Donn's Articles » Colm Murphy

Colm Murphy

It was in 2004 that Brave Inca won the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.  It was in the first race on the first day of the 2004 Cheltenham Festival that he and War Of Attrition went toe-to-toe in an all-Irish ding-dong up the hill, before Colm Murphy’s horse stretched his willing head out and got home by a neck.

Then he went back two years later and won the Champion Hurdle.

Colm Murphy smiles a knowing smile.

“It feels like a lifetime ago.”

Brave Inca is 18 years old.

“There are a couple of lads here, they are just 18, they’re the same age as Brave Inca, and they don’t really remember him as a racehorse at all,” says the trainer.  “These horses come and go, don’t they?  They just have a few years at the top.  It’s amazing how quickly they get old.”

Brave Inca was Colm Murphy’s breakthrough horse.  Winning the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle with him in 2004 was as good as it got; winning the Champion Hurdle with him in 2006 was better.  And all that went in between, the Deloitte Hurdle and the Irish Champion Hurdle and the Punchestown Champion Hurdle and the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle.  But Brave Inca was not unique in Murphy’s yard.

There was a steady stream of top class horses back then.  Feathard Lady was moving inexorably towards the top when Brave Inca was in his pomp.  When she won the Christmas Hurdle at Sandown in 2005, she displaced Brave Inca as Champion Hurdle favourite.  Alas, she was fragile.  We didn’t know it at the time, but she would never race again after that Sandown win.  Seven runs, seven wins, her star-studded career culminating in her maiden Grade 1 win.

When Brave Inca was nearing the twilight of his remarkable career, Big Zeb appeared on the horizon, grew into his, won the Fortria Chase and the Tied Cottage Chase, then took Murphy back to Cheltenham in 2010 and won the Queen Mother Champion Chase.  The following year, Quito De La Roque won the Grade 1 Growise Chase at Punchestown and the Grade 1 Champion Chase at Down Royal, and the year after that, Voler La Vedette came close to lowering the colours of the perennial stayers’ champion Big Buck’s in the World Hurdle.

“We have been very fortunate to come across these horses,” says Murphy.  “These Grade 1 horses, they are not easily found.  We buy most of our horses as stores, unraced, untried.  Everybody knows what a nice horse looks like, you just have to be lucky that there is an engine under the bonnet.”

But there is more than just luck to this.  You need the eye for the horse, the instinct.  Brave Inca cost 14,000 guineas as an unraced three-year-old at Goffs in 2001.  Big Zeb cost €34,000.  They were there in the ring for anybody to buy.

“We have to buy stores, try to buy them cheaply then get them going and sell them on.  It used to be the case that they were for sale to stay in the yard, but now, if the right offer comes in, we are happy to sell them even to leave the yard.”

Brave Inca danced his way through the Celtic Tiger years.  There was money around, and racing syndicates were springing up like housing estates.  It was a good time for Murphy’s star to be in the ascendancy, and he thrived.

Then the winds of change blew: not so many syndicates and a smaller pool of owners.  A greater concentration of horses among fewer owners.  You cut your cloth, you change your methodology.

“I have never been very good at going out to look for owners.  We don’t have the numbers, we have never had the numbers, so we have to be selective.  It’s a numbers game.  The more horses you have, the more good ones you will have.  It’s logical.  But we have never really had the quantity to allow us have the quality.”

That said, the fact that the top two owners in the country – JP McManus and Gigginstown House – have retained their faith in Murphy is a sign that he is doing lots of things right.  And their faith is being rewarded.  Last Sunday, the trainer sent out Marlbrook to win the Nas Na Riogh Handicap Chase at Naas for JP McManus.  And last month, he sent out the Gigginstown House-owned Empire Of Dirt to win the Coral Handicap Chase at Leopardstown.

“These are good races to win,” says Murphy.  “These good handicaps on good days.  Marlbrook has had a few little issues, and he does tend to race with the choke out a little, but the lads have figured out how to ride him.  And we always thought a lot of Empire Of Dirt, he always worked like a nice horse, but he was always hard on himself.  He’s settling better these days though, he’s more mature, and he is improving as a result.”

Strange to say about a horse who fell four times in his first 10 chases, Empire Of Dirt is actually a good jumper.

“He has been unlucky.  He has just been making silly novicey mistakes.  It was frustrating when he fell at the third last fence in the Troytown Chase at Navan in November.  He was travelling so well.  And he hardly made a mistake at the fence, he just didn’t seem to get his landing gear sorted on time.  It was frustrating at the time, but Leopardstown made up for it.  I loved the manner in which he galloped to the line at Leopardstown.”

All going well, the two-and-a-half-mile handicap chase at Cheltenham is on Empire Of Dirt’s radar.

“I have been very happy with him since Leopardstown,” says Murphy.  “He came out of the race well.  The handicapper raised him 7lb for that, which was fair enough.  That should leave him with a nice weight for the Cheltenham race.  I don’t think he is finished improving yet.”

Sizing Granite is a relatively recent addition to the Murphy roster.  He is the trainer’s first horse for Ann and Alan Potts, which means that he now has three of the top five owners in the country on his books.

“Alan Potts just called me out of the blue,” says the trainer.  “It was a nice surprise.  Sizing Granite is a lovely horse to get.  He was a top class novice last season, Henry (de Bromhead) did a great job with him, and he’s on track for the Champion Chase at Cheltenham.  He should appreciate the better ground that he will get there.  We have had enough battles with Ann and Alan Potts, with Big Zeb taking on Sizing Europe, so it will be nice to be on the same team for a change.”

The winds of change are blowing again.

© The Sunday Times, 28th February 2016