26 February 2006

Following a brief spell in prison, the Irish jockey has won over doubters with a series of masterly displays in the saddle

Cheltenham fever is something most of us seek but which jockeys must avoid. “One of the young guys was asking me,” said Timmy Murphy on Wednesday, “how to handle the pressure at Cheltenham. I told him you had to ride the race not the occasion.”

Such cool thinking has become something of a Murphy trademark – especially in the race itself. His is a presence you seek: an aura of calculating calm in the moving capsule of thundering hooves and jostling horses. You usually, but not always, spot him at the back watching over the rivals ahead. You always wonder how much power he has underneath him. Signs of fever are there none.

It was not ever thus. Murphy, 31, son of a stud groom from Kildare, was always talented and driven but within him was a streak of alchohol-fuelled self-destruct which ended with him spending three extremely alarming, uncomfortable if ultimately redeeming months in Wormwood Scrubs in the late summer of 2002. “In many ways my racing life was over,” he said very quietly as he sipped his obligatory soft drink on Wednesday evening. “There seemed no way back. But then the letters began to come. People believed in me. That gave me so much hope.”

It’s now a part of ‘second chance’ folklore how Murphy went back to his Irish roots with Michael Hourigan in Limerick, schooled horses intensively for six days, rode at Doncaster on the seventh, and on the eighth finished second in a big (and very physically demanding) three-mile chase at Ascot. Statements of intent don’t come much plainer than that.

The rebuilding took a couple of years, quite a bit of it in Ireland where the association with Hourigan’s star Beef Or Salmon made the name T J Murphy again a natural sight on the big day race-cards. People began to remember that his talent was too good to miss. And they noticed welcome changes to the man. “I always loved the way he rode,” said Henrietta Knight, for whom Murphy has been the chosen jockey for her new star, Racing Demon. “But he could be very short-tempered and difficult with people. Now he wants to help.”

Of course, the ultimate step back and up came before the beginning of last season when David Johnson, Britain’s biggest ever jumping owner, chose Murphy to ride for him in succession to Tony McCoy, who was moving to Jonjo O’Neill. Despite early clashes with trainer Martin Pipe, who still prefers to put the more forceful McCoy on his other horses, Murphy won over the doubters with a series of big race wins, climaxed by a characteristic stalking victory on Contraband in the Arkle Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.

Last week’s Johnson winners Our Vic and Don’t Be Shy are among the leading Murphy contenders for this year’s Festival but even though it starts a fortnight on Tuesday, he refuses to bog down the conversation with speculation. “It’s a waste of time to talk about it now,” he said. “My way of handling it is to talk things through with David and with Martin in the week before. Then on the day take one race at a time. You can only ride what is in front of you.”

Which takes us back to what is special about Murphy in the saddle, the calmness, the flowing skill, the hallmark of class in any sport. “There are two crucial jobs a jockey is doing out there,” said trainer Jamie Osborne, one of the most talented and stylish riders of the recent era. “To balance the horse, and balance yourself around it. Timmy does the two better than anyone around. He is a joy to watch. It is a quite exceptional talent.”

Osborne’s great mentor was Yogi Breisner, now established as the performance coach to the Olympic equestrian team. Murphy says his first meeting with Yogi some eight years ago changed the way he thought about jumping. “I could see the talent, the balance and body position,” said Yogi. “But he was trying too hard. He needed to refine things. When I rode in the 1984 Olympics, I remember hearing athlete Carl Lewis say that what you needed was the maximum effort with the maximum relaxation. That’s what I believe Timmy brings to his horses today.”

Murphy is too grateful for his second chance to want to boast about it. Sitting at the scrubbed wooden tables and open fire of the country pub on Wednesday he shook his head at his early ignorance: how he just sat on horses without thinking, how he got drunk every weekend and more because it was in the culture. How his ‘short fuse’ understandably kept blowing under pressure. Now he has to have himself organised. And to have patience – off a horse and on it.

“The horse has got to do the running and jumping,” he said in a ruminative way which still has a lot of authority about it. “I like to let them adjust themselves, get their confidence, take their time. So many people, especially at Cheltenham, go off too fast. That’s why I love to be out the back seeing what the others are doing, planning when to strike. What I really hate is committing myself too early, other horses coming past you. You have to think that’s a race you could have won.”

That’s when you realise what the image of Murphy in a race most reminds you of. He may be in one of the most speedy and violent locations in the whole of sport, but the coolness of the movement, the stillness of the limbs gives out all the aura of a great poker player. The horse’s talents are his cards. He knows it’s best to play last.

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