How to win the Epsom Derby

Three-time winner Johnny Murtagh has the secrets

With a prize fund of £1.325 million, it’s Britain’s richest and most prestigious flat race. So picking the winner of the Epsom Derby remains horse racing’s most lucrative quest. One man better qualified than most to do so is three-time Irish champion jockey Johnny Murtagh, who has recently also become a trainer at his own Irish stables. The 43-year-old’s three wins from 15 Derbys – in 2000, 2002 and 2005 – make him the most successful current Derby jockey. So Johnny, what makes a winner?


Get a ride – fast

At the moment, I haven’t got a ride, so I might have to hop on anything spare. That’s the way it works. A jockey might get suspended or a stable might have two horses running, so you might get offered the one the stable jockey doesn’t want – the retained rider to a stable gets first pick. If an owner wants to hire a specific jockey to ride his horse, he just rings up and books him. There’ll be plenty like me, waiting for the call!

Horses for courses

It’s such a demanding race that the horse needs a combination of speed, stamina, perfect balance and temperament. If it lacks slightly in just one of those factors, then it’s never going to win the Derby. The course is the hardest in the world because of its uneven, undulating surface – it’s up and down all the way round and is a tight left-hand track. To be able to cope with that and not be thrown out of its stride, the horse has to have tremendous stamina, calmness and balance. The first time I sit on a horse, I can tell if it’s got what it takes to win the Derby. It’s like getting behind the wheel of a high-performance car – the acceleration, the handling, you instantly know if it’s something special. Also, the horses won’t ever have experienced a noise and buzz like the Derby. They can sense the excitement of the crowd. Some thrive on it, others simply can’t handle it. If the horse isn’t comfortable with the pre-race parade and noise, sometimes the race is lost before it’s even started. If the horse is getting twitchy, over-excited and sweating, it’ll use up all its energy before the race. So no matter what its physical attributes, if it hasn’t got a calm temperament, it hasn’t got a chance.

Keep your cool

A jockey’s temperament is important. You need a cool head. If you’ve been drawn out wide, you have to do some serious manoeuvring in the early part of the race to get close to the favourable inside rail. So you need to be calm, keep your wits about you as the race unfolds and have confidence in your ability to handle any situation. I look at it like this: I’ve worked hard to be here. I deserve to be here. There’s no way it’s going to be my fault that this horse doesn’t win the Derby.

Johnny’s top tip

If he runs, Dawn Approach looks like a Derby winner to me. He was the best two-year-old last year and his form has been far superior. He’s trained by Jim Bolger, who has his own jockey, so sadly I’ve no chance!


The Derby takes place Saturday 1pm (race 4pm, highlights 12.15am) C4/ 4pm Radio 5 Live