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Murtagh rules out Melbourne Cup run for Sonnyboyliston

Johnny Murtagh has confirmed his Ebor and Irish St Leger hero Sonnyboyliston will not travel to Australia for this year’s Melbourne Cup.

Just three weeks on from his lucrative success at York, the four-year-old provided the legendary jockey with his first Classic success as a trainer when getting the better of Twilight Payment in a thrilling finish at the Curragh on Sunday.

Murtagh admits the Melbourne Cup is a big draw, but feels his stable star has done enough for this season.

He told www.racing.com: “I spoke to the owners the other day and the horse has come out of the race really, really well.

“But to be fair to him, he’s run in the Ebor and ran in a grueller here at the Curragh – a very strongly run race over a mile and six. It was a titanic battle with him and Twilight Payment and he came out on top.

“He’s been on the go for a long time and hasn’t let us down all year. I feel it’s time for him to have a little break now.

“He’s only four and is one of the top stayers in Europe at the moment. Stradivarius isn’t getting any younger.

“The Melbourne Cup was in the back of our minds, but it wasn’t the plan – and to go over there and take on the best in Australia, the Melbourne Cup has to be the number one target.”

Johnny Murtagh celebrates after Sonnyboyliston's victory in the Ebor at York
Johnny Murtagh celebrates after Sonnyboyliston’s victory in the Ebor at York (Nigel French/PA)

Murtagh revealed Australian-based owners have been in touch with a view to purchasing Sonnyboyliston from the Kildare Racing Club.

But with increased measures in place for horses travelling Down Under, connections are keeping hold of the gelding for the time being.

“It’s very difficult to get down there full stop,” Murtagh added.

“It’s hard to get people there with the Covid restrictions. It’s hard to get down there as a trainer and enjoy the whole build-up and everything that goes with the Carnival.

“We’ve had a few offers. There were a few offers before the Ebor and there were a few offers after the Ebor.

“But everyone was saying ‘get him in the bone scan’ and ‘we don’t want to buy him unless he can come down here and run in the race’.

“He passed the vetting for Hong Kong last year, which is pretty severe, and it was just at the last minute that the guys decided to keep him and run him as a four-year-old, which was good for us.

“He’s a pretty sound horse, but he’s had a hard season and I just didn’t fancy putting him through all that at this point of the year.”

Sonnyboyliston lands another knockout blow

Ebor hero Sonnyboyliston claimed Classic glory in the Comer Group International Irish St Leger.

Just over three weeks on from his lucrative handicap success at York, Johnny Murtagh’s charge stepped up to Group One level for the first time under Ben Coen.

With Amhran Na Bhfiann and Colin Keane setting a searching gallop from flag-fall, very few threatened to land a telling blow.

The leader weakened early in the home straight, which left Melbourne Cup winner Twilight Payment in front before Sonnyboyliston (4-1) arrived on the scene travelling strongly.

Twilight Payment did not give in without a fight, but Coen’s mount kept finding for pressure and was three-quarters of a length to the good passing the post.

Coen said: “I couldn’t have asked it to go any better. We jumped and he got a lovely tow into the race. They turned it into a real staying race and this lad keeps improving and keeps finding a way to win.

“Every day we step him up, he keeps on finding and it’s a day I’ll never forget.

“This is my first proper year as number one jockey to Johnny and we’ve had a few good spins in England, but I really wanted to get this Group One winner.

“For it to be a Classic and for Johnny is unbelievable.”

Ben Coen lifts the Irish St Leger trophy
Ben Coen lifts the Irish St Leger trophy (Brian Lawless/PA)

Murtagh, who won the Irish St Leger as a jockey when dead-heating aboard Jukebox Jury a decade ago, said: “On Friday I was bullish about the weekend and then after yesterday’s runners, I came here thinking we had a little chance.

“He was one of our best runners of the week, he never disappoints and I thought he did very well to win today – it looked like a proper race.

“I was a nervous wreck beforehand, but he had a good position all the way. He comes off the bridle, but I thought from two furlongs down Ben looked confident on him. He got into a bit of a battle, but he never lacks in a battle and I thought Ben was brilliant.

