Donn's Articles » White Birch

White Birch

John Murphy remembers the build-up to the 2006 Champion Chase all right.  Kauto Star was all the talk, the young Paul Nicholls French-bred horse, Ruby Walsh on board.  But you can’t be afraid of one horse.

He knew that Newmill was going there with his chance.  Winner of the Kinloch Brae Chase at Thurles two months earlier over two and a half miles, he didn’t have any worries about his stamina anyway.

Seventeen years later, and here we go again, the build-up to a big race, going there with a horse who you know has a chance.  It’s the same, but it’s different too.  This time it’s the Betfred Derby, the Epsom Derby, probably the most famous horse race in the world, the one for which, according to legendary breeder Federico Tesio, the entire thoroughbred breed exists.

“Both roads are very exciting,” says John Murphy.  “You get nervous for sure.  It’s a nervous time.  You’re apprehensive.  But it’s exciting.  I suppose with Newmill, we had no worries about the trip.  We are venturing into the unknown with White Birch in the Derby, stepping up to a mile and a half, but we think he’ll stay all right.”

White Birch has been a slow burn.  Unsold at the Tattersalls October Sale as a yearling, it was John Murphy’s son and assistant trainer George who first saw the Ulysses colt at Tally Ho Stud, and trainer and son were both taken by him from the start.

“He was always a lovely colt,” says John.  “Great mover.  Well balanced.  He was a gorgeous model of a horse.  He had all that you look for in a racehorse, and he was coming from a great source.”

Beaten on his racecourse debut at Naas early last November, White Birch stepped forward from that and ran out an impressive winner of his maiden at Dundalk later that month.  Even so, when he made his debut this season in the Ballysax Stakes at Leopardstown last month, he was allowed go off at 22/1, sixth best of the six runners according to the market.

White Birch didn’t hold an entry in the Derby before he won the Ballysax, but, such was the authority with which he won that race, a recognised Derby trial, the pace and the tenacity that he displayed, connections took the decision to pay the supplementary entry fee to put him into next Saturday’s Classic.

“We were thinking about running him in the Leopardstown trial after that,” says John, “but we just didn’t want him having another race on very soft ground.  As it turned out, we probably could have run him at Leopardstown, the ground wasn’t that bad but, by the time we knew that, we had committed to the Dante at York.”

And, as in the Ballysax, the market under-rated White Birch’s chance in the Dante.  He didn’t win it, but he ran a big race in defeat in a race in which things didn’t go his way.  He missed the break, he was last early on, but he stayed on well all the way to the line for Shane Foley to take second place, just a neck behind the winner The Foxes.  Significantly, according to the Racing TV sectional times, he recorded a faster time than all of his rivals for every one of the last four furlongs.

“We were always going to be patient in the Dante, but we didn’t want to be last early on.  He just kind of hesitated as he left the stalls, and he did well to get as close as he did after that.  At least it justified the decision to supplement him to The Derby.”

John Murphy is no stranger to big-race success.  Newmill was a flagbearer through the 2000s, winner of the Kinloch Brae Chase and the Punchestown Champion Chase and the Red Mills Trial Hurdle as well as recording that famous victory in the 2006 Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham.  Even then though, Flat racing was very much a part of Murphy’s psyche.  Just two months after Newmill’s Champion Chase, he sent out Pout to win the Group 2 Ridgewood Pearl Stakes at The Curragh.

“It was a conscious decision all right to move more towards the flat,” says the trainer.  “We went through a tough time with the National Hunt horses, with injuries and the like.  We couldn’t be happier with how things are going now though.  We keep some broodmares too and, in the main, we race to sell.  We are delighted to have sold on some very good horses.  And every now and again, you happen upon a horse like White Birch, and we are so lucky that we have such longstanding and loyal owners, that we have been able to keep him.”

Next Saturday will be a step into the new.  New trip, White Birch has never been beyond 10 and a half furlongs in his life.  And he will possibly have a new rider, with regular rider this season Shane Foley probably committed to the Jessica Harrington-trainer Sprewell.  And it will be all new to John Murphy.  He has never had a runner at Epsom before.

“We’re very hopeful,” he says.  “White Birch has come out of the Dante well, he is back to a good weight.  He is a good, easy mover, well-balanced.  I think he will have no difficulty with the track.  We’ll go over a few days beforehand, let him settle in.  We don’t know for sure that he will stay, but his racing style suggests that he will and, if he does, he should be in the shake-up.  We’re looking forward to it.”

White Birch is a 12/1 shot generally at present for the Betfred Derby, 14/1 in places.  It may be that the market has under-rated his chance again.

© The Sunday Times, 28th May 2023