‘I was ready to end it all’: Derby-winning jockey reveals struggle with alcoholism in eye-opening ITV documentary

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  • An eye-opening ITV documentary set to air next week (5 May) charts the story of three-time Derby-winning jockey Johnny Murtagh, now a successful trainer in his native Ireland, who reveals his struggles with alcoholism during a glittering career in the saddle.

    At his lowest point, the Irish champion Flat jockey admits he stood on a balcony after drinking heavily abroad and contemplated jumping: “I was ready to end it all,” he says starkly.

    It’s a shocking revelation from one of the most charismatic members of the weighing room, but one he says he hopes will encourage others facing similar demons to seek help.

    “I was hoping something like this would come along so I could tell my story,” says 51-year-old Johnny of the film that has been three years in the making. “I’d like to think someone will watch this and it might inspire them to reach out.”

    Johnny won the Derby three times, in 2000 on Sinndar, 2002 on High Chaparral and 2005 on Motivator, as well as the Guineas and the Prix De L’Arc De Triomphe before turning his hand to training. But away from the racecourse, Johnny’s alcoholism consumed him and he was sacked by trainer John Oxx early on in his riding career.

    “After the event we’re all sorry, but you have to help these people before something happens to them,” he says. “The signs should be there.”

    Johnny credits his “superwoman” wife Orla and a strong support network of friends for helping to turn his life around and he quit drinking 20 years ago. The mental health of those involved in racing is a subject much more openly discussed nowadays and Johnny hopes that telling his story may help any jockeys or their families in a similar situation to him.

    “When I think back to that night [when he wanted to end it all], I wonder how could I have been thinking like that? Imagine all I would have missed,” he says. “My thinking was completely gone by then. So whether it’s a parent or someone you really trust, I’d hope they’d put a hand out and say ‘Listen, this is going on in my life…’

    “In your mind you may have built it up to be so bad and often one big thing you can deal with, but it’s the five or six little things that bother you and make you go and do something stupid. So just speaking to someone might change their thinking from where they were to where they need to be.

    “There are plenty of bad days [in racing] and it’s not a nice place to be sometimes, sitting at home afterwards.”

    In the film, Johnny also talks about how selfish he had to be as a jockey and the dieting he endured, but he’s also seen cheerfully greeting all his staff in his new role as trainer at his Co. Kildare stables, where he’s sent out the winner of the Ebor, the Irish St Leger and the Sandringham Stakes at Royal Ascot. He’s a whirlwind of positivity – his philosophy is “When you meet someone in the street, try to improve their day”.

    Johnny Murtagh and his wife Orla, alongside Ed Chamberlin and director Tim Williams, at the screening of the Against The Odds documentary at the Charlotte Street Hotel, London

    “Every morning I go to the yard and I say to myself, there’s 21 people working for you and how you are with them, how you greet them, is how they’re going to perform for you in the next five hours of work. So I check myself every morning – be on top of your game, be upbeat, be positive, but don’t worry about the response you get, because maybe they’ve come from an argument with their wife or the kids didn’t sleep – you are the leader so it has to emanate from you. Treat everyone well,” says Johnny. “I like to be busy, stuck in the middle of things. If anyone says you can’t do something I’m on it straight away – I’d say that’s my biggest flaw, I just want to prove you wrong!

    “I’ve been lucky – I’ve been around the world, I’ve seen a lot of great things, met great people and rode a lot of winners. The first time I ever saw a horse race was in 1981, a Wednesday, when my uncle and I went in to watch the Derby – Walter Swinburn riding Shergar. I was 11 and I remember seeing this 19-year-old winning the Derby on this super horse, so the Derby is special to me. I rode in the same colours many years later.

    “[As a trainer] I just want to be competitive in Ireland and to bring our horses over and be competitive on the big stage in England.”

    • Against the Odds – Johnny Murtagh: Creating Belief, supported by Coral, will be broadcast on Thursday 5 May at 9pm on ITV4 and Tuesday 10 May at 11pm on ITV. It will also be available on ITV Hub from 5 May.

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