“I want to have runners on Irish Champions Weekend – it’s great to sit down and make entries in these great races.

“This horse has won an Ebor and has now won an Irish St Leger – I can’t say enough about him.”

He added: “Racing is a great game and a great leveller. You can never get too high or too low.

“I’m just the front man to a lot of people who do a lot of hard work. JP Murtagh Racing – I’m so proud of everybody.

“It means a lot to win a Classic at your local track.”

Asked whether the Melbourne Cup could be on the agenda, Murtagh said: “I don’t know. I think it will take a fair offer to take him away from the owners now.

“But it is £2.5million. Maybe not this year as he’s only four, but maybe he could end up down there for us sometime.”

Sonnyboyliston team waiting on next move

Ebor winner Sonnyboyliston has come out of his York exertions well, but where he runs next is still to be decided.

The plan had been to take him to Australia for the Melbourne Cup, but trainer Johnny Murtagh mooted a possible tilt at the Irish St Leger on September 12 in the immediate aftermath of Saturday’s race.

“He’s in good shape. He came out of it well,” said Murtagh, who was winning the Ebor for a second time after Mutual Regard in 2014.

“I spoke to the owners the other day. They’re getting together, and they’re going to make a plan of attack.

“But he’s got home in one piece. He’s good – he’s a little bit tired, as you would imagine.

“But I put him out in the paddock this morning, (and) he seems pretty happy with himself.

“We’re just waiting with the boys to see what they think. I told them what I thought.”

Monday Musings: Sonny Side Up Again for Irish Raiders

Throughout the Cheltenham (especially) and Aintree spring jumping Festivals, much of the conversation within the media but more importantly among trainers and owners was the manner in which Irish trainers’ horses seemed not just to outrun their handicap marks but almost to transcend them, writes Tony Stafford.

For ages Willie Mullins has been able to take aim at some of the fattest staying Flat-race prizes over here, having a well prepared line-up of Championship-class jumpers primed to run away with races like the Cesarewitch.

No wonder then that much of the build-up to Saturday’s Sky Bet Ebor at York was dominated by the expectation that once again the home trainers were going to be caught with their pants down. Mullins was coming and unleashing a horse that had not seen a racecourse since October.

The world’s greatest jumps trainer is renowned for bringing back former stars from long absences for easy victories and Mt Leinster, a six-year-old by Beat Hollow, told a compelling tale. Starting out life as an average bumper horse and then hurdler, he didn’t exactly set the world on fire. However once Willie’s son Patrick got onto him in qualified riders’ Flat races (amateur and conditionals) and lastly the Kildare Amateur Riders’ Derby his progress was remorseless.

After an initial Flat-race win over a mile and a half he next found the concession of 11lb to the talented and versatile Wonder Laish beyond him. It was his following victory that projected him into a different league. At Listowel he gave 11lb and an easy five-length beating to French importation Cape Gentleman who had already shown winning form at home for Nicolas Clement.

Following that performance he won again at 3 to 1 on to end his season. Meanwhile, Cape Gentleman was running away with the Irish Cesarewitch before embarking on a successful winter over jumps. Last time, in the highly-competitive Galway Hurdle, Cape Gentleman was a creditable third to Mullins’ Saldier, another of those smart jumpers that seem to mop up valuable handicaps at will.

In the event Mt Leinster proved a severe Ebor disappointment, finishing in the rear division; but, never fear, the UK handicappers still managed to extend their reputation for charitable largesse in the Irish quest for the holy grail of the half-million pound Ebor pot with its £300k to the winner.

Few doubt that, as good a champion jockey as was Johnny Murtagh, he is shaping as though he will become an even better trainer. When he brought his four-year-old Sonnyboyliston to Chester for the Group 3 Ormonde Stakes – he was a good third behind Ballydoyle’s Japan and subsequent Goodwood Cup winner, Trueshan – maybe the Ebor was already in his sights.

He might have expected a rise in his horse’s mark of 109 and that seemed the most likely outcome after a comfortable victory back home in Listed company. That is not to understand those compliant handicappers who left him unchanged. Thus on Saturday with those impeccably solid Graded form credentials, he was, remarkably, 3lb lower than when easily winning an admittedly valuable Curragh handicap for Murtagh last autumn.

