Racing towards the top ranks

Irish racing may have a new training hero before Cheltenham is over. John Murphy may not be a well known name outside the racing fraternity, but Declan Colley says that could change in today’s Queen Mother Champion Chase with Newmill.

AT 44, it’s strange to think of John Murphy as a new kid on the block, but in the racing game that’s pretty much what he is.

However, Murphy is a horse man through and through and although he only got his training licence six years ago, he has lived a life with horses and will continue to do so even when he hands back that licence, as he promises he will, in due course.

Born and bred on the Highfort House lands in Upton, Co Cork, from where he runs his incredibly well-equipped training operation, Murphy is unusual in that his background involved almost every other equine discipline apart from racing.

However, he was bred into it and while there were always horses at Highfort when he was growing up - “bits of this and that: pointers, show jumpers, you name it” - it was in show jumping that he served his time.

Having left Farranferris, where he studied as a boarder, Murphy initially went to work with the first lady of Irish show jumping, Iris Kellett, in Dublin, and then travelled to England where he came under the wing of the legendary Harvey Smith, from whom, one suspects, he learned a lot more than horsemanship.

Like his former patron, Murphy holds certain and forthright views on most things; he knows what he wants from life and most assuredly knows how to get it. His foray into racing, therefore, should certainly not be seen as a whimsical or petty diversion; he’s in it for one reason and one reason alone - to win and be successful.

Those ambitions come at a price, something Murphy is too well aware of. That, in essence, is why he’s putting a finite time on his life as a trainer, because, as he says, “this is an all-consuming business and if you don’t give it 100% then you may as well not bother.”

Having been engaged centrally in show jumping for the best part of 20 years, breeding and competing and living what he calls “the Romany life” following shows throughout Ireland and Europe, it was possibly only a matter of time before he started dabbling with racing thoroughbreds.

Being involved in the breeding side of things as well probably speeded up the process, although he still breeds show jumpers and on the day we met had had a phone call from Vigo in Spain to say that Robert Splaine had two clear rounds at a big international event on one of his horses.

Even so, the transition to being ‘John Murphy, Horse Trainer’ was perhaps inevitable.

That said, he still credits much of his success to methods of husbandry he learned in show jumping circles and he says that while the same basic rules apply, the show jumping crowd are “way more switched on” when it comes to prevention of injury, care of horses and so forth.

“I don’t know is it that they have more attention to detail or they are more disciplined or what, but I will say a lot of things that have been said in recent times about what goes on in show jumping is pure trash,” he said.

“I suppose it started when I got a pointer called Enniskeane from some friends of mine about nine or ten years ago,” he recalls. “But I had also been selling horses to the likes of Martin Pipe and Henrietta Knight through Niall McLaughlin and I suppose one thing financed another. Breeding and selling horses is still the core business.”

Having made the leap into training, he left no stone unturned in making Highfort a state-of-the-art facility, even bringing the legendary Pipe in to supervise the layout and cambering of the magnificent all-weather gallops.

The estate is no longer a working farm and is focused solely on horses. There are three separate yards and a breeding operation with some 30 national hunt and 20 flat inmates currently in training, including a batch of two-year-olds being readied for the forthcoming flat season.

Given the attention to detail at the Upton operation, Murphy is an unusual trainer in that he hates travelling: “I don’t even like going racing sometimes because you can be there all day and maybe only have one runner. You drive two-and-a-half hours to hang around for three hours to see one horse for three minutes. All that and you can miss what’s happening at home, which is paramount.”

He buys most of his stock privately before they reach the sales ring, on the basis that if you’re in first, you get the best choice. He has a network of spotters around the country, but says the ability to judge a horse for yourself is the most important attribute. “My father was an incredible judge of a horse and could spot a good one a mile away. Hopefully, I have learned something from him, but you learn from your mistakes,” he says.

THOSE in the know in racing may have been surprised recently to see the Racing Post’s ace tipster ‘Pricewise’ nap Murphy’s charge Newmill for today’s Queen Mother Champion Chase; the handler himself was as surprised as any.

“The horse came to me last year when the owner simply drove into the yard and asked me would I take him.” Having taken him on, he found what he describes as a naturally “careful” horse who’d lost confidence in his jumping and several show jumping methods were used to restore it.

“The veterinary surgeon John Hyde and his team were hugely instrumental in working with me to get him sorted. From there we had to get him back into a competitive world and while he was a hugely successful hurdler, the horse probably had a happier career over flights than he had chasing, so we had to work to get his confidence back.”

Newmill, he says, is a smart, bright horse and if he is bullied there is no hope with him. But a patient approach and jockeys who ask for effort rather than demand it, has got results.

Relatively fresh to the training game as he is - he confesses he’s learning more about humans than horses - Murphy says patience is a key element of training. “Patience is everything in this game. You wait and your day will come. If you can judge a horse’s ability, then it has to happen that your day will come.”

A non-gambler, Murphy says his regard for the likes of Martin Pipe is second to none. He’s sold Pipe many horses over the years - such as Take Control and Classified - and organised others for him and will brook no argument about the trainer’s class. “He’s an excellent man to deal with and while he may be having a quiet time at the moment, he’ll be back. He’s a leader in his field and he takes a terrible time from people who largely have no idea how he does it.”

That said, he has no ambition to be another Martin Pipe and while he likes a challenge, there is more to life than just racing. “This is a totally absorbing business and I’ll continue until I stop loving it. I’m out in the yard at 11 at night watching the horses, maybe changing the feed at 11.30 and worrying about a horse that has not worked well, wondering ‘what the hell am I going to do with him’.

“It is totally absorbing and you won’t get any results unless you absorb yourself in it. But, aside from my own horses, I respect the fact that I’m dealing with other people’s money. I have to. But I won’t scrimp on staff or gallop maintenance, I’ll do what I have to do. It is very stressful and you lose other interests, but I’ll do it as long as I love it. Maybe then I’ll do something else with horses, but mainly I’ll be paying more attention to the wife.”

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