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Colm Murphy

In the summer of 1994, after Colm Murphy had graduated from Waterford Institute of Technology with a degree in Accountancy, he phoned Aidan O’Brien and asked him for a job. It wasn’t that he needed a degree before he could go and ride horses up and down the hill at Owning, the fact that he was a graduate didn’t even figure in the interview. All that mattered was an affinity with horses, and Murphy had that in spades.

The summer of 1994 was a good time to be joining Aidan O’Brien. The 24-year-old trainer had just been crowned champion jumps trainer for the first time, and he was about to become just the fourth Irish trainer in history to train 100 winners in a calendar year. As well as that, the quality of his horses was improving exponentially. Putty Road had just won his two bumpers, Double Symphony had won one, Idiots Venture was about to start jumping fences against fellow novices Sound Man and Klairon Davies, Urubande would arrive in 1995, Istabraq in 1996.

It wasn’t long before Murphy began to impress. The years spent riding his father’s horses around the fields at Ballindrummin in County Wexford, and the Wednesdays that he skulked off college to ride out at Harry de Bromhead’s, stood to him. His first ride for O’Brien on Crannon Boy in a qualified riders’ handicap hurdle at Tralee in August 1994 was a winner, and he was on his way.

It wasn’t long before the boss learned of Murphy’s qualification in Accountancy, and he found himself working in the office in the afternoons. It was the best of both worlds. Riding out in the morning, going racing in the afternoons when there was racing, working in the office when there wasn’t. It provided Murphy with an insight into all aspects of one of the most successful racing yards in the country, an opportunity to see all angles. Even now, when he is faced with a problem or an issue, he asks himself: “How would Aidan do it?”

O’Brien’s move to Ballydoyle and increased concentration on the flat was not good news for Murphy in one sense. Of course, he could see the potential that there was in Ballydoyle, but he wanted to ride above all else, and his weight would never allow him be a flat jockey. In another sense, however, it was a good thing, it honed his thoughts, made him think about going out on his own. He rode out for Charlie Swan for a year, and he worked away with is own point-to-pointers, a half-day at Charlie’s, a half-day at home. In 2000, he made the decision to go it alone and took out his trainer’s licence. In 2001, at the Goffs Land Rover Sale, he bought Brave Inca.

Murphy is in no doubt about the debt of gratitude that he owes to Brave Inca. In 27 completed races over two or two and a half miles between March 2003 and January 2009, the son of Good Thyne won 10 Grade 1 races and never finished out of the first three. It is a remarkable record. Retirement for the now 11-year-old last April was inevitable, he just wasn’t able to compete at the top level any more, although he did beat Kicking King and Moscow Flyer in the Racehorse to Riding Horse Class at the Dublin Horse Show in August. He is spending his retirement at Murphy’s, he is being ridden out now and enjoying himself, but ask Murphy if he misses having him as a racehorse and he will tell you: more than anyone will ever know.

The trick is to find the next Brave Inca. We stroll around the yard and the trainer names and describes every head as it appears over every stable door, wondering aloud if it could be the next flagship horse.

There’s Voler La Vedette. She could be one. Mind she doesn’t take a bite out of you.

“She does nothing at home,” says Colm. “She’d put you in bad form every time she works. She worked there this morning just before you arrived, and she put me in bad form. But when she goes to the racecourse, different story. She has done enough already to have you thinking of the mares’ race at Cheltenham for her at least.”

Box 28, a half-brother to Kazal. Box 29, Zaarito.

“It’s so important for a yard like ours to have a flagship horse,” says the trainer. “A horse that takes you to the big days, puts you in the shop window. It’s even more important these days than it was two or three years ago. It wasn’t so long ago that people would ring and ask you if you could take a horse, if you had room. These days, the phone doesn’t ring as often, it’s the same all over, and when it does, people are asking how much.”

Box 30, Big Zeb. Flagship written all over him.

“He came back in after Galway this year,” says Murphy, “and he has done really well. Last year he had a few little setbacks during the summer and we didn’t get him out until Christmas. That probably counted against him later on. We could have been doing with getting more experience into him early in the season. But everything has gone well with him this time, and he goes in the Fortria Chase at Navan on Sunday.”

It’s not ideal, the ground at Navan is going to be much softer than he likes, but it’s a case of starting off somewhere, getting him going, and there are limited options for these top two-mile chasers. The programme almost maps itself out. The mid-season target is the Paddy Power Dial-A-Bet Chase at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival, the race that he won on his debut last year. One more run before then means that he has to either go to Sandown and take on Master Minded in the Tingle Creek Chase, or step up in trip to two and a half miles for the John Durkan Chase at Punchestown. After Christmas, it’s one run before Cheltenham, probably in the Tied Cottage Chase, the race in which he fell last year.

“It was a silly little novicey mistake,” says the trainer, “and he paid the price. I honestly think that that fall was in the back of his mind at Cheltenham in the Champion Chase. Chocolate Thornton asked him for a big one at the top of the hill, and he put down. The way things worked out, you wonder what might have been, given that Master Minded didn’t beat the others by that far and given how close we got to him in the Kerrygold Chase at Punchestown.”

That was a crashing fall from which he was lucky to get up and walk away. It didn’t look good when they erected the screens around him. Murphy looked on from the rail at the grandstand, helpless, unable to cross the course to the far side until the race had finished. Eventually they took the screens away and he heaved a sigh of relief.

To look at Big Zeb’s chase record, you could only conclude that he is a poor jumper. Ten chases, four falls. On the contrary, however, Murphy maintains that he is probably the best jumper of a fence that he has ever trained. He just lacks concentration sometimes. He gets worked up. But when he settles, he’s good. They have done some work with his jumping during the summer, and his concentration is getting better. This could be Big Zeb’s year.

“He’ll be fit enough for Sunday,” says Murphy. “He’ll be about as fit as he was for his seasonal debut last year, but it’s not the be-all and end-all. We said we’d never run him on heavy ground, and here we are doing it. It’s a stepping stone to, please God, next March. He’s a horse who doesn’t really come to himself until the spring, so we won’t be too hard on him before then. And even next March is not the be-all and end-all either, in case something happens that he doesn’t make it. We’ll just take every race as it comes.”

That’s how Aidan does it too.

© The Sunday Times, 8th November 2009