'We Need To Stop Telling Ourselves How Great We Are – Prize-Money Isn't Good Enough'

Johnny Murtagh: “The prize-money just isn't good enough.” | Tattersalls

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Leading trainer Johnny Murtagh has identified the leading juvenile prospects that he is looking forward to unleashing this season but spoke out about the increased levels of frustration that trainers are facing when it comes to hanging on to their big-name stars due to what he describes as stagnant levels of prize-money in Ireland. 

The Group 1-winning handler has called on Horse Racing Ireland, who announced a €1.4 million increase to prize-money [to €69.4 million] for 2024 in the latest budget, not to rest on its laurels. 

Murtagh, who runs Daamberdiplomat (Ire) (Cotai Glory {GB}) and Final Voyage (Ire) (Camacho {GB}) in valuable all-weather contests at Lingfield and Newcastle respectively on Friday, explained that, with the rising costs that have come with running a busy training yard, he needs to clear €1 million in prize-money per season. 

He also called for a €100,000 race to be run in Ireland on a weekly basis throughout the Flat season and labelled some of the purses on offer for the feature races at the Curragh and Naas in the opening weeks of the new season as “not good enough.”

The Curragh-based handler said, “We should have a 100-grand race every week in Ireland. Look at the Group 3 Devoy Stakes at Naas the other day–that should be a 100-grand  race but the winner got €23,600. The Group 3 Gladness Stakes at the Curragh was the same–the winner got just over €40,000. That's no good. How can we keep the best horses in Ireland with that sort of prize-money? If it keeps going the way that it is, we won't have those horses in Ireland.”

Murtagh added, “Take horses like Final Voyage and Daamberdiplomat, who I run at Newcastle and at Lingfield on Friday, for example. There is nothing for those horses at Dundalk. The prize-money in England is going up. The way they are going, they'll be looking down on us. “There are a lot of 50-grand races on the Flat in England now. Look at the prize-money at Newcastle, Lingfield and even Chelmsford on Friday and compare that to the final meeting of the year at Dundalk. There's no comparison. Not only that, they have the Racing League and many other valuable handicaps over in Britain. It's not the same in Ireland. HRI shouldn't be resting on its laurels.”

Murtagh sent out 41 winners domestically in 2023 and cleared the €1 million mark. In fact, he has earned over €1 million in each of the past four seasons in Ireland but admitted that he may be forced to travel horses more in future if prize-money levels remain the same on home soil.

He continued, “I'm looking at where the prize-money is now. Before, it wouldn't pay you to travel over to Britain. Nowadays, you have to travel for the prize-money. We need to stop telling ourselves how great we are in Ireland. It's very frustrating that we are buying horses to sell them in Ireland now. It shouldn't be the case that when, a horse reaches a certain level, it makes more sense to move him on because he can't win even close to what is being offered by the foreign market.  

“When you come across a horse rated 100, for example, you should be thinking, 'brilliant, I have a horse capable of paying his way for the owners this year,' but it's not the case at all. As I said, there should be a 100-grand race in Ireland every week. The prize-money just isn't good enough.”

Just four juveniles made up last year's tally of 41 winners. That number was down from 14 in 2022, eight in 2021 and seven in 2020. In an effort to boost his juvenile stats for this season, Murtagh returned to the yearling sales last year and added roughly 20 youngsters to the team on spec, most of which have now been sold.

He explained, “I didn't buy any yearlings a couple of years ago–just trained what was sent to me-and we only had four two-year-old winners last season as a result. I went and bought 20 two-year-old types at the yearling sales last year and I have most of them sold by now. The sweet spot used to be between 20 and 50 grand but it's getting harder and harder to buy those nice horses now. 

“We have a nucleus of people who support us every year. Fitzwilliam Racing used to buy between eight and 10 yearlings every year but they didn't shop last year so we had to go out and find a few more people.”

He added, “It's been difficult. Most of the big owners have their own agents that they like to use. I rarely get orders. I go out and buy the horses on spec and, when you are spending your own money, you approach the sales differently. I think I only had three orders to go and fill at the yearling sales last year. The rest I bought myself and got sold afterwards.”

When shopping the yearling sales, Murtagh says that he has certain criteria that he tries to fill when recruiting future runners to the stable. 

He explained, “We buy an early type who might take us to Royal Ascot, a filly who could win a maiden or get placed in a maiden and then get sold on to America, and then the back-end middle-distance horse who might be good enough for Australia in time. The main thing you're looking for is a horse that you might be able to trade on. Listen, that's the only way you can survive in this business in Ireland. It's terrible when you have to buy horses to sell them. We're becoming a nursery for abroad and that's the problem.”

The Aga Khan, for whom Murtagh enjoyed some memorable days in the saddle for, remains a loyal supporter with seven juveniles in training at Fox Covert stables and reportedly more on the way. 

However, Murtagh explained that, along with the illustrious Aga Khan pedigrees that the stable has the luxury of working with, there are many recruits to the yard that have been less obvious.

He said, “We have seven two-year-olds for the Aga Khan in training at the moment and there are still a couple more to come in. There is a Wootton Bassett (GB) colt out of Tanaza (Ire) (Dubawi {Ire}), who goes well, while they also have a nice Footstepsinthesand  (GB) colt here as well.”

Murtagh added, “I like shopping at the yearling sales because it keeps your eye in. We don't even look at what the horses are by any more. We try to look at every single horse if we can because Lord Rapscallion (Ire), he was by Alhebayeb (Ire), Champers Elysees (Ire) by Elzaam (Aus) and Create Belief (Ire) by Awtaad (Ire). If you are looking at the page first, rather than the model, you won't be able to buy them.”

