Ben Coen is looking forward to “exciting times” after being appointed number one jockey to the expanding training operation of former legendary pilot Johnny Murtagh, who described the talented teenager as “the real deal” and “right up there with the very best in Ireland”.
That is considerable praise indeed from Murtagh, who joined an elite band of individuals to train and ride Group 1 winners last year when Champers Elysees won the Matron Stakes at Leopardstown during Longines Irish Champions Weekend.
Murtagh will go into the new season with owners of the calibre of the Aga Khan, Godolphin and Newtown Anner Stud added to his roster after a breakout campaign that concluded with 41 successes.
The Curragh-based handler has built 15 new boxes and now has a full house of 70 horses at Fox Covert Stables.
Given Coen’s role in the prosperity of last season, the growth of the yard and the likelihood that many covetous eyes were undoubtedly trained on the Tipperary 19-year-old given his preternatural talent, it made sense to Murtagh to make the call.
“Ben is stepping up to number one,” said Murtagh. “We’ve Shane Kelly, Niall McCullagh. Then we’ve got apprentices Danny Sheehy, Jamie Powell, who has moved over from John Oxx’s, Nikita Kane and Wesley Joyce, who has joined from RACE after coming through the Moyross Youth Academy equestrian programme.
“We’ve no shortage of jockeys. We have hopefully some nice horses and we’re looking forward to a big year ahead with some new, big owners.
“In Ireland now at the moment there’s some very good young riders and I feel Ben is right up there with them. He just needs a chance and hopefully we’ll be able to give him the chances this year.
“I think he’s the real deal. If he can keep his weight in check and keep on improving, which he has to do, we think he’s right up there with the best in Ireland.”
It is an appointment that has echoes of when Ger Lyons plumped for another 19-year-old, Colin Keane as his number one after Murtagh retired and was no longer available to his fellow Meath man.
Both trainer and jockey would be ecstatic with a similar subsequent narrative to that enjoyed by Lyons and Keane in the meantime but certainly, Coen is similar to Keane in terms of a level temperament, as well as skills in the saddle from a young age.
Nonetheless, he recognises the boost to his career this appointment is, given the likes of Champers Elysees and Know It All, who provided him with his maiden group success in the Derrinstown Stud Fillies Stakes last year, remain in training and will head a team buoyed by some stellar pedigrees.
“We all know Ireland is a tough place to get going, so to be in a good yard that’s up and coming with a couple of Group 1 horses in there is very exciting,” Coen declared.
“And especially with Johnny there as well. He’s very good with advice and race plans and stuff like that.
“He mentioned it to me at the start of the winter, he wanted me in there more so I’m in there five days a week now. We’re busier than ever, all the two-year-olds are starting and we’re looking forward to the next couple of months.
“The thing with the new owners is the pedigrees they bring. This year, we have sires like Galileo, Siyouni, Sea The Stars in there this year, so it’s exciting times and I can’t wait to be putting on those silks.”
Injury ruled Coen out of Longines Irish Champions Weekend but he readily admits that he might well have chosen Know It All over Champers Elysees anyway.
“Johnny told me there would be plenty of horses there next season, and I bounced back fairly quick as well. The first two weeks I was back I rode a Listed winner for Archie Watson (Parent’s Prayer) and a Group 3 for Johnny (Urban Beat) so I wasn’t long getting the ball back rolling and that was very good.
“Know It All and Champers Elysees are looking great and in great form at home. They’re not doing much, just steady cantering. They look to have done really well over the winter. Hopefully they’ll progress as four-year-olds.
“I think we’re gonna try Know It All over six furlongs. She’s a very speedy filly that travels real strong over a mile and that might just stretch her a small bit. A stiff six and an easy seven would probably be her ideal distance.
“Champers gets the mile real strong and she’s gonna stick to that. I think the plan is to start them off in two Group 2 races Guineas weekend, so that will be a weekend to look forward to.”
Sensibly, Coen is not going to tie himself down publicly to specific targets.
“I’m just going to try to keep Johnny happy, keep the owners happy, ride as well as I can and if the horses are in as good a nick as last year, hopefully we can have an even better season.”