Donn's Articles » Colm Murphy

Colm Murphy

Colm Murphy gives Brave Inca a pat on the neck.

“He built all this.”

The yard, the boxes, the horse-walkers, the gallops; all the man-made structures that you can see, he means. Horse-made. Even the house that Murphy now inhabits, equidistant from the yard and from his parents’ house where he grew up, about 50 yards from each, three points of a compressed triangle. All of it, he tells you, is down to the horse that stands in front of you.

Brave Inca is 13 years old. It is two and a half years since he retired, and Murphy still misses bringing him racing. He’s very happy to have him around, mind you, and he’d love to tell you that Brave Inca leads the young horses in their work, but Brave Inca is Brave Inca, he hasn’t changed, he still needs cajoling. He was never going to be a natural lead horse.

The plaques on the stable door tell you all you need to know about Brave Inca. Winner of the 2004 Deloitte Hurdle, a drop of kerosene on the flames of a young trainer’s career at the time, proof that this rookie could train a top class horse to win a top class race, and the Murphy name under a small media spotlight. Then Brave Inca won the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at the 2004 Cheltenham Festival, and the floodlights blazed.

The other plaques tumble forward. December Festival Hurdle, Hatton’s Grace Hurdle, AIG Hurdle, Champion Hurdle. Ten Grade 1 wins. It’s lucky that Brave Inca got beaten a short head by Macs Joy in the AIG Hurdle in 2005, because there isn’t enough room on the door for another.

“You couldn’t replace him,” says Murphy wistfully. “How could you replace Brave Inca? You just hope that you can come across another top class horse. You need to have a top class horse, keep your name up there, keep the thing rolling. That’s what this game is all about.”

Look to your left: Big Zeb, odds-on favourite for the Paddy Power Dial-A-Bet Chase at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival next week. Look to your right: Voler La Vedette, second favourite for the Istabraq Hurdle. Look further to your right: Quito De La Roque, favourite for the Lexus Chase. Deceptively tall. Brave Inca may be irreplaceable, but, if your wealth as a racehorse trainer is determined by the quality and the quantity of top class horses that you have under your tutelage, Colm Murphy is rolling in it. When you have a silver bullet for each of the three feature races at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival in any given year, you are obviously doing lots of things right.

“Big Zeb seems to be in better form now than he was at this time last year,” says Murphy. “He only just got home in the Dial-A-Bet last year, Golden Silver was closing on him going to the line. He didn’t really come to himself last season until the spring. I have been much happier with him this season. Even going to Navan for the Fortria Chase last month, we had left a little bit to work on, I thought that that was Noble Prince’s chance to beat us, getting 5lb from us, but I knew our horse was in great form.”

Big Zeb was the horse that arrived in through the door just as Brave Inca was thinking of leaving. Kept the thing rolling. In fact, two days before Brave Inca danced what turned out to be his final dance, in the Ladbrokes World Series Hurdle at Punchestown in April 2009, Big Zeb had announced his arrival at the top table by running the great Master Minded to a head in the Kerrygold Champion Chase, when a bad mistake at the final fence almost certainly cost him the race.

“He’d depress you at home, mind you,” says his trainer. “He minds himself here. I suppose the good ones do. If they were working great every day, you’d probably reach the bottom of the barrel with them sooner rather than later. Big Zeb saves himself for the racecourse, and that’s fine with me.”

Quito De La Roque is another whose homework fails to stand out. You’d pass him out yourself if you were running along beside him up the gallop, his trainer tells you. Deadpan. That’s straight up, that’s actually, not metaphorically.

“We were obviously thrilled with his win in the Chase at Down Royal. We missed about 10 days work with him in the lead up to the race. He knocked a joint, he had to stand in his box, and at one stage there was no way he was going to make it to the race. But the nearer the race got, the better our chance got. Even so, I would have been happy to have run a nice race and finished third or fourth. To win it was unbelievable.”

Jumping the fifth last fence in the Down Royal race, victory seemed highly improbable. Sizing Europe and The Nightingale were trapping along in front, and Davy Russell was hard at work on Quito just to keep up.

“Even jumping the second fence, I was worried about how we were going to do. He wasn’t travelling, he never travelled. But that said, they went some gallop on that ground. It probably wasn’t surprising that they stopped in front. I was disappointed that our fellow didn’t travel, but I’m not that surprised, given how fast they went and how hard we had to drill him to get him there. But he can travel. He’s not as slow as everyone thinks he is. He travelled well at Aintree last April on good ground on a tight track. He’s not lacking pace. I think you’ll see a different horse now in the Lexus.”

Voler La Vedette looks like a different horse this year already. Winner of the Lismullen Hurdle at Navan on her seasonal debut, she put up probably the best performance of her life in coming four lengths clear of her rivals in the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse two weeks ago to register her first Grade 1 success.

Murphy isn’t sure to what her improvement can be attributed. Her owner/breeder Mrs Brophy did try to put her in-foal to Presenting last April, and maybe that has had a positive effect. Or maybe it is down to the fact that her trainer has fitted a tongue-tie in her two runs this term. Or maybe she is just settling better this season than before.

“She did have niggly little problems, which I think we have sorted out, so that is obviously a help. She is still only seven though, she could just be improving now as she matures. She may run in the Istabraq Hurdle over two miles at Leopardstown, but she will also have an entry in the three-mile race. It’s great to have her though. And the other two. It’s great to have real chances in three Grade 1 races at Leopardstown over Christmas.”

And the thing keeps rolling on.

© The Sunday Times, 18th December 2011