On Saturday, Sonnyboyliston duly took advantage of that leniency and, having passed Hughie Morrison’s fellow four-year-old Quickthorn, he just managed to resist the gallant runner-up’s late rally by a head. Morrison reckoned the winner may have been getting lonely in the lead and also that had the rain started when predicted on Saturday rather than when the horses were in the paddock for the race it would have helped his horse but would not have inconvenienced the winner.

There are occasions when trainers do not mind their horses being reassessed up to the full value of their victories and Quickthorn was a case in point. He reappeared this term on a mark of 84 – a full 28lb lower than Sonnyboyliston at the end of last year – so needed to do something special to get into the most valuable handicap of the year which was Morrison’s rather wishful ambition.

This process got a big boost when Quickthorn won by a wide margin at Haydock on his return, bolting clear in the heavy ground up the straight. Raised 13lb for that and then another 6lb more for success in the Duke Of Edinburgh Stakes at Royal Ascot it meant he just squeezed in on Saturday, but even so only 6lb lower in the weights than Sonnyboyliston. Great progress then from Quickthorn, but the Irish got the big money again.

When the dust settles Morrison will need a rethink as the guaranteed extra few pounds will put most UK handicaps beyond his reach. The trainer will be targeting long-distance Group races in France where the four-year-old will have more chance of getting his favoured soft ground. Morrison has exploited this division with such as his subsequent Melbourne Cup runner-up Marmelo, the durable and talented Nearly Caught and from an earlier vintage Alcazar, who won a Group 1 for Morrison aged ten.

It’s not just over here that the big Irish teams seem to get plenty of help. One of the balloted out horses for the Ebor was the 2020 Triumph Hurdle winner Burning Victory when she infamously took advantage of Goshen’s last-flight misfortune.

The now five-year-old was number 47 in the Ebor list so never had a chance of getting in but the pragmatic Willie spotted an opportunity at Deauville on Thursday and I will be shocked if at the final stage today (around 11 a.m. BST) she has not stood her ground.

This is a two-mile handicap and with 34 eligible before today she will be in the first half of the divided race for which the winner gets €27,500 plus 45% owners’ premiums, so just short of €40k, well worth the road/ferry fees.

When Burning Victory left France as a three-year-old before switching to Ireland she had a 40 kilogram rating, equivalent to 88 on this side of the Channel.  Appropriately Thursday’s race is called the Handicap de la Manche. <The advantages of tote monopoly - €40k and that’s just to the winner for a 0-88, goodness!>.

While being employed exclusively over jumps in Ireland since her arrival she has been back on the level in France this summer. A conditions race over 2m1f at Lyon Parilly in June fitted nicely between runs in a Grade 1 at the Punchestown Festival and seventh place in the previously-mentioned Galway Hurdle.

She won that modest event by five and a half lengths, surely evidence enough that she is better than an 88, as you would expect of a Triumph Hurdle winner benefiting from two years of Mullins’ training. But the French handicappers have left her on her historical mark. You would have thought they might have seen Willie coming. I’m sure Clement’s Fitzcarraldo, whom I had planned to travel over to see in that same race, will have the Mullins mare to beat even though receiving 19lb from her.

I did say I planned to drive over but the old-time there and back in a day via Eurotunnel – my chosen mode of travel in the French Fifteen days – seems so tied up by Covid-flavoured red tape that it is looking increasingly unlikely that I can be there.

You do not need to take a test to enter France, or so I believe, as long as you have the correct number of vaccinations, which obviously I do.

But on returning to the UK you need one form showing you were tested between one and three days prior to that return from France with documentation of where you had been staying. Then two days after arrival it’s another test and not a free NHS job or even so I understand the £60 Boots special but a full-blown £125-a-go test from designated chemists and the like.

One trip I am definitely going to undertake is to toddle down to Brighton to see my friend Jonathan Barnett’s other active horse, the three-year-old Dusky Lord, try to overcome inexperience (one run last year) and an injury absence in a little maiden race.

