Eleanor Harmsworth

‘I’d ride out probably still drunk’: an interview with champion jockey Oisín Murphy

‘I’d ride out probably still drunk’: an interview with champion jockey Oisín Murphy
Oisin Murphy (Photo: Getty)
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Oisin Murphy is seen as a bad boy of flat racing. He’s one of the best riders in the world but he keeps getting into trouble. He’s been banned from racing for 14 months for breaching coronovirus protocols by going to Mykonos and he failed two alcohol tests last year. 

Oisin is now taking some time, as he puts it, to reflect. This year he’s at Royal Ascot without his riding boots for the first time in his career. 

I find him in the Parade Ring. A horse obsessive, he immediately starts talking me through the details as the jockeys begin to mount. ‘It’s a very warm day so it’s natural for the horses to sweat,’ he says in his thick Irish accent, pointing to the foam that is beginning to appear under the saddlecloths, ‘but it’s so important to keep them as calm as possible. You’d get a sedated elephant wound up before a race like this, especially with everything that’s going on. There’s noise everywhere, there’s people everywhere, and these racehorses are incredibly sensitive.’ He describes a few of the horses with as much familiarity as if they were his own. ‘Number two has been paraded very well, very quietly, which is good to see, but her jockey’s gonna need to keep her calm down to the start to give her the best run.’ 

‘Instinct is key. You might have been told that you’d like to take a prominent position in the race but if your horse has been keen to the start you might decide that it’s better to take your time, because if you don’t do that, the horse won’t have the energy at the important moment in the race. Once you get on that horse in the paddock, you’ve got to stop thinking about everyone else, and just think about yourself, and at that point “yourself” means you and the horse, because you are now combined – a unit.’ 

Does he get to know every horse he rides? He smiles. ‘In 2019 I rode twelve hundred individual horses in England and about 20 per cent of them I’d ridden before. The rest of them I would be making friends with from the paddock to the stands… A good jockey will be able to intuit what the horse needs and adapt to suit the partnership.’ 

Oisín Murphy has achieved a lot for a 26 year old. In 2019 he won 220 races in Great Britain alone to become the British Flat Racing Champion Jockey, a title he is yet to part with, having won 144 races in 2020 and 183 in 2021. Since he started his professional career in 2013, he has won 22 Group 1 races across the world, from Japan, to Canada, and the United Arab Emirates. 

At the beginning of his career top racehorse trainer Danny O’Brian predicted that Oisin would not only be successful but revolutionise riding tactics on the flat. From 20 years old, he was the only jockey to be retained by Qatar Racing, and he continues to be supported by HH Sheikh Fahad Al Thani and HH Sheik Hamad Al Thani, who have become his friends. 

To a racing novice like me it seems like there isn’t a race that Oisin hasn’t won, which is all the more impressive considering his second great passion – alcohol. Oisin’s reputation as a winner is almost eclipsed by his notoriety as a heavy drinker and his love for partying. 

I first met him at a trail hunt in Wiltshire where he was riding a horse as a favour for a friend. That day my horse was being extremely fresh before a line of hedges. I became quite nervous. Oisin rode up alongside me and managed to calm both me and the horse down. In the times I’ve seen him ride I’ve noticed his ability to connect to horses and meet them at their level, whether they’re about to run in a team chase, or jump around a Grand Prix course at Hickstead. 

As well as flat racing Oisin also show jumps to a very high level, and he has not been banned from competing in that discipline. Next week he will be competing in the Speed Derby at Hickstead, where he tells me that he is very lucky because he is on the best horse in the class. ‘I’m going to need it because I am a complete amateur,’ he laughs, ‘but one of the best perks of my job is that I have access to the most amazing horses and I’ve had great people train me. I am seriously looking forward to it – I just love it!’ 

I get the impression that his genuine love for all things equestrian is quite a large key to his success. Where does he think he’d be without horses? ‘I have no idea,’ he says, ‘I can’t image a life without horses.’ 

Once a week he works with Riding for the Disabled, which provides horse riding lessons to people with developmental and physical disabilities. ‘I started working with them in Chilton Foliat. There are a lot of people of differing ages and degrees of disability who really enjoy riding and it helps them a lot. And selfishly, it helps me because I feel like I am making a difference to these peoples lives by sharing my biggest passion with them. I’ll just run alongside them to trot and some of them can canter as well. Horses have been a constant source of stability and whenever I’ve been in dark times, being near a horse or getting on a horse has helped me immeasurably, and I can see that for people who are living with disabilities, sitting on a horse does something wonderful for them. I see a new side to them that the horses bring out and that really moves me.’ 

At this point the horses are heading out on to the track and Oisin and I head over to the winning line to watch the race. As we walk through the crowds, he banters with people and compliments women on their dresses with a slight smile and cheeky look in his eye. ‘He certainly has the gift of the gab,’ his girlfriend Lizzy tells me later on, ‘he likes making everyone laugh.’ He has an incredibly infectious sense of fun and is amused by whatever is crass and ridiculous, which makes him fun to be around. I start to wonder how this would have worked when he was drinking. 

‘Failing the breath test in October forced me to deal with the issue,’ he tells me. ‘I’d drink so much I’d regularly black out and the next morning I’d get up early and ride out probably still drunk. That lifestyle wasn’t sustainable and I let a lot of people down. Racing Welfare were in touch with me and my employers all tried to help me deal with my drink problem, but I wasn’t really in control of it and it was making my life unbearable. I take it day by day now. I think, if I can get through today without drinking then that’s a success. I’ve got to the point where I am excited to come to the racing, and excited to go to Hickstead next week. I feel for the first time like I have so much to look forward to, which wasn’t the case over the past few years. If I didn’t ride winners every day it was a bad day and even when I did it was still a bad day.’ 

‘I don’t want anyone’s pity’ he says. ‘I made some mistakes and now I’m dealing with the consequences.’ Oisin isn’t the first jockey to be banned from the sport, and probably won’t be the last. Frankie Dettori, for example, has been banned a number of times and has spoken openly about taking cocaine. In 2020 Oisin was given a three month ban after testing positive for cocaine in France. He said later that it was because he had had sex with a cocaine user the night before the test, which skewed the results. 

Lizzy, Oisin’s girlfriend, who is currently training at Le Cordon Bleu and is the daughter of renowned racehorse owner Bjorn Nielsen, seems to be a calming influence. ‘We actually met on this day two years ago just after Stradivarius won the gold cup,’ he says. ‘Her father (who owns Stradivarius) threw a drinks party and as I’m his next-door neighbour so it made sense for me to popover and celebrate with them.’ 

Does she find it hard to deal with the constant rumour mill that circulates around his antics? Oisin says, ‘I don’t give her enough credit for how great she’s been. She’s extraordinary. Most people would have cracked under the social media scrutiny, but she’s taken it all in her stride. It doesn’t get to me, because I’ve become accustomed to it, but it would get to most people. The constant belittling and endless rumours and gossip. It’s endless, especially after an event like this where I am doing lots of interviews.’ 

When we meet up with Lizzy in her father’s box I’m able to ask her this myself. ‘Oisin always finds himself at the centre of a drama’ she says with a smile, ‘and whilst it can be annoying, part of the reason why I love him is that he is kind of cheeky and loves to mess around. So I guess that’s just part of it. But I know that he is a good person – or I wouldn’t be with him.’