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JOCKEY REGRET 'I didn’t knowingly have any cocaine in my system' - Oisin Murphy speaks out

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Oisín Murphy after winning the Teentech Noel Murless Stakes on Berkshire Rocco at Ascot

Oisín Murphy after winning the Teentech Noel Murless Stakes on Berkshire Rocco at Ascot

Oisín Murphy is crowned champion jockey

Oisín Murphy is crowned champion jockey

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Oisín Murphy after winning the Teentech Noel Murless Stakes on Berkshire Rocco at Ascot

On the surface, Oisín Murphy’s recent history represents the classic fusion of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll.

It was August 19, just as the Kerryman prepared to ride Kameko in the Juddmonte International at York, when he received a letter from France Galop, the governing body of French racing, to tell him that he had tested positive for a metabolite of cocaine.

In the legal argument that subsequently helped to reduce his competitive ban to three months from the usual six, he explained how, the night before racing at Chantilly in July, he had sex with a woman whom he later learnt had used the drug.

Throw in the detail that Murphy is also Britain’s reigning two-time champion Flat jockey, and it is difficult not to be reminded of the old rock-star wisdom that the higher you fly, the harder you fall.

He smiles at the caricature, before dismantling it piece by piece. “The rock ’n’ roll thing? I can’t dance, I certainly can’t sing, and I’m not into rock music,” Murphy says.

“I went to a Justin Bieber concert four years ago, after I had broken my collarbone. The drugs? I’m regularly drug-tested, so I think we can remove that one. And the sex? Well, I’m 25 and male, so we’ll leave that to the imagination.”

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Oisin Murphy Photo: Getty Images

Oisin Murphy Photo: Getty Images

Oisin Murphy Photo: Getty Images

While Murphy’s is far from a dissolute lifestyle, he is paying the price for having succumbed one evening to the temptations of youth. From next Friday, he will be suspended from all racing until March 11.

It might seem a lax punishment, given that he will be back in the saddle in time for the first Classics in early May. Any proven association between jockeys and cocaine tends to trigger a ban of double that length, as it did for Kieren Fallon and Murphy’s childhood idol, Frankie Dettori.

But unlike in those cases, Murphy is adamant that he never ingested the substance, with a French disciplinary hearing accepting that the positive result came about through “environmental contamination”.

Despite his relief at that verdict, Murphy is plainly shattered by his experience. Here at his home in Lambourn, about 100km west of London, the customary vigour of the Killarney native is offset by his pain at how the episode has played out.

“It has been horrific,” he says. “There was a very numbing sensation when my sister sent me a screenshot of the letter from France Galop. As soon as I left York, I started calling the people for whom I ride. I asked the Professional Jockeys’ Association to do a hair sample that evening, and they filmed it being conducted.

“We needed to remove any element of doubt. From then on, I just focused on the fear of not winning the jockeys’ championship and pushed everything else away. But I realised very quickly that people would hone in on the fact that this golden boy had made a major error.”

This should not be misconstrued as self-pity. So sincere is Murphy’s contrition, he intends to donate all of his £25,000 (€28,000) prize for a second consecutive champion jockey title to charity, and to give money to Addenbrooke’s hospital in Cambridge, who are struggling to accumulate enough toys for all their child patients at Christmas.

“I helped a child recently who loves ponies, sending him a whip and a few other things. He’s seven and he has leukaemia. So, I don’t have any pity for myself.”

Still, it is a jolt to find himself confined to barracks on a midweek lunchtime, watching some of his rivals line up for the 12.15pm at Lingfield on television.

For all that Murphy’s exile arrives in winter, avoiding any damage to his next title challenge, the international ramifications for his freedom of trade are far more complex. He is worried about the possibility of a five-year ban in Japan, which adopts a far stricter position on drug cases and where he has toiled to build a name for himself.

“Japan is probably my favourite place to ride,” he says. “I won the Japan Cup last year and would have ridden it this year on Curren Bouquetd’or, who lost by under two lengths.

"I wish I was there now. It’s incredibly difficult to apply. Now I’m going to miss all the Japanese racing, the Saudi meeting, Super Saturday in Dubai.

"That’s a hell of a lot of Group Ones. The whole reason I want to be a jockey is to win big races. A three-month suspension might look as if it is lenient, but it has hurt me massively in terms of how I want to build my career.”

