Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Quiet Man

The Quiet Man

By Stephen Dwyer

Adorning the mantelpiece in Colm Murphy’s sitting room are two slightly dulled sliver trophies. Angular in shape, it is only on closer inspection that the inscriptions read “Supreme Novices' Hurdle Winner 2004 - Brave Inca” on one and “Smurfit Kappa Champion Hurdle 2006 Winner - Brave Inca” on the other. Whereas other trainers might frequently shine such awards, you get the impression Colm Murphy has higher priorities on his agenda.

Aside from the mantelpiece, his dormer house at Ballinadrummin, eight miles south of Gorey is dotted inside with crystal cups and trainers prizes, most "of no intrinsic value" Murphy is quick to point out at his leisure. The house is adjacent to a collection of impressive and carefully-planned training facilities. Among these are separate sand and fibre gallops, a collection of horse walkers and an indoor lunging ring for schooling younger horses. All features are part of in a yard that averages fifty horses in training at any one time. It is a meticulous operation, an extension of the mind of an individual who is systematic and precise. Little wonder he is a qualified accountant.

Colm’s father Pat, kept horses and was a former jockey. Around the horse sales and races from a young age, Colm was a successful amateur jockey, 27 racecourse winners and some 50 point-to-point successes followed a humble start work-riding local Wexford owner Bert Allen's 'pointers' on his weekends off from studying at Waterford IT.

Throughout his amateur career, Colm rode several bumper winners for Aidan O’ Brien. While working for O’ Brien at Rosegreen for a shade over six years, his undertakings included handing the accounts, race entries and declarations. This was to prove invaluable in time to come. Recalling the years he spent in Tipperary, Murphy notes "I went to work for Aidan for a summer and I ended up staying for six years, and when you're around someone like that you can't help but learn”. During that time Murphy swore he would never become a trainer, a promise that was broken in 2000 when he took out a trainer’s license.

Still in his mid-thirties, Colm Murphy is one of the few trainers to train the winner of a championship race at the Cheltenham Festival while still in their twenties. Aidan O'Brien immediately springs to mind as another who achieved this accomplishment when Istabraq claimed the Royal & Sun Alliance Hurdle in 1997. The parallel does not end there; both men are softly spoken, natural horsemen and very shrewd judges at the sales.

At Listowel in April 2000, Colm made his racecourse debut as a trainer. A Mandalus mare, Alottalady finished eighth of seventeen in a maiden hurdle in Listowel when Colm also rode the mare. It was to be two years until he would taste success as a trainer. In March 2002, on his first start for Murphy, Anvil Lord would be a 20/1 winner in a maiden hurdle at Cork. Anvil Lord was an injury-prone sort and the young trainer demonstrated skilful handling when the gelding won two of his next three races.

Previous to the success of Anvil Lord, Colm had paid €18,000 for a son of Good Thyne out of a Commanche Run mare. The gelding went through the sales ring four times before Murphy acquired him on behalf of the Novice’s Syndicate. On his first start, Brave Inca, as the gelding was named, finished well down the field. He was then eighth to future Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Kicking King. Unusually, Brave Inca’s first three runs at the racecourse were over hurdles, Murphy’s faith in the ability of the gelding never wavered and when he filled into his frame he won his next two starts in a bumper.

The career of Brave Inca was phenomenal, he would become the outstanding hurdler of his generation and it would catapult Murphy into the public arena through the winner’s enclosure in Cheltenham. By the time his career ended, Brave Inca had a 44% strike rate, winning fifteen races including the two major Cheltenham hurdles and numerous Irish Champion hurdles.

When asked about the exploits of the horse, “Brave Inca built this house” divulged Murphy, almost retiringly. Not much more needed to be discussed.
At the height of Brave Inca’s exploits, Pat Redmond, a Wexford-based hotelier, instructed Colm to acquire a chaser at the Goff’s sales in 2004. Parting with €34,000, Redmond recalls: “I was at the sales with Colm Murphy and his father (Pat). We had looked at a lot of horses and Big Zeb was a big, scopey looking horse who just caught the eye; he looked a nice animal on the day.” In agreement, owner and trainer, Big Zeb was put into training and he soon became a top class chaser. Prone to the odd jumping clanger, Colm admitted “he’d run his race before he got to the track but this year he is a proper horse”.

