14 November 2004

A brilliant four-timer for owner and retainer David Johnson suggests the jockey’s troubles are well behind him

Brough Scott at Cheltenham.

Four winners on a big day at Cheltenham and yet still some doubts will linger. It was always going to be difficult for Timmy Murphy to take over from Tony McCoy on the Martin Pipe-David Johnson runners and even this master class of the riding arts and victory on Celestial Gold in the Paddy Power Gold Cup, cannot fully dispel the thought that the mantle might be only lent.

Today’s sight of McCoy wearing the famous green and blue Johnson silks on the Pipe-trained Contraband will only re-fuel speculation that yesterday’s four-timer would normally have doused. “Getting used to a new job always takes time,” said 30-year-old Murphy at the end of the greatest day of his brilliant but turbulent career. “Tony has a much more forceful style than mine but we can all make adjustments.”

The sight of Murphy in front rounding the last turn on first Over The Creek and then Vodka Bleu in the opening two races suggested that he was heeding the pressure even if the horse’s eventual winning margin might not have been any easier gained than by his trademark silky smooth waiting tactics. But since both Celestial Gold and Stormez then won their races coming from last place at half-way, these rapidly become “shaggy dog” arguments. If he keeps winning, the tactics have to be right.

What we could see in this sunny Cotswold autumn was the talent for moving a thoroughbred through a race and over a fence first displayed at a point-to-point in his native County Wexford some 14 years ago. Murphy is the most artistic of all the present day operators in the saddle, a jockey whose nature is to nurse his horse’s resources, to go with the flow of the leap, to catch the energy burst at the finish. Yesterday he was lit up like the sunshine.

In hindsight, the Paddy Power Gold Cup was the right race for him at the right time. Despite already knocking in some 33 winners for Pipe, this was going to be Murphy’s biggest day of the burgeoning season and came after a Friday double was blemished by a narrow defeat on the strongly-fancied Well Chief. Celestial Gold was only a substitute for the same owner’s Old Vic, but he and Murphy won as if made for each other, and at 12-1. For Celestial Gold can be headstrong and with Carl Llewellyn setting the expected hectic gallop on Ollie Magern, the well-practised Murphy waiting tactics were the perfect match.

It was not until the field headed left at the top of the hill and hurtled down towards the third last that Murphy put his clean-jumping rival on to the pack but by the second last he was right in contention. A fast, clean leap there put him through and into the lead just as the favourite, Monkerhostin, and his stablemate, Thisthatandtother, got mucked about by the falling Farmer Jack. Murphy was in front on the big day at Cheltenham. He was not giving this away.

Round the final turn towards us they came. Murphy low and persistent on Celestial Gold, Ruby Walsh punching and compulsive outside him on Thisthatandtother. A neat jump was needed. Celestial Gold gave it and Murphy let the reins loose as his partner’s neck reached out and back in the re-balancing effort. It was still a long grind to the line. But this jockey is not just a pretty seat. At the post there was still almost two lengths in it.

It was an admirable riding display and another training masterpiece from what might now be described as the Pipe family training academy. For Celestial Gold’s nursery days were in David Pipe’s point-to-point yard to which his father was quick to pay tribute. It had been three winners already for the Murphy-Pipe-Johnson trio. But the fourth was to be the best of them.

Stormez is a vertically challenged little chesnut whose racing heart is in inverse ratio to his limited jumping capacity. A week ago Pipe put Murphy on him in a schooling session with almost disastrous results. Yesterday he told him to persevere, and as Stormez struggled round at the back of the field, one inadequate leap following another, the jockey must have been pushed to take the trainer at his word.

“But he has such guts,” a grateful Murphy said afterwards, “although he does make heavy weather at the jumps, he keeps responding when you niggle at him. I always felt that he had more to give. He really is a wonder.”

It was an affectionate tribute from a man whose gifts and drive have not always been perfectly balanced. In earlier times there were troubles with cars and alcohol and three years ago the infamous airline incident which saw him spend three traumatising months in Wormwood Scrubs.

His revival is a huge testimony to the human spirit. As he goes out to ride former Champion Hurdler Rooster Booster today, it deserves to be recognised with no reference to others, not even to Tony McCoy.

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