The great regret about Murphy’s situation is that until his ill-starred liaison in France, with a woman whose identity remains protected at her lawyers’ request, he had been the model ambassador for his sport.

The nephew of Jim Culloty, former winner of the Grand National and the Gold Cup, he weathered his uncle’s critiques of his riding technique to achieve prodigious success and become an authoritative voice of racing for a wider audience.

No sooner had he won this year’s 2,000 Guineas aboard Kameko than he was recording a “car share” video on the two-year-olds he had ridden at Newmarket.

He is a promoter’s dream and a polyglot, proficient in four languages, even if he wished his French had not needed to be tested on legal documents about cocaine.

One intriguing section in the France Galop stewards’ summary of Murphy’s case relates to the precedent of Richard Gasquet, the French tennis player who had successfully convinced the Court of Arbitration for Sport that he had been contaminated after kissing a woman in a nightclub.

Gasquet’s indignity in 2009 came to be known as the “cocaine kiss” saga, a notoriety that Murphy is keen not to replicate. “Florence, my solicitor, didn’t want to go to the French and use Gasquet as my scapegoat,” he says.

“She told them it would be unfair to treat me, whose levels of the drug were one third of his, in the same way.”

The long December nights give Murphy more time than he would like to consider how exactly it came to this. How could a jockey who had cultivated such a polished persona have been so careless?

It is especially perplexing in light of an incident in June last year, when he failed a breath test, exceeding the accepted alcohol threshold for a jockey even though he was well under the drink-drive limit.

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Oisín Murphy is crowned champion jockey

Oisín Murphy is crowned champion jockey

Oisín Murphy is crowned champion jockey

The transgression cost him a day’s racing at Salisbury, for which he publicly castigated himself, vowing that it would never happen again. But now here he is, having magnified his embarrassment many times over and been frozen out of his profession for three months.

“It’s interesting that you mention it, because it was said during the French inquiry that I had failed an alcohol test,” he reflects. “That one was completely my fault. I stayed up too late, I didn’t drink any water that morning, I didn’t eat anything. It was a terrible shame.

“All I could think of was my poor parents walking down the aisles in the supermarket and people asking them, ‘Does your son have a drink problem?’ It did have psychological effects. In three weeks, I went from being 20 in front in the championship to four behind.

“The turning point was Frankie Dettori texting me. He had won the Irish Oaks on Star Catcher and he wrote, ‘Keep your head up. You are a champion.’ I didn’t feel the same emotions when I failed the drug test. Although I was responsible for putting myself in that situation, I didn’t knowingly have any cocaine in my system.”

Still, Murphy knows that he has to take his flogging, “because I allowed myself to be put in a situation where there was cocaine present”. The more vexed question is how he applies the lessons learned. It might stand to reason that he cannot entertain the same risks again, but it is hardly realistic to demand that a highly successful young, single jockey live like a monk.

“I’ll have to be very careful,” he says. “I will have to strike a balance. The spotlight outside the racecourse is going to be on me more than ever.

“But do I have a paranoia about going down the road for dinner with my friends? No, I don’t. No one has ever seen me take cocaine, so I hope that people who know me very well won’t start thinking that every time I’m out for a meal, I’m having a massive night.”

The example of Dettori, with whom he is in constant contact, is one that teaches him how savage the fluctuations in his business can be.

“As a child, I saw Frankie go from being the best jockey in the world to sitting in the sauna at Lingfield to ride one horse at 16/1. But then he returned to be the best in the world again. I have reached a really tough stumbling block, but I believe I can overcome it.”

The road back is not guaranteed to be smooth. Murphy is worldly enough to recognise that while he has received more than 250 WhatsApp messages of solidarity from owners, trainers and peers, this does not always equate to unconditional loyalty.

“It’s all very well people saying I have their support, but the acid test will be on Guineas weekend at Newmarket in May, when the racing really kicks off,” he says. “If I’m riding in every race and have chances, I will have won back their trust. At the end of my career, whether it’s in five or 15 years’ time, I don’t want to be remembered just as a guy who won a couple of jockeys’ championships and rode a few fast horses. I’d like to be remembered as someone who was a good person.”

It feels apt to remind him of the old aphorism that it takes 20 years to build a reputation and 20 seconds to lose one.

“Yeah,” he sighs. “I’ve worked incredibly hard to get to this position and I’ve nearly managed to throw it all away by allowing cocaine to be around me. That’s very silly.”

For Murphy, the atonement is already starting in earnest.

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