Now unbeaten since winning the Champion Chase in Cheltenham last year, Big Zeb is Irelands highest-rated chaser in training. He was also crowned “horse of the year 2010” and is joint favourite for this year’s renewal of the Champion Chase, a race he has every chance of winning.

When questioned Big Zeb and Brave Inca running in the Purple and Gold colours of the Wexford flag, Murphy shrugs his shoulders and smiles knowingly. Colm has a way of giving you an answer without the urgency for words.
In Ireland last season he turned out 23 winners, earning over €400,000 in prize money for his owners

It may be a long time before those mantelpiece trophies are polished; it’s almost a guarantee many more are on the way.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Thyestes 2011

Thyestes 2011

By Stephen Dwyer

Whatever the weather, January is always good to Gowran Park. If it survives a 7.30am inspection, this Saturday, January 22nd will see the annual renewal of the Thyestes Chase, the busiest days racing of the year at the Kilkenny track. Forming the centrepiece of a seven race card, the valuable Grade A Handicap Thyestes Chase features a prize fund of €90,000 which is supplemented by local sponsors Connolly’s Red Mills.

First held in 1954, the Thyestes Chase is a race steeped in history. Amongst a host of exalted names, previous winners of the race include Arkle and Aintree Grand National champions Hedgehunter and Numbersixvalverde. It is the highlight of the season for Gowran Park and the most prestigious race of the year in the South East.

Each year, the inevitable question is asked about how the race was named. In Greek Mythology, Thyestes was the son of Pelops, King of Olympia (where the first Olympic games were held). But Thyestes was also a flat horse who was bred by Mount Juliet-based Major Victor McCalmont. Thyestes was a sprinter, rated the third best 2-y-o of 1930, winning both of his only starts. Retired to stud due to injury, he lent his name to The Thyestes trophy, which was presented to the Kilkenny Horse Show. The trophy was won by a horse owned by Mr. John McEnery of Rossenarra Stud in Kells, Co. Kilkenny. The McEnery Family presented it to Gowran Park for the first running of the Thyestes Chase in 1954 and it has been perpetual ever since.

In keeping with the valuable prize on offer, the Thyestes is a trappy event which is difficult to win. Entries from the bottom of the handicap have dominated in recent times. The 3m, 16 fence course is challenging and takes no prisoners. Margaret Fogarty, Gowran’s racecourse manager concurs “it takes a very good horse to win this fiercely competitive event”.

A closer look at the trends of the race reveals some useful pointers. Since 2000, no winner of the race has carried more than 10st 11lb and ever since official ratings were published, no horse has won off a mark higher than 133.

The current 5/1 favourite for the race is Pomme Tiepy. The mare is owned by USA-based banker Rich Ricci (who also owns Mikael D'Haguenet and Zaidpour) and trained by Willie Mullins. Pomme Tiepy is well weighted, and without a win in almost three years, she also finished 12th in the 2010 renewal. She was recently a gallant third in the Paddy Power Chase at Leopardstown and a repeat of that performance should see her make the frame.

Champion trainer Willie Mullins is seeking his fourth success in ten years in the race. He also saddles The Midnight Club and Ballytrim, but both appear to have it all to do at the weights. Mullins ran no less than five of his horses in the race last year and given his current stable form his runners are sure to make a good account of themselves, so much so that some bookmakers are offering 7/4 about Willie Mullins to train the winner of the race.

The Thyestes is recognised as the trial for the Aintree and Irish Grand Nationals and repeat victories in the race are rare. Since 1954, only five horses to win the race more than once. The most recent of these was Priests Leap in 2008/2009. Last year’s winner, the Jimmy Mangan trained Winstone Boy is not without a chance. The subject of a massive on-course gamble in 2010 (backed from 14/1 into 5/1) the Mallow-based handler’s 10-y-o is proved on heavy ground and reported to be in good order.

Vying for second favouritism and trading at 10/1, Agus A Vic trained by Pat Martin is a former winning hunter chaser who has won over 3m 1f. Stamina is not an issue and his trainer notes “He goes on pretty much everything, although a bit of ease helps and he doesn’t like gluey ground, I would hope that he goes to the Thyestes with a good chance”

Gowran Park are expecting a crowd of about 8,000 on Saturday. Ever experts at implementing initiatives to racegoers, the management team are offering a free shuttle bus and reduced €10 entry to OAP’s and the unemployed for the second consecutive year. This is in keeping with innovation ever since 1952 when Gowran became first ever racecourse in Ireland to feature a live commentator.

