8 January 2006

Young County Wexford trainer cannot believe his luck as he gears up for the Cheltenham Festival with two Champion Hurdle chances in his care

It’s racing’s most coveted gift – a trainer’s ability to call the big day right. Thirty-one year-old bald-headed Colm Murphy, working all the hours God gave to Cain on the little family farm-cum-makeshift training centre down in County Wexford, looks as if he might have it. Or perhaps he’s just lucky?

Fortune has been brutal with other trainers this season. Best Mate and Rooster Booster have died at the gallop. Stars like Kicking King, Inglis Drever, Well Chief, Azertyuiop and Trabolgan are out for the season, Moscow Flyer has lost his form and Harchibald has been to hospital this week. But for Murphy the sun has shone. On Boxing Day he saddled the still unbeaten Feathard Lady to win dazzlingly at Sandown and three days later he sent out Brave Inca to outgun Harchibald at Leopardstown. The Murphy pair cost less than £16,000 at the sales and now head the Champion Hurdle market – not bad for a beginner.

For that in relative terms is Colm Murphy. He has been training just five years, has totalled a mere 30 winners and didn’t even have his first runner in a steeplechase until last year. “I am just unbelievably lucky,” he said as we skirted the concrete mixer on Thursday morning. “To have two horses with Champion Hurdle chances is just astonishing. But our first job is to get there . . . you have seen what has happened to the others.”

Around us is a beehive of clip-clopping activity drowned out by the din of a pneumatic drill helping to complete the conversion of what was originally a few boxes inside two of Ireland’s oldest green-corrugated hay barns into a fully concreted 45-head operation. In the centre are two constantly circling horse walkers in which the Murphy string loosen up and cool down before and after exercise. “Organised chaos,” says a gumbooted rider in front of me. He is Colm’s 71-year-old father, Pat. He is where it all began.

Pat Murphy came back to Wexford from Kildare almost 30 years ago. He kept sheep and cattle but always a horse or two. He rode them in point-to-points and prided himself on getting them fit. As Colm grew up he too got the riding bug. His education extended from accountancy to six years assisting Aidan O’Brien and riding some 80 winners as an amateur. But all along he and his father were targeting the point-to-points. “We bought young horses cheap,” Colm had said on Wednesday night, “and our aim was to get them ready to win first time then sell them. Getting them ready really mattered.”

That touch soon showed when he decided to start training officially. In his opening season he got the fragile-legged Anvil Lord to win first time out and then double up at the Punches-town Festival. In the next he brought out the unsung Brave Inca to win by 20 lengths at 25-1 at Fairyhouse, and in May 2004 Feathard Lady made her first race a winning one at Limerick. She is with us now, a little, light-framed mare with the kindest eye. “She only wants to please you,” Colm says. “So we have to look after her, hardly let her work at all. She’s got such class, but so has he. It’s impossible to choose between them.”

Murphy’s workbench is a four-furlong track of deep and testing Wexford sand running round three sides of a sloping field next to the river. Three times we spin easily up it at increasing intensity and hack back before finally splashing through the river to cool down. Thirty years ago, pre-Michael Dickinson and Martin Pipe, everybody said that interval training was not possible with horses – now it is the norm.

“We never get them off the bridle here,” Colm says, “but three times up the sand is quite demanding, you would not want to do it week in week out. I always like to be bringing them up to a target. Feathard Lady and Brave Inca run against each other in the Irish Champion Hurdle in three weeks’ time. Before that I will take them away to gallop at The Curragh, him a couple of times, she probably only once but not to do very much. You could easily overcook her.”

When Feathard Lady is being sponged off afterwards you can understand why. She is little more than a pony and while the coat gleams the flesh is tight against the ribs and quarters. She is a very different bullet to prime than the manly Brave Inca, whom Colm Murphy next rides down to the gallops while his stablemate dries off on the walker. “He’s only one full day off but he’s mad fresh already,” says Colm as we hack up the first time and Brave Inca tosses his head low and sideways like a rutting stag.

“He needs plenty of work,” adds the trainer, “but if you were to force him too much he would get fed up with you. Tony McCoy says it’s the same in a race. You have to get him to want to do it, then he will give you everything.”

For all Murphy’s modesty there is a deep authority in the statement. He may smile at the “organised chaos” as saddles are swapped in the lean-to tack-room and the stable stars take muddy rolls in their white-ribboned squares of the adjoining paddock. But he looks you very directly in the eye when he finally sits down for a coffee in the smart but spartan new home he has built just next to the greying walls of the family bungalow.

“It’s all about winning the big races,” he says, “of course I have been ridiculously lucky but you have to win to get noticed.” It was noon. He had walked out of the kitchen door at 5.45am to feed the horses and from daybreak had been taking calls on the mobile tucked inside his helmet. His life is quite unbelievably focused but then that’s how winners are planned. He is a classic product of Ireland’s Celtic Tiger – a member of the best educated youth in Europe tackling traditional jobs with informed ambition.

“Yes, I am very hands-on,” he says. “We have built up a system here which depends on all of us, but in the end it is my judgment on the line.” It may not be too hard to reach a verdict.

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