In the depths of winter he’d hear the horn of his grandfather Mick’s jeep around half six in the morning and Conor Murphy knew it was time to go to work. He couldn’t wait.
Mick wouldn’t keep the horn blowing for long – not because he was worried about waking the neighbours in Derrygrá, just outside Enniskeane in West Cork, but because he didn’t have to.
Conor would be ready for road, his boots parked at the door and, sometimes, his work-clothes worn in bed to save time in the morning. He’d whip the curtains back and give Mick a wave as if to say, I’ll see you in five.’
The stable yard was more than that away, but such was Conor’s enthusiasm he’d leg it, eager to get there as soon as he could. Then he’d meticulously check the horses, one by one. Study their moods and personalities and make mental notes on their well-being.
The horses had to be perfect. His mother Carmel recalls a time he was left fuming after a trusted hand forgot to put the stable-collar around one of the horses.
Heck, there were point-to-points coming up and that meant nothing could be left to chance. It wasn’t for the money or glory but for the euphoria of victory. “You are either in this game or you’re not, no shortcuts,” he would say.
After work, he’d race back home, grab a quick bite and jump on the bus to school in Bandon, where he’d spend eight hours thinking how he could improve the horses.
Some of his buddies would still be wiping sleep out of their eyes. Conor counted the hours ’til he could get back to the horses and implement his new theories.
Fast forward 20 years. It’s early September. He’s at the Keeneland Horse Sales in Kentucky looking for a bargain. He still has the smile on his face thinking of the circumstances that permitted him to be there in the first place. He didn’t strike oil or gold, didn’t inherit a fortune and certainly isn’t the offspring of Sheiks or Sultans. He won €1.2 million on an accumulator bet at Cheltenham and followed his heart to set up his own stable in the US.
He’s introduced to Sheikh Fahad Al Thani at the Sales or rather, the Sheikh had heard of his pedigree and wanted to know more about him, rather. They had a chat and the Sheikh, who runs a flourishing racing empire and is the son of the Sultan of Qatar, invited him to dinner.
Murphy, and his girlfriend Julia, were understandably nervous but knew a similar opportunity mightn’t arise again. He agreed, had drinks and dinner later that night and, by the morning, they’d agreed on Murphy training two of his horses. Fairytale stuff. Mick would be proud.
“Pretty busy now, thank God,” is how Murphy, 28, describes life at present.
“It’s been a bit of a dream really, the last few months, you know. It was a bit of an unknown coming out here in the first place. I was hoping more than anything else that I’d get a few horses but it’s hard when no one knows who you are or where you’ve come from.
“Everyone knew everyone out here before I came so from their point of view, why back a fella when you don’t know anything about him? It’s hard to break into that. But it’s been very good so far, I’ve managed to get some good clients and some good horses,” he enthuses.
Rewind a few months and Murphy’s story was the most talked-about topic at racetracks up and down the UK. Here was the stable lad who had won the inaugural John Durkan racing award from the National Stud in 2003 for showing “the most aptitude and enthusiasm for racing during their internment at the Irish National Stud”. His reward for that was mucking out stables at Nicky Henderson’s yard in Lambourn outside London for four years but all the while accruing a deep knowledge of horse racing that would ultimately make him a millionaire.
And he had the foresight to place seven bets a week before Christmas for a festival three months away. His rationale: if the horses won a week later at any Christmas race-meeting, their odds would be slashed for Cheltenham and the pay-out wouldn’t be as lucrative.
Though he decided he was going to leave Henderson regardless, the money undoubtedly helped — but the life is certainly no easier. He still rises at 6.30am every day.
“Look, what I won was irrelevant, really,” he explains. “Winning was great but as regards horse racing, it’s a different league I’m in here. I’m starting out on my own, I’m unknown. You have to try and make it happen yourself. This game doesn’t do handouts. Working for Seven Barrows (Henderson’s yard) the last four years, I had the best horses and I was working with the best trainers and best jockeys and we had the best of everything.
