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Colm Murphy

Colm Murphy remembers his first visit to Cheltenham.  St Patrick’s Day 1999, he went there to ride Lady Moskva for Charlie Swan in the National Hunt Chase.

He had been involved in Cheltenham before.  He was working for Aidan O’Brien when Urubande won the Sun Alliance Hurdle in 1996 and for the early Istabraq years, but he watched Urubande and Istabraq from home.  It was great to get there in 1999, to be deeply involved, to be riding in a race at the Cheltenham Festival.  Lady Moskva raced up with the pace for a while before fading.  It was some experience though.  Imagine having a winner there.

He went back five years later as a fledgling trainer with Brave Inca, and he raised the roof.  The Deloitte Novice Hurdle winner, one of the Irish bankers of the meeting, favourite for the curtain-raiser, the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, and he got home by a neck from subsequent Gold Cup winner War Of Attrition in a thriller.

“It’s hard to believe that that’s nearly 20 years ago,” says Colm Murphy now.  “Brave Inca was unbelievable.  Sure he built this place.”

The plan was always for Brave Inca to go back to Cheltenham and contest the Champion Hurdle, and that was a plan that had a solid foundation.  The Good Thyne gelding won the Champion Hurdle in 2006.  Big Zeb won the Champion Chase in 2010, Empire Of Dirt won the Plate in 2016, and all of them were trained by Colm Murphy. 

He had near misses at Cheltenham along the way too, like Voler La Vedette, third to Quevega in the 2010 Mares’ Hurdle and second to Big Buck’s in the cat-and-mouse Stayers’ Hurdle in 2012, and Fethard Lady, high in the Champion Hurdle market in 2005 when injury ruled her out.  Brave Inca finished second in another Champion Hurdle and third in another, Big Zeb finished second in another Champion Chase and third in another.  For more than a decade Colm Murphy consistently peppered the Cheltenham target, and he hit the bullseye four times.

“Of course, we took it all a bit for granted at the time,” says the trainer, in reflective mood.  “You’d always be thinking that you’d do better next year.  You thought of it as kindofa given that you’d be going every year.  We never really thought that there would be years when we wouldn’t have anything that was good enough to even have an entry.”

Impervious is good enough, that has been apparent for a little while now.  Perhaps it wasn’t apparent to everybody when Colm Murphy saw her for the first time at the Derby Sale at Tattersalls Ireland in 2019.  An unbroken, untried three-year-old then, the €26,000 that he spent on her was money well spent.

“She was a lovely filly,” says her trainer.  “A typical racey filly.  And she had a nice young pedigree.  Just the type of filly that we look for.”

It was for precisely this type of filly that Colm Murphy re-joined the training ranks.  He stopped training in 2016.  It was a difficult decision, months in the making, a change in lifestyle, but it was an easy decision in the end.  It just wasn’t viable.

He took on a role as stewards’ secretary with the IHRB but, all the while, he kept young horses at home.  He teamed up with owner Paul McKeon, for whom he had ridden winners as an amateur when he was with Aidan O’Brien, and developed a plan to source young horses and get them going.  Relegate was one of those young horses, bought by Colm Murphy at the 2016 Derby Sale and trained by Willie Mullins to win the Champion Bumper at Cheltenham in 2018.  After a little while though, the realisation dawned that it made sense for Colm to start training again.

“The break probably did me good,” he says thoughtfully.  “It’s only when you take a step back from something sometimes that you can fully appreciate it.  We realised that we did lots of things right.  And we never really stopped, to be honest.  We always had horses around the place.”

He had runners again in the summer of 2019, and he built up slowly.  Botani won a valuable handicap hurdle at Cork in April 2021, Aido The Apache won the Brown Lad Handicap Hurdle at Naas in November 2021, and Macs Charm went on a roll, winning three handicap hurdles on the spin last winter.

Impervious won her maiden hurdle on her racecourse debut at Cork in the late summer of 2021, sprang a 20/1 shock, then won at Listowel and won a Grade 3 contest at Down Royal.  She went to Cheltenham last March and finished a close-up sixth in the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle.

“She did well last season, but it was a bit of a stop-start year.  We never got a run with her in the second half of the season, and she still did well.  And we always thought that she would be even better over fences.”

That hypothesis has already been proven.  The Shantou mare has run three times over fences this season, and she has won three times.  Impressive in winning her beginners’ chase at Wexford in October, she was very good in winning a Grade 2 mares’ novices’ chase at Cork in December.  She was strong and she was brave in getting the better of the JP McManus-owned Dinoblue, with another JP McManus mare, Roseys Hollow, back in third.

It is significant, then, that when Impervious ran last time in a Grade 3 contest at Punchestown, her rider Brian Hayes wore the JP McManus colours.  She was good that day too in beating the geldings, carrying an 8lb penalty to a half-length victory over Journey With Me. 

“There was no pressure the last day,” says Colm, “but even so, it was great that she was able to justify the faith that JP McManus showed in her.  It was great that she was able to deliver for her new owner. After that, the Mares’ Chase at Cheltenham was always the plan.”

That’s another plan that has a solid foundation.

© The Sunday Times, 5th March 2023