set. He knew that they had more than enough evidence to hammer him.

“The drive home from Newmarket that day was the lowest point. I just wanted to disappear.”

“He was so homesick when he came to Kingsclere [Andrew Balding’s stables]. I remember sitting with him thinking, ‘Why has he come to Kingsclere? Why didn’t his Mummy keep him?’ Because I felt he was so vulnerable. He was so young. How blooming wrong was I?”

Anna-Lisa Balding, wife of Andrew Balding. Horsepower, Amazon Prime, Episode One.

Murphy was 16 when he landed at Kingsclere, hardened from two summers with Aidan O’Brien and one with Tommy Stack. The yard was a hothouse for apprentices; in Murphy’s year there were nine others, all of them on the right side of failure, still.

“I had a lot of self-doubt. We had weekly simulator lessons with John Reid [jockey coach and former jockey] and I looked the worst on the simulator. It didn’t happen for me naturally. Andrew [Balding] had seen a lot of Irish boys come and go. He might have heard that this kid is very interested and very knowledgeable, or whatever, but I’m sure he had heard that millions of times. I really had a point to prove.”

Murphy was different, though: precocious and quick-witted on a horse, poised in front of the cameras, he had the blatant charisma of a star.

In September 2013, only four months after his debut on a racecourse, he rode a four-timer at Ayr, including the Ayr Gold Cup, at cumulative odds of 9,260-1. He was riding out his apprentice’s claim so quickly that Balding didn’t allow him to ride in low grade races, and agreed that he should spend a few winter months in Australia. On New Year’s Day, at Flemington, the biggest racecourse in Australia, Murphy rode another four-timer.

“I was sent there with the idea of minding my claim,” he says, “and I ended up just taking off on a different continent.”

His talent and his temperament accelerated everything. After his breakthrough season, Qatar signed him to a retainer as their second jockey; when he was 19 he bought his first house in Lambourn, half an hour from Balding’s stables.

“I always had people living with me,” he says, “but I never charged rent.”

He didn’t need their money.

Did he appreciate what a privileged position he was in? “No.”

In Kingsclere, though, he felt grounded and rooted.

“Andrew isn’t confrontational. If we have an argument, it’s over in 10 seconds and then it’s all over, whereas Anna-Lisa is quite tough and has no problem giving me a bollocking. Like, no problem at all. It’s a kind of safe haven for me. I feel like if there was anything bad going on, that I didn’t want to put the stress on my parents, I would speak to her. She has known me for 10 years – so, she’s seen everything.”

When did his drinking become a problem? Long before he abandoned his denials. It was blended into his working life. He accommodated everything: his duties, his binges. For years, he was a highly functioning alcoholic. In 2019 and 2020 he rode more horses than any other jockey in Britain; in both of those years, and in 2021, he was the champion jockey. In 2018, he finished runner-up. Somehow, he managed.

“The thing is, I never missed my engagements in the mornings because I was very good to get up – but I just wasn’t sober. I survived on so little sleep for so long a time because I would drink until I passed out, and obviously your sleep quality is so bad when you’re really drunk. I got away with it for a while because people put up with it. I was still getting on very well in the afternoons [at the races]. Did people spot it [his drinking]? Yeah, but what could they do really? I was riding winners every day.

“I would have periods of trying to recognise that I might drink too much, and periods when I thought I was fine. There were enough warning signs. People tried to help me and I ignored them. Celebrating and a lack of success were dealt with the same. [Winning] was never enough. Being leading rider at Royal Ascot – then the next day I’m at Brighton, and I have three odds-on favourites and I feel like I haven’t ridden any of them well. I used to drink the shit out of it when I was celebrating, and drink the shit out of it when I was commiserating.”

The first episode of Horsepower was released on Amazon Prime this weekend. It is a compelling four-part, fly-on-the-wall documentary, capturing nine months in the life of Kingsclere, culminating at a triumphant Royal Ascot for the yard in 2021.