“We wanted for nothing there, neither did the horses. They had great owners ... but here, doing your own thing, is totally different because you are now the one responsible for everything that happens. Here, you start off on your own. I’m responsible for the lot. Getting the horse in shape, getting the horse to the track, how it runs, the jockey, it’s totally different. It’s a whole different ball-game.”
Riverside Bloodstock is the name of his stable – derived in part from the horse which triggered his bounty at Cheltenham, Riverside Theatre, and though he’s in charge of 22 horses now, he still believes the pressure under Henderson was greater.
“There was a lot of pressure in the role I had back at Seven Barrows. But I’m on my own now and it’s funny because I don’t think there’s as much pressure. First of all, I had so many high-class horses in England and there was a lot of pressure there for them to win and have them in top shape. You treat every horse the very same, but I probably don’t feel as much pressure because I’m not working with the quality of horse that I was before, yet,” he reasoned.
“Now, having said that, the competition is tough. I mean, there’s a lot of opportunity and the money is a lot better but it’s tough going. No question about it. The money, though, is just massive here. I mean if you can get a win in the likes of the Kentucky Derby or the Breeders’ Cup, you’re made. But they’re all tough tracks. You don’t get an easy race anywhere.”
Indeed, the ride has been anything but smooth since he decided to try his luck in America. A visa that took 10 months to process was only stamped the Friday before he met the Sheikh at Keeneland. When he rings up jockey’s agents on several occasions, the response was, ‘Conor who?’ “That is one of the hardest things,” he says. “It’s totally different to the National Hunt back home. Of course I miss that unbelievably but I’ve no regrets. Hopefully I can train a winner here soon. Then things will change. But don’t get me wrong — I’m loving it here. Louisville is a brilliant city, a brilliant place. There’s a good Irish community here. Molly Malone’s is the pub here where they show all the games on TV — you’d nearly get better coverage here than you would at home, and the Americans have been absolutely great.
“They’re very friendly and we get on great. They’re A1.” When Henderson discovered Murphy was leaving, he told a journalist at a party for JP McManus it was “the worst day of his life.”
However, Murphy’s mind was made up since the previous December. Regrets? Not a chance.
“Once I’ve my mind made up about something, that’s it. I decided before Christmas I wanted to do this. Don’t get me wrong, a million is a lot of money – a life-changing experience, but, at the end of the day, it’s a nice cushion. However, it’s not something you can live off for the rest of your life. I love racing so much and I love the game so much that I’d probably be lost if I ever left it. Besides, that kind of money is loose change to some of the guys here.
“Look, I’ve said it before that I’d love to train back in the UK, I’d love nothing more, but the money and the opportunity here is great, too great to resist. It just made sense to come out here and try and make it. There are a lot of Irish trainers out here actually. We’d all love to be at home, I love home as much as the next fella, but that’s how it is – there are more opportunities and that’s my way of looking at it. I have a better chance of making it here.
“I mean, to get a chance to train horses for the Sheikh is a privilege. I’d prefer a few more to train but it’s a good start. And it’s good to be rubbing shoulders with the likes of him.”
Though he’s only in business five months, he’s already set some lofty goals. And the Triple Crown – the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes — is something he’s always had his eye on.
“The build-up to the Kentucky Derby here is huge and that’s always held an appeal for me. To train a horse to win that would be a dream come true. But it’s not the only one. The Triple Crown would have always appealed to me growing up and to win one of them would be nice!”
Coming to the end of the conversation it becomes apparent that Murphy hasn’t spent his winnings on yachts and cars. His humble upbringing would see to that. But surely there were occasions when he loosened the purse strings?
“I went on a couple of holidays,” he laughs, half-expecting the question. “It was nice to have some extra cash in the back pocket. I went to Antigua in the Caribbean for a week with Julia, and I went to Ayia Napa for a week with the boys! So a few sessions alright.
And were the drinks on him? “No way,” he interrupts, “The boys were giving me stick for being mean!
“It’s in the past now though, to be honest. It’s in the back of my mind. It’s a week I’ll never forget but I don’t bring it up unless other people do. There’s a few here alright in Louisville that would’ve heard of me and seen me winning but I rarely think about it. There’s more to be made!”