Times and technology may have changed since then, but Thyestes day continues.

You can’t keep a good thing down.

Race Day Notes:

Thyestes Day 2011 takes place on Saturday, January 22nd. The racecourse will open at 11am. Tickets are available at Gowran Park on the day, priced at €17 for adults and €10 for OAP/ students/unemployed. Group discounts are available by contacting Gowran Park on or contact 056-7726225.

Betting Notes:

Pomme Tiepy 5/1, Agus A Vic 10/1, The Midnight Club 10/1, Alpha Ridge 10/1,Siegemaster 12/1, Ten Fires 12/1, Hangover 12/1, Sam Adams 12/1,Whinstone Boy 14/1, 16/1 BAR

Willie Mullins to train the winner of the Thyestes: 7-4
The Thyestes winner to win at the 2010 Cheltenham Festival: 16-1
The Thyestes winner to win the 2010 Irish Grand National: 14-1
The Thyestes winner to win the 2010 Aintree Grand National: 25-1

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Celtic Collapse

Celtic Collapse

by Stephen Dwyer

You have to feel sorry for Ivan Yates. Elected a TD at just 21, he served in the Dáil for 21 years.During his tenure he was minister for Agriculture and dealt with the BSE crisis. When he was 28, Yates, along with his wife, Deirdre Boyd, established Celtic Bookmakers.

From the time Celtic opened their first bookmakers premises at Tramore in 1987, the business would expand rapidly. At its peak, 300 staff would work between 60 shops. Now it owes €6 million to AIB, €200,000 to the Revenue Commissioners and the Yates faces financial ruin.

Of the €6 million debt owed to AIB, €5.1m is backed by a personal guarantee in Yates's name. If this debt is not repaid, all of Yates's assets, including the family farm at Enniscorthy and a house he built for his 78 year old mother are liable to be sold. AIB may even be able to take his €49,000 a year ministerial pension. It is a harsh reality but one that he has taken on the chin.

A current snapshot of Celtic shows that the business operates 47 shops in Ireland. Celtic made a loss of €1.5 million in the year to July 2010.

How is this case you might ask?

As with a lot of businesses, during the heady days of the Celtic Tiger, Yates expanded too fast. He bought out rival bookies at top-dollar prices at the height of the boom (he paid €5m for 10 shops in 2006). Many of these deals included “upward only” rental agreements. Exacerbating the situation, Celtic was hit with both massive cuts in consumer spending and the increase in popularity of online
gambling over the past few years.

Celtic was trying to compete in a shrinking market. The major firms of Paddy Power and Ladbrokes have the advantage of an online presence. Yates admitted that he could not develop an online presence and thus lost valuable market share.

Restrictively, the costs of setting up an online betting operation are very high, advertising and maintenance are also astronomical and this may have acted as a disincentive to set up such a service. Since 2007, revenue at Celtic has fallen by 50%, the smaller firms are exposed and at risk. William Hill are closing 20 shops in Ireland, adding to the 150 betting shops have been forced into closure over the past two years.

Like a lot of us, he thought that the growth would have continued. He over-stretched, he took a gamble, he lost and now he must pay the price.

By ways of comparison, Paddy Power was established a year after Celtic. Unlike the sole-trading Celtic, Paddy Power was a triumvirate of three bookmakers that joined together in 1988. Paddy Power now operates 212 shops in Ireland (including 3 shops at race courses) and 107 shops in the UK. Their business model was very different to Celtic and particularly evident after the emergence of the Internet. The onset of internet and betting exchanges have revolutionised the betting industry
and those that do not adapt risk being left behind.

To his credit, the former minister has provided employment for over twenty years and attempted to turn the business around. About 30 firms went bust in Ireland every week last year but Celtic Bookmakers may yet be saved. Boylesports has emerged as a possible bidder for some of the Celtic shops and perhaps jobs may yet be saved.

Admirably, amidst the walls of debt, Yates has stood up and said said that he takes full personal responsibility for the business' failure and can't blame anyone or anything else. His very words are “Let’s face up to this, deal with and get on with it”

Keen your chin up Ivan Yates. Fall seven times, stand up eight.

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