During that time Murphy received a three month ban from France Gallop after traces of cocaine were detected in his system. Ordinarily, that offence would generate a six month ban, but Murphy was adamant that the positive test had been the result of a sexual encounter with a cocaine user, and France Gallop ultimately accepted his explanation.

During his suspension he agreed to 12 sessions of counselling.

“I didn’t want to do it,” Murphy said in episode two, during the winter of 2020/21.

“My counsellor wanted to know how much I was drinking. I couldn’t tell her when I had the last drink-free day . . . I basically decided to stop drinking and prove to myself that I didn’t need to drink. I feel like I’ve turned a corner.”

At the beginning of the same episode, Anna-Lisa highlighted the crossroads that Murphy had reached in his life.

“Oisín is 25 years old [27 now] and he’s at the top of his game. You’re getting the money, you’re getting the parties, you’re getting the trophies, the champagne. You’re living the high life. And I think he needs to sit up and think, ‘I need to behave like a champion.’”

More trouble, though, was growing like an ulcer. In September 2020, during a seven day riding ban, Murphy and his then girlfriend went to the Greek island of Mykonos. Around that time, Covid-19 restrictions were being continually reviewed for every destination on the globe, and just before they departed Mykonos was added to the UK’s red-list. What it meant was that they would need to quarantine for two weeks on their return. Murphy failed to do so.

Instead, he tried to spin a web of deceit, claiming he had been in Italy. When the BHA started to investigate his whereabouts for that week, that fiction was bound to collapse. Pictures that Murphy had posted on social media were traced to Mykonos and the BHA soon closed in.

“It was crazy, really. It was mental for me to go to Mykonos. I remember I got a stupid ban at Ayr that I felt like I didn’t deserve. I just wanted to escape. Mykonos went on a list the day before I left. I had booked this expensive holiday to stay at Cavo Tago Hotel – a crazy expensive place. I thought I won’t see anyone anyway and, as it turned out, I didn’t. Six months later the BHA started asking questions about where I’d been and I told them I’d been to Lake Como. They asked for my bank records. Then I had to put my hands up.

“I knew so many people who had been on silly holidays and actually had partied, so I didn’t feel like I had broken the rules. I had convinced myself it was okay – when it really wasn’t.”

In the two weeks when he should have been quarantining, Murphy rode eight winners; when the jockeys’ championship concluded the following month, Murphy was 11 clear of William Buick. In the title race, though, that fortnight was crucial. Did he feel guilty about those winners?

“No. I think a lot of other jockeys should have been quarantining during that period of the season and they just didn’t get caught – or weren’t hung out to dry.”

For most of 2021 Murphy knew that he was facing a crushing suspension, he just didn’t know when the axe would fall. He says he managed to control his drinking for most of the year, and was sober during Royal Ascot; he was crowned leading rider that week, with five winners. At Glorious Goodwood, the following month, he rode five winners too, and “blacked out” every night. Nothing was settled.

“I really struggled with the pressure of knowing [what was coming]. The BHA knew in February that I had been to Mykonos. Not knowing when they were going to set a hearing date or when they were going to release it to the public, I found very difficult. One part of me is hoping that they prolong it as long as possible. Another part of me is hoping they put me out of my misery. I ended up being very angry with myself through the middle of last year.”

In the title race, Buick pushed him to the last day of the season. Murphy won again. There is a fellowship in the weighing room that transcends the heat of competition, but not all relationships weather the same.

“We were very friendly before I started winning championships and he started finishing second. I’m very happy for him that he has won this year’s championship [Buick is nearly 60 winners clear] and I think he’ll be very hard to beat next year. He’s developed a massive contacts book, he’s incredibly hungry, he’s come in for a lot of rides that I would normally ride, and I don’t think there’s anyone riding at a higher level.”

