Johnny Murtagh is aiming to pick up more than just a free lunch as he puts the finishing touches to what promises to be a strong team for Longines Irish Champions Weekend.
The former multiple Group One-winning jockey turned trainer is on the crest of a wave heading into next week’s two-day extravaganza at Leopardstown and the Curragh, sitting in fifth place in the trainers’ table in Ireland.
However, Murtagh is now eager to make his mark at the biggest meeting of the Irish Flat season, with his clutch of possible contenders across the two days headlined by Know It All and Champers Elysees in the Coolmore America ‘Justify’ Matron Stakes.
Murtagh retired from the saddle the same year Irish Champions Weekend was instigated in 2014, and the magnitude of a maiden winner at the fixture would not be lost on him.
He said: “I love the whole concept of it. I used to be coming home from the Hong Kong International meeting or the Japan Cup, I’d meet Brian Kavanagh (Horse Racing Ireland chief executive) and I’d be saying ‘we should have one of these weekends in Ireland – we’re the best in the world’ and then when it came along, I wasn’t riding.
“The first couple of years going to it, it’s fair depressing when the only reason you’re going to Leopardstown on Longines Champions Weekend is because you’re getting a free lunch – someone has invited you for a lunch.
“You’re sitting up there and telling everyone how good it is, what a day it is. I remember I had a table once and I had loads of my friends there, trying to explain to them what a big deal this is – it’s the All-Ireland Final, it’s the FA Cup, it’s like Formula One to us – and I’m thinking to myself that I’m sitting here having lunch with them and not involved in any way.
“It was depressing, so I said to Orla (wife) two years ago ‘we need to be having runners at these meetings’. It’s the biggest two days in Irish racing – the best races, the best horses running – all the great trainers are here, great jockeys are riding and we need to be part of it.
“In the last six weeks, I suppose we’ve had our eye on Champions Weekend. We tried to get the team here in one piece and I think we’ve entered nine or 10 horses.
“We’re really looking forward to it. For England it’s Royal Ascot, for France it’s Arc weekend, it’s the All-Ireland Final in football – that’s what Champions Weekend means to me as a trainer.”
As well as his Group-race entries, Murtagh has a number of contenders in the feature handicaps across the weekend and he would be happy with a win in any event, whatever the class.
He said: “To win a race on Champions Weekend is the aim – it doesn’t matter what the race is. Every race is a championship race – the big auction race, even the first race on the Saturday, the fillies’ Listed race, you could get a Guineas winner from that.
“So for us to win any race on Champions Weekend, it was one of the goals two years ago and it’s been a goal in the last couple of months, to see if we could have a team, could we be competitive and win one race on Champions Weekend.”
Covid-19 quarantine restrictions have ensured only local riders have been able to compete in Ireland so far this year, but organisers of Irish Champions Weekend got a boost on Thursday when it was announced guidelines had been changed allowing international jockeys to contest Group One events.
Murtagh believes it is important the cream of both the equine and human crops have the chance to shine.
He added: “That’s what Champions Weekend is all about. We want the best French horses, the best English horses, the best horses from Europe and Japan – we want them in Ireland to showcase how good we are and we want the best jockeys allowed in as well to ride against our lads.
“We see them on the TV and we want to compete. I know the Irish jockeys want to compete against the big international jockeys – the Dettoris, the Moores, the Buicks, the Murphys – that’s what Longines Champions Weekend is designed for, top international racing at home in our backyard.
“It’s brilliant news they’re allowed in and we’re really looking forward to it.”