Source: Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots
This time last year, then-apprentice jockey Mitchell Murrill was coming off his first meet as a rider at Evangeline Downs and was excited to dive into the deep Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots colony. Fast-forward one year later to the 2015-16 meet and the 21-year-old Alabama native barely resembles the novice he once was. If there was an award for most improved, it may not suffice. After 100 more victories, a highly successful Arlington meet in which he finished a close second and a Keeneland Fall Meet where he scored six victories, Murrill is not only improved – he is arguably one of the best.
“I feel like a whole different rider,” Murrill said. “I make smarter decisions and I ride more aggressively than I did last year. Arlington taught me to stay calm not only when I’m riding, but also when I deal with trainers, owners and other riders. I try to stay as humble as possible. I also rode a bunch of races on the grass and I had a good percentage on it, too, so that was a good experience.”
Murrill’s patience and skill on the grass have been on immediate display at the current meet. In his first 11 rides on the Stall-Wilson turf course through Thursday’s card, he has hit the board with nine of those, including three victories. One of those victories, an upset last-jump allowance win Saturday with Mike Stidham-trained Zubi Zubi Zu over odds-on multiple stakes winner Eden Prairie, put an exclamation point on his prowess.
“Last year was only my second meet ever as a jockey and I feel like I’ve learned a lot,” Murrill explained. “I am pretty excited this year. We started off well with a good first week – winning five races. Mike Stidham and Steve Flint have especially been helpful with keeping me on horses and I couldn’t do it without trainers like them.”
After becoming a journeyman this summer and consequently losing his weight allowance, he did not lose much steam, finishing the Arlington meet a strong second to Jose Valdivia, Jr., and then shaking things up at Keeneland with a seventh-place finish against the likes of Corey Lanerie, Julien Leparoux, Paco Lopez and Florent Geroux.
“It was really kind of overwhelming going in there at Keeneland with no business and people barely knowing me,” he said. “We managed to get six wins and that was unexpected, but a lot of fun.
“I would be satisfied with a top-three or top-five finish here at Fair Grounds,” he continued. “Patience is key on this track, especially with the stretch being long – and on both courses. You have to save some horse and finish strong. Hopefully we do well from here and I just keep getting better.”
Murrill is represented by another rising star in the game, 31-year-old jockey agent Tim Hanisch. An Iowa State alum, Hanisch has worked in racing offices across the country, including Fair Grounds as recently as the 2014-15 meet.