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.

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