Still basking in the afterglow of a first Royal Ascot success as a trainer, Johnny Murtagh is now targeting Classic glory in Saturday’s Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby.
Like favourite High Definition, Earlswood sidestepped the Epsom Derby to wait for the Irish equivalent and Murtagh is hopeful that the horse he inherited after the retirement of John Oxx can put up a bold show in what he regards as an above-average renewal of the Curragh Classic.
A son of Pivotal, Earlswood has won two of his three starts for Murtagh, most recently proving his liking for the Curragh when winning the Group 3 Gallinule Stakes over a mile and a quarter last month.
And Murtagh, who won the Irish Derby four times as a jockey, hopes the step up to a mile and a half for the first time can eke out the improvement needed for Earlswood to spring a surprise.
“We have a bit to find on the ratings so I’m hoping stepping up to a mile and a half that there’s a bit more improvement in him,” Murtagh said during a pre-Irish Derby Zoom call.
“You have to stay at the Curragh, the last three furlongs is a long way home so the best stayer usually wins the race. You do have to get a mile and a half well but I think our horse will.”
Explaining the rationale behind swerving Epsom, Murtagh said: “When we won the Gallinule it was a kind of win and you’re in, he wasn’t in the Irish Derby but then we kind of had a free ticket to go for it. I spoke to the owner (Glyn Davies) and I said: ‘We have to go to Epsom in 12 days or we can wait for the Irish Derby.’
“We just thought, we can give him the extra couple of weeks, we can train him for the Irish Derby, and here we are now.”
Earlswood will be ridden by Ben Coen, the talented teenager who provided Murtagh with that landmark Royal Ascot success when steering Create Belief to victory in the Sandringham Stakes last week.
Murtagh believes the 19-year-old is the “real deal” and admits Coen is far ahead of where he was at the same stage of their respective careers.
“I keep telling him he’s much better than Johnny Murtagh was at 19,” he said.
“He’s much cooler, he’s much calmer and he’s much more on the ball.
“He’s a very nice fella, he rides very well. That was his first time on the big stage at Ascot last week, and he seemed to thrive on it. That’s what you have to do when you are under pressure.
“I think he’s the real deal. I keep forgetting he’s only 19 — and he’s only going to get better, riding these good horses in these big races.”
Reflecting on Royal Ascot, Murtagh said: “We were lucky, a lot of our horses ran really well, but to top it off by having our first Royal Ascot winner was special. It’s a special place, Royal Ascot, it’s where you want to be as a trainer.
“I was very lucky as a jockey there but as a trainer it’s probably more difficult because you’re not jumping on horses that are going well leading up to it.
“They’re your own horses, you probably bought them as a yearling so you have them from October-November time. It’s very satisfying — it meant a lot.”
Classic glory at the Curragh would taste sweeter still but that challenge is a daunting one as, besides High Definition, the 11-runner line-up includes the second, third, and fourth from Epsom.
Mojo Star outran odds of 50-1 to get closer than anyone to impressive winner Adayar and British trainer Richard Hannon is hopeful the Sea The Stars colt can go one better at the Curragh.
“Our lad has a very good chance,” Hannon said. “If he runs the same race as he ran at Epsom he should go very close to winning.
“You could have blown me over with a feather when he was beaten at Newbury earlier this season.
“I managed to get both him and Snow Lantern beaten on the same day — and I thought: ‘This is going to be a long year’.
“In hindsight, he’s a very big horse and he’s grown.
“It was a bit of a leap of faith putting him in the Derby — but as soon as he pulled up at Newbury, I thought he was a Derby horse if I’d ever seen one.
“It was a brave/stupid call but it paid off and here we are. It looks like he could be a very good horse. I think this track will suit him a lot more than Epsom.
“It (winning) would be right up there (with the best days of my career). We’re hardly synonymous with Derby horses.
“I remember one year at school my dad had the favourite and second-favourite — and they were last and second-last!
While Hannon considers the “very decent” High Definition the one to beat, Murtagh believes the Ballydoyle colt will need to take a big step forward from his sole run this season, a staying-on third to Hurricane Lane in the Dante Stakes at York.
“High Definition has a big reputation and he was staying on very well in York but I think the Epsom Derby was a very good race this year,” Murtagh said.
“I think the winner was very good and the horses that were placed, they stayed on well. It was a proper run race and I loved the way they were spread out, there was a good spread between them, there didn’t look to be too many hard-luck stories, and everybody got a shot at it.
“High Definition will have to be everything they say he is, and he will have to have improved a nice bit from York because the Irish Derby is open but strong.”
The one downside for Murtagh from a successful trip to Royal Ascot is that quarantine restrictions mean he won’t be at the Curragh.
“Unfortunately I won’t be able to attend. I’ve had to stay 10 days in quarantine, I got my five-day result yesterday which was negative so I’ll be watching it on the tv. It’s disappointing but I’m sure you’ll hear plenty from me if I win the Irish Derby.”