“It was very obvious he was a talented rider. I knew we had a superstar. Oisín is very ambitious. He’s very tough on himself. He’s very self-critical, always has been. That comes from wanting to be the best. Probably as good a rider as there is in the world.”

Andrew Balding, Horsepower, Episode One

On the day after he failed the breathalyser test last October, Murphy returned to Newmarket. That morning, a British newspaper carried a story about his behaviour in the Three Blackbirds pub on the previous Thursday night. He denies there was a fight. At the track he was bound to face questions. He fronted up.

“A lot of people wouldn’t have wanted to see me pull myself together and show up the next day, fully sober.”

Do you really feel that?

“I do. Even now.”

Why?

“Because I had gotten away with that kind of approach for a long period. I think my relationship with the jockeys in both the British and Irish weighing rooms is very good. To the young guys I’m very kind. I never roar and shout, even if there’s scrimmaging in a race. I don’t feel like there was much bad will from them.

“But I feel like a lot of the trainers . . . because I walk around with different Arabs [owners] from different countries, and I’m friendly with them, people see this Irish little boy and [wonder] how has he put himself in this position?”

That afternoon Murphy won the Cesarewitch, one of the most competitive handicaps of the season, with an exquisitely judged ride from the middle of the 32-runner field. Nicky Henderson’s instructions had been to go forward, but Murphy decided to take his time, and trust his judgement. On the horse, his mind

was clear.

“I hear other jockeys saying, ‘We had a plan’. When I ride there is no, ‘We had a plan’. There’s just my plan.

“The first month after I failed that breathalyser, I was more driven than ever before. I had finally admitted my problem. I had started going to AA [meetings] and counselling. I’d begun on the path. I felt like I wasn’t embarrassed any more. All the people that were bad-mouthing me when I failed the last breathalyser couldn’t say anything because I had come clean.

“I now needed to prove that I could still win big races. I went to the Breeder’s Cup [in America] and won on Marche Lorraine. People that wanted to see me fail . . . well, what could they say?”

After the Breeder’s Cup, in November of last year, Murphy surrendered his rider’s license. The following February the BHA issued their judgement against him. His honour, James O’Mahony, chairman of the disciplinary panel, told Murphy that he was “a brilliant jockey, a superb horseman, intelligent and articulate”. Thereafter, his tone changed. “However affected by addiction,” O’Mahony said, “we conclude that you thought you were above the rules.”

Murphy was fined £31,110, and given a 14-month suspension from riding, including concurrent 11-month bans for each of the three Covid breaches. There are five months remaining.

How has he coped? Stayed busy. He rekindled his childhood passion for showjumping and started competing in the ring again; three or four mornings a week he rides out at Kingsclere; once a week he helps out at a riding school for the disabled. Twice a week, he talks to his counsellor in Newcastle. He attends AA meetings. In April he drove a lorry to Poland in an aid convoy for Ukrainians fleeing the war. At Royal Ascot, he worked for Sky Sports Racing.

“I only accepted two hours a day, for three days. I’m sure if I wanted to do six-hour days, for five days, I could have done. I didn’t want to be in the public space too much. I might go to the sales for a day or two but I don’t really feel like I’m accepted in racing circles at the moment. I’m still very much the black sheep.”

The Baldings and Qatar Racing have been unflinching in their support. His mother, Maria, has been a frequent visitor from Kerry, staying for weeks at a time at his house in Lambourn, or the apartment he rents in Chelsea. He has drifted a stone above his racing weight, but nothing that can’t be shifted. He has stayed sober.

Murphy has invited the BHA to breathalyse him randomly, or take hair samples to check for cocaine use, but they haven’t accepted his invitation yet. He looks well, he feels well. He’s thinking about getting back. Every day.

“My biggest fear is not being sharp, and second-guessing myself, and not having the instinct. There’s no way I’m going to be as good as I was at the Breeder’s Cup last year, or in the Cesarewitch, when I felt that the whole world was against me . . .”

That will come.



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