I loved going to Ascot for the King George and today will be only my second appearance since Burning Victory’s Triumph Hurdle day. Maybe it will be an omen if I can’t make it to France. She was one of the luckiest Festival winners of all time and perhaps the luck might have run out. Alternatively Willie might think why bother to pick up another 40 grand? We live in hope.

Deauville continued apace yesterday and the Prix Morny was a triumph for the Richard Fahey stable with Perfect Power. He had been a desperately unlucky fifth at Goodwood on his latest appearance behind Asymmetric.

Alan King’s sprinter was again in the field and actually took the lead in the last furlong but had no answer to the finishing speed of Perfect Power (a son of Ardad) who held off another finisher, Trident, trained by Andre Fabre and running in the Tabor colours.

The Coolmore owners’ York had been mainly frustrating from the moment St Mark’s Basilica had to be scratched from the Juddmonte International owing to an injury sustained on the home gallops. Late sub Love proved no match in third behind six-length winner Mishriff who starred in a Gosden family revival stunningly shared by the ultra-game Stradivarius, holding Spanish Mission in the Lonsdale Stakes, undoubtedly the thriller of the week.

At least Snowfall was able to maintain her winning sequence in a third Oaks, copying Love last year with wide-margin wins at Epsom, the Curragh (Irish) and York (Yorkshire). Some churlish observers were reading down the distances, 16 to eight to four and discerning something sinister from them.

Aidan O’Brien seemed to be considering Champions weekend in Ireland as a preliminary before her top target in the Arc for which she is the 3-1 favourite. I’m sure “the boys” would be content with another halving to a victory by two lengths on the first Sunday in October. But then again as York showed us last week, a lot that can happen before that.

- TS

Sonnyboyliston grabs Ebor verdict for Murtagh

Sonnyboyliston hung on to give trainer Johnny Murtagh a second victory in the Sky Bet Ebor at York.

The handler sent out Mutual Regard to win the handicap feature back in 2014, and Sonnyboyliston (10-1) fended off Quickthorn to once again take the prize back to County Kildare.

Jockey Ben Coen bided his time through the early stages, sitting in mid division while Blue Cup and Humanitarian raced a couple of lengths clear at the head of affairs.

It looked as though Blue Cup had a handy advantage at the top of the straight, but he quickly dropped away, leaving Quickthorn in front.

However, Coen was poised to challenge down the middle of the track – and he edged in front in the final furlong, with 16-1 shot Quickthorn giving his all but eventually falling just short in a photo.

Alounak kept on for third, with Shanroe fourth. Favourites Ilaraab and Mt Leinster both finished down the field in heavy rain on the Knavesmire.

Johnny Murtagh celebrates with the Ebor trophy
Johnny Murtagh celebrates with the Ebor trophy (Nigel French/PA)

Murtagh said: “It’s all the hard work everybody does at home. It’s me knowing the kind of horse it takes to win these races, like when I was riding in them.

“I’m going back to my experience as a jockey. That’s the kind of horse we need for this track or that race.

“The last time he ran here he ran very well, and I liked the way he came home. He came on for that run, and that gave us confidence.

“He’s out of a good staying mare. Fair play to Ben. He was good.”

Sonnyboyliston is entered in the Comer Group International Irish St Leger at the Curragh on September 12, while Murtagh also nominated him for the Melbourne Cup at Flemington on November 2.

An Australian trip has not been ruled out, but Murtagh’s sights are set on the Curragh for now.

He said: “I have him in the Irish St Leger, and we’ll have to think about that first now before we consider Australia.

“Last year when he won (on) Irish Champions weekend over a mile and a quarter, I always thought when he stepped up in distance he’d get better.

Sonnyboyliston and connections at York
Sonnyboyliston and connections at York (Nigel French/PA)

“At the start of the year I thought he might end up in the Ebor. It doesn’t always work out like that, but today it did – by a head.

“He is a pretty good stayer. He has to improve a lot for the Irish St Leger – but he’s probably going to get a hike for that. It’s the next logical step.

“There have been a lot of people looking at him before today, and I’m sure they will be on again after today, but my plan is to go for the Irish St Leger.”