The hottest trainer-jockey combination in Kentucky racing is heading to Ellis Park after Churchill Downs’ spring meet ends June 26. Ellis Park opens Sunday June 27 and closes Sept. 4, with racing Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays as well as Thursday July 1.
Trainer Chris Hartman has 13 wins out of 33 starts at Churchill through Thursday, good for a tie for fourth in the standings behind Brad Cox (17 wins), Brendan Walsh (16) and Mike Maker (15). However, Hartman’s 39-percent win rate towers over his colleagues among those with at least 10 starts. Twelve of those winners have been ridden by Mitchell Murrill, who is having a breakout meet since moving his tack from Chicago to Kentucky last year. Murrill has prevailed on 16 of 76 mounts (along with 12 seconds and 10 thirds) to be tied for sixth in the Churchill riding standings, his 21-percent strike rate for winners matching the highest among the leaders.
“Things are going our way,” Murrill said on the Churchill Downs backstretch recently as he prepared to work a horse for Hartman. “We’re having good luck together and trying to keep it rolling. I’ve had a few winners back to back (with other trainers) but not seven or eight in a row. It’s definitely helpful to get my name out there and let people see me. Hopefully it will give me more opportunities to collect more business and get more and better rides.”
Hartman’s hot streak includes five straight victories and winning seven of eight from June 3 through June 10.
“Blessed meet, that’s all I can say. It’s unbelievable,” Hartman said, adding in reference to his eight-win meet over the winter at Arkansas’ Oaklawn Park, “We didn’t win that many, but we had 16 seconds – and lot of them were by a nose. I thought we’d have a good meet here, but you don’t really dream you’re going to do this good.”
The 26-year-old Murrill describes riding for Hartman as “awesome.”
“He kind of lets me do my thing and he does his,” he said. “We’ve had a good relationship, and we always seem to be on the same page when it comes to race day. The day (June 5) I rode three and won three, that was a pretty impressive day.”
Already Murrill has blown past his previous high of six wins at a Churchill meet. Six also was his win total last summer at Ellis Park, his first time riding at the western Kentucky track.
“It was tough,” he recalled of his Ellis debut. “It was my first time there, first year in Kentucky. It didn’t really go quite as well as we wanted. But we had a few winners and stuck it out, and it’s starting to come back around and payoff. I like the track, the distance (1 1/8-mile main track). The surface was good. It was a fun new track to ride at.”
The flip side of winning a lot of races at a meet can be as that horses use up their race conditions, with victory becoming harder to achieve at the next level or in unrestricted races. However, Hartman sounds optimistic about Ellis Park, where he won 11 of 43 starts in 2018 as major client Joey Keith Davis captured the owner’s title with seven victories.
“Ellis has a little different variety of horse there,” Hartman said. “But we’ve got horses we haven’t even run yet at Churchill so hopefully they’ll be strong there. And we’ve got 11 ‘babies,’ so hopefully we’ll get some of them rolling.”
Hartman first started using Murrill several years ago Arlington Park, which led to using the jockey in the winters in New Orleans, where the trainer also has a division.
“He just keeps getting better,” the trainer said of Murrill. “He’s really been riding great here lately. That’s another thing that helps a bunch. He’s been riding really good, making winning decisions in a race. That’s made the difference in a handful of these races. It’s all a team effort. He’s riding with absolutely confidence, putting horses where they’re supposed to be.”
Murrill began riding full-time in 2014 on the Louisiana circuit before moving on to an Arlington Park-Fair Grounds base in 2015. The jockey quickly stamped himself among the top riders in Chicago before making the jump with agent Tim Hanisch to Kentucky for Churchill Downs’ 2020 spring meet.
Yet, if it hadn’t been for a high school pal, Murrill might be an electrician and very well would be spending his Saturdays in the fall not in the saddle but in Tuscaloosa watching his beloved Alabama Crimson Tide playing football. Growing up in Mobile, Ala., horse racing wasn’t on his radar.
“I played soccer throughout high school and growing up,” Murrill said. “I was going to follow doing what my dad did, doing electrical work. A friend of mine in high school introduced me to some trainers, because he saw my size and said, ‘Man, you’d be good at this.’ I tried it and stuck it out, and now we’re here.”
The old saying about getting back on the horse sums up Murrill’s introduction to the sport. He started out getting on horses on farms for several trainers around Mobile.
“They just threw me on,” he said, adding of young horses, “I got on for the first time, I had a couple throw me off because they were babies. I kind of learned the hard way. It was wild at first. I had a concussion from one, when I got knocked out. So I was kind of iffy on it. But I got back on ’em and kept going at it.”
At the same time he began exercising racehorses, young Murrill also was riding bulls. He can testify that bulls are harder to stay on. But there is some cross-over skill between riding bulls and horses, he said.
“It definitely teaches you balance, for sure,” Murrill said, adding that if he fell off a horse, “he’s not going to turn around looking for me, trying to kill me. So I stuck with the horses.”
Follow Mitchell Murrill on Twitter @MitchellMurrill. Follow Chris Hartman @CHartmanRacing.
New to the Paulick Report? Click here to sign up for our daily email newsletter to keep up on this and other stories happening in the Thoroughbred industry.
Copyright © 2021 Paulick Report.