July 20, 2015
Cover photo by Four Footed Fotos
To be dominating the jockey standings at a major racetrack at age 20 is impressive. It’s even more incredible when you consider that Mitchell Murrill never even spent time around horses until he was 16. Arlington Park’s leading rider this summer (with 41 wins as of Monday) has proven a quick learner, showing instincts on a horse that far exceed any expectations based on his years of experience in a saddle.
In this edition of Jockey Journals, Murrill tells us how he got started in racing and the encouragement that inspired him to pursue riding. He also shares some of his future plans and explains what it would mean to him to win the jockey title at Arlington.
I’m originally from Mobile, Alabama. I went to high school and I played sports throughout. I played soccer and ran cross country. I actually got into the horse business with a friend of mine who was a grade above me. He needed help breaking babies, so I went over to the farm and helped him in my free time. I had just turned 16 years old when I started working horses, breaking them and things like that.
I had never really grown up around horses or anything. My family never had horses and wasn’t part of the racing community. So, when my friend asked me to come help him, everything was kind of new to me. Once I started though, it kind of came along easy and I picked up on it really fast. Then, trainer Shane Mason saw me and said ‘hey, you’re doing pretty good, you have a good seat on a horse and I’d like to take you to the racetrack and see if you can’t further this into a career.’ So, that’s kind of what we did.
Before I graduated high school, Shane helped me get my exercise rider license, which I kept for a year. During the winter time, I would go to all the little farms around my house in Alabama, where I’d exercise and work horses. When the summertime came rolling around, I left and went to Delta Downs in Louisiana. I worked horses and then eventually got my jockey’s license.
When I graduated high school and went to the race track, I rode quarter horses. My parents were a little nervous about it, at first. They knew the potential I had from what a lot of people (like Shane Mason) had been saying about the talent that I had for it. I was kind of nervous myself, 18 years old at that point, going two states over to ride horses. My parents were a little afraid but they also always supported me in all of my decisions.
I rode quarter horses for like five or six months and I wasn’t really doing well. So, I went over to the Thoroughbreds. At first, I spent a lot of time at a farm and would occasionally go to the track to ride a long shot horse. Then, jockey Gerard Melancon came up to me and said ‘son, if you really want to have a shot at this, you need to come here to the track, stay here and give it all you’ve got.’ I guess he’d seen something in me, a little talent, to take me under his wing. Gerard, Shane Mason and Mervin Holland have been some of my biggest supporters.
Gerard provided me a place to stay and I got buddied up with his son Jansen, who is also a rider. I stayed at his place for the summer meet at Evangeline Downs. He helped me get an agent, Marcus Guidry, son of jockey Mark Guidry. It was a little hard at first because no one knew me. Since I didn’t do that well with the quarter horses, I was a little nervous to try to go back at it and try to make a career out of it with the Thoroughbreds. But everyone said Marcus was a hard worker and that he’d do good for me.
I got my entries in for the first day and rode two horses. The first horse didn’t do much but the second horse was a first time starter named Golden Barbara and I won on her. It was pretty amazing. For that to be her first time running and for it to be my first actual Thoroughbred win, it was pretty exciting. After that, I thought maybe this isn’t so bad. I knew that I still had to work hard. That’s what I’ve always been taught, that if you work hard, success will come.
I went on to ride Golden Barbara later on in a stake (in the D. S. Shine Young Futurity at Evangeline) and she finished third. I had to continue to build relationships with people – that part wasn’t hard for me and my agent – but trying to get the mounts and make a name for myself, getting established, that was the main key. Once it started going and I started winning a few, then it’ll all started to roll and I started to get more mounts. I started riding eight or nine races a day.
Everything really clicked. I had 30 wins after coming two months late into the meet at Evangeline Downs in Louisiana. I was also leading apprentice there. It just kind of started off really good from that first day at Evangeline. I didn’t expect that to happen; I expected it to drag on a little more but it all kind of came to me fast. That meet, with there being fuller fields and so many horses, it really helped out with my learning process. It forces you to think twice as much and make decisions quicker.
I then moved over to the Fair Grounds. I had a decent meet. I won 23 races and then left early to go to Hawthorne to start building business and getting established up here with some trainers. My focus was that when Arlington came around, I would have some business. It was a little nerve-racking, from leaving Louisiana and coming up here, where again no one knew me.
I got with Tim Hanisch, my agent now. We met through trainer Michael Stidham and his assistant trainer Hillary Pridham. And yeah, I was a little nervous but we came up, worked hard and kind of started all over again. Things were a little slow at first but I ended up with 15 wins for the three weeks or month that I was at Hawthorne. That helped me build pretty good relationships with the trainers here for the Arlington meet. Things kept progressing and I kept working hard.
I think a big part of being successful as a jockey is about knowing how fast you’re going or having a clock in your head. I had a lot of guys, throughout my apprenticeship, telling me ‘hey, you don’t need to be in this spot’ or ‘you need to be in this spot.’ They would help me out and I would just let it sink in my head and kind of carry it on with me throughout the year. I’ve tried to take that all on the track with me.
To take the riding title at Arlington would mean the world to me. I’m not really established yet. There are people who know of me and some people don’t know of me at all. To really further my career in horse racing, winning the title would be a very good accomplishment, especially after losing my bug last month. When I go to different tracks, I’d have that in my background and that title would be nice to fall back on and help further my career.
We really haven’t thought much about where we’re going to go next. We’ve discussed a little about maybe going to Keeneland and then the Fair Grounds. We’ll see how everything plays out. There’s the possibility that if things get better here in Illinois that we may stay around for Hawthorne. I’m always looking to move forward but, as of right now, I’m keeping my options open and trying to ride for as many people as I can.
As a dream, I would love to ride in the Kentucky Derby and all of the big races, at some point in my life. My goals for now would be to stay riding strong and keep winning races. In the future, again, I’d like to ride in as many big races as I can and just enjoy the sport.
This Jockey Journal entirely reflects the words and thoughts of Mitchell Murrill. The text was transcribed from an interview with Murrill, rearranged chronologically and lightly edited. We thank Murrill for taking the time to share his story on Jockey Journals.