Sonnyboyliston aims for Saturday knockout

Sandwiched between his stints as number one jockey for the powerful John Oxx and Aidan O’Brien stables in Ireland, Johnny Murtag was so often the go-to name in the ranks of jockeys on the world stage.

Murtagh officially retired from the saddle in 2014 to focus on his coaching career and last year marked a breakthrough year for him with classic success in the Irish St Leger at the Curragh.

That Sonnyboyliston (IRE) win helped Murtagh rank among the top five managers in Ireland in terms of prize money and now the Curragh-based handler will be hoping the improving five-year-old can get him going again once what’s more.

Murtagh has made his mark many times in Canada, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Dubai, America and the UK as well as his native Ireland as a rider and has made no secret that he was equally ambitious to succeed as a coach.

“I rode in Saudi Arabia many years ago and although I haven’t seen the grass track, it’s an absolutely beautiful dirt track and an awesome place for horses,” Murtagh said before. his arrival in Saudi Arabia.

“It’s great to have horses rated high enough to compete in these types of races for this type of price and it’s a new experience for us, but we want to compete on the world stage.”

As a jockey, Murtagh regularly scored winners for some of the world’s greatest owners on horses bred in purple, but his first Group 1 winner as a trainer Champers Elysées was a filly he picked up for €28,000 ($32,000) as a yearling and Sonnyboyliston was a similarly priced steal.

“We bought Sonnyboyliston at Tattersalls yearling sales for €26,000 [$29,500]“recalls Murtagh.

“He is by Power, who is a bit underrated, and the maternal side is good. Liam Clarke directs the Kildare Running Club, who owns Sonnyboyliston and he knew the breeder and was very keen that this boy go to sales. They were all very patient with him until things really started to click and now here we are.

Connections hopes this week’s trip to Saudi Arabia is just the first leg of an international campaign for the modestly priced yearling whose earnings of nearly $1 million could be multiplied in the Longines Red Sea Turf Handicap of Saturday.

“We’ll see how Saturday goes, but he’s a horse that will travel because there’s a lot of racing for him,” Murtagh said. “We had a great end to the season with him last year, but he’s done really well this winter and he’s definitely gotten stronger in his break and looks strong.

“Saturday will obviously be his first race of the season, but we took him to Leopardstown Racecourse for a gallop a few weeks ago and we were happy with that. I think he’s in pretty good shape and we’re looking forward to the weekend.

Already so famous in the world of sport, Murtagh’s endearing personality could well lead him to reach a new audience in another form on Saturday.

The Saudi Cup press release

Photo: Sonnyboylisten (Photo by the Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia)

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