Colts

Oasis Dream (GB) colt out of Its A Given (GB) (Bated Breath {GB})
Bought by: Johnny Murtagh/Linehan Bloodstock for €40,000 at Goffs Orby Book 2
Owner: Paddy Woods 
Comment: This fella is tough, sharp and hardy. He looks ready to go. He may want fast ground so we will need to wait for the ground to dry up. 

Ardad (Ire) colt out of Sugar Hiccup (Ire) (Refuse To Bend {Ire}) 
Noel Hartley
Bought by Johnny Murtagh / Linehan Bloodstock for €50,000 at the Tattersalls Ireland September Yearling Sale
I haven't had an Ardad before but Eddie [Linehan] was keen to get one as he said he's a sire who gets very good two-year-olds. This lad is sharp and fast. He looks a typical two-year-old type and is exactly what we wanted to have to go to war with this year. 

Study Of Man (Ire) colt out of Kesarina (GB) (Medicean {GB})
Bought by ATS Racing for €40,000 at the Goffs Orby Part 2 Sale 
Tony Smurfit
A nice colt for the second half of the season. Paddy Twomey has a very nice horse by Study Of Man, Deepone, the winner of the Beresford last year, and he could be a nice horse in the making.

Zoustar (Aus) colt out of Abbakova (Ire) (Dandy Man {Ire})
Bought by FCS Bloodstock/Linegan Bloodstock for £72,000 at the Goffs UK Premier Yearling Sale
I have had a bit of luck with the stallion. We had Young Champion (Ire), which he is known as in Hong Kong, finish second in a Listed race at Naas for us before being sold out there. This lad reminds me a bit of him. 

Fillies

Unnamed
Blue Point (Ire) filly out Ridge Ranger (Ire) (Bushranger {Ire})
Bought by  FCS Bloodstock / Linehan Bloodstock for 215,000gns at Book 2 at the Tattersalls October Yearling Sale
Wellspec
This filly was bought on behalf of Welspec, who also had Malacanne (Ire) (Raven's Pass) with me. She is the first Blue Point I have trained and we were delighted to get her. Blue Point did unbelievably well last year. She's very sharp and is showing us plenty. Hopefully she'll be out by May. 

Mehmas (Ire) filly out of Under Offer (Ire) (Bated Breath {GB})
Mark Dobbin
Bought by Johnny Murtagh/Linehan Bloodstock for €150,000 at the Goffs Orby Book 1
She is a half-sister to Basil Martini (Ire) (Starspangledbanner {Aus}), who was a Listed winner for Joseph O'Brien. Again, she should make a sharp two-year-old and is coming along nicely with the early bunch. She probably won't be a five-furlong filly but maybe six furlongs could suit her well and she should be out soon. She's owned by Mark Dobbin who is a good supporter. 

Kodiac (Ire) filly out of Castellated {GB})
Mark Dobbin 
Bought by FCS Bloodstock / Linehan Bloodstock for 165,000gns at Book 2 at the Tattersalls October Yearling Sale 
Another filly owned by Mark Dobbin, she came from Tally-Ho Stud and we like her a lot. I haven't had many by the sire but we're looking forward to this one.

Havana Grey (GB) filly out of Freckles (GB) (Arakan)
Bought by Johnny Murtagh/Linehan Bloodstock/Nick Bradley Racing at the Goffs Orby Sale Book 2 for €85,000
Nick Bradley has a very nice Havana Grey filly with me. She's probably one of my sharper fillies. Hopefully we'll get her out before the end of April. Nick saw her first–it was him who put her to me. He told me he was out at 50 grand and then when I bought her, he said he'd take half of her. I couldn't leave this filly behind me at the sales. I just kept bidding on her and I'm delighted we have her now. Nick had two horses with us last year and both of them won. In fact, I think every horse he has had with us has won. He's pretty shrewd at picking them out and hopefully this can be another. 

Belardo filly out of Shelannga (Ire) (Leroidesanimaux {Brz})
Aga Khan
I have more fillies than colts this year and this is a nice one from the Aga Khan. I haven't had many Belardos in the past but this filly goes particularly well. She is showing plenty but we're not going to rush her. She is taking all of her work really well. We have a lovely Too Darn Hot filly for the Aga Khan as well and they are just a couple that are showing the right signs at the moment. 

Inns Of Court (Ire) filly out of Wild Mix (GB) (Mastercraftsman {Ire})
Bought by Johnny Murtagh/Linehan Bloodstock for €50,000 at the Goffs Autumn Yearling Sale
Tony Smurfit
This is a half-sister to Noel Meade's good filly, Caught U Looking (Ire) (Harzand {Ire}), who did very well last year. This is a very big filly and she will be out in the back-end of the season but she is a fine filly.

Ten Sovereigns (Ire) filly out of Enharmonic (E Dubai)
Bought by Johnny Murtagh/Linehan Bloodstock for €70,000 at the Goffs Orby Sale
Michael O'Flynn
They don't give stallions a long time to make a name for themselves these days but I'd have to say I'm a fan of Ten Sovereigns and I'm looking forward to this filly. She'll be out in the second half of the season.

Raven's Pass filly out of Seschat (Ire) (Sinndar {Ire})
Bought by Syndicates Racing for €22,000 at the Goffs Orby Book 1 Sale
Syndicates Racing
She is backward–she's a big girl. I think Jack [Cantillon] has all the shares sold in this filly and she's nice.

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