Johne Murphy is best known on these shores as a Munster rugby player who also had a very successful stint with Leicester in England, having learned the game at Newbridge College, Naas, and Lansdowne.
He was a talented Gaelic footballer too, and played for Ellistown in a Kildare senior county semi-final before the opportunity to play professionally in England ended that career.
Even before he kicked a ball though, he was in thrall to racehorses thanks to his father, John’s ownership of some good ones. So when he retired four years ago, he set about establishing a couple of syndicates. One, with former Munster teammates Conor Murray, Keith Earls, Andrew Conway, and Damien Varley is called the Wait For Us Syndicate. Another, the Rugby & Racing Syndicate includes the same quartet but has a much broader membership.
“I would have grown up going to the races with my dad,” recalls Murphy. “We lived in Rathangan so the Curragh was only a short hop away. Dad had horses from before I was born. He had a couple of good ones trained by Tom Treacy, Noel Meade, and Kevin Prendergast.
“Barton, not to be mistaken with the horse that was trained in England later on, won nine or 10 races if not more when trained by Tom Treacy. He fell at the second last fence in the Grand National one year. He was going very well and the story goes that he was going to win if he stayed up. That’s what they say anyway! He was just pipped in a Galway Plate as well but won at a lot of the festivals.
“Dad had a filly called Taking Steps who was third in the 1000 Guineas one year, and a very good filly that Kevin Prendergast trained called Sita, who was one of Kevin’s stable stars along with Rebelline before being sold after winning a few races.”
It was awe-inducing at times, being in the parade ring on the big days, but it was the behind-the-scenes action that really captivated Murphy.
“I remember going over to Kevin’s yard the day Dad bought Sita, and I used to love that part of it. Going into the yards, meeting the lads, seeing the horses and seeing what’s going on. And when I got back into it, we had a filly at Kevin’s and that was something the other lads enjoyed as well. It’s not just the race day, it’s the whole experience of it.
“It’s the reality of what goes on behind the scenes, how different yards work that’s the really big attraction. For the rugby players that are involved – those guys love going down the yards and asking questions about things they would have no clue about but also what they’d be interested in from a purely sports perspective: the routine of training, the pre-race routine, whether they’d eat a lot or little before a race – all those kind of things. There’s a crossover there.
“To get to a race day and have a good run is exciting enough but for me, it’s the experience of it and what goes into getting your horse to perform at its optimum at the racetrack is probably the most interesting side. And I really enjoy showcasing that to the people that are involved in the syndicates.
“Obviously then, when you get a winner, it was amazing for a 15-year-old to be in the parade ring and be in the pictures. It still is! When I was 18, I got to lead in a two-year-old called Zaby after he won in Sligo ‘cos Mum and Dad were on holidays. That was unbelievable.
“Once you get bitten by the bug, that’s it really.”
Murphy and his wife Kate have three young children – AJ (2½) and the one-year-old twins Molly and George. It appears as if he is the passion his father passed on to him is already moving to the next generation.
“Apparition ran really well on Derby Day for the Rugby & Racing Syndicate, he finished fifth but at the two-furlong pole we thought we were going to be very close and Kate said to me after, ‘I understand now.’
“AJ loves it. The horses are at my parents’ during the winter and he loves going out to Rathangan to see them. He’s been racing. Seamie got down off the horse one day and was giving the feedback when AJ said, ‘Daddy, Daddy, can I have my go now?’ Seamie got a good laugh out of it. AJ couldn’t understand why he couldn’t have his go. Having them feeling comfortable with animals and being outside growing up is something I really like.”
All of the horses are trained by Joseph O’Brien, who has shown a keen eye for improving very cheap purchases, which is always attractive to syndicates. Tuamhain has been a multiple winner for the Munster crew. Rugby & Racing have six horses, though that is likely to be whittled down to four. Some are owned, others leased, providing members with multiple options.
“We’re not afraid to target the big days because that’s part of the enjoyment. Derby day was great with Apparition. Between the two syndicates, we’d four winners in the last few months. Tuamhain won in Galway and Gowran inside a week in October, while The Game Of Life and Chess Grand Master have won on the all-weather at Dundalk either side of Christmas for the Rugby & Racing gang.”
Still only 34, Murphy remains heavily involved in rugby, as player-coach with Naas in the AIL and attack coach with St Mary’s senior cup team.
He also runs a rugby camp business (www.psaacademies.com) with Johan Taylor that provides high-performance camps at the elite Tignes Olympic training centre in France, exposing players to international class coaching and advice surrounding nutrition, conditioning etc.
They also run school academies during the summer – there are two in England and four in Ireland this year – giving young hopefuls an idea of what it’s like to be a professional player for a week. The enterprise has grown considerably since its establishment four years ago and Murphy is excited about the future.
Of course he is looking forward to seeing how his pals Murray and Earls, and their Irish teammates react from the Six Nations defeat by England when taking on the dangerous Scots on Saturday.
“I suppose everyone was taken by surprise by the scoreline but I thought the selection that England had was their best side. Beforehand, I thought a nine-point spread to Ireland was ludicrous.
“They will have been hurting but they need to move on now. Given how well teams are playing, I don’t’ think there’s going to be a Grand Slam winner. I think four out of five gives you a chance to win the championship. So they need to try get every single point they can and hopefully set up what I think might be a winner-takes-all game with Wales at the Millennium Stadium in March.”
Before that, all eyes will be directed at Dundalk, where the Rugby & Racing Syndicate are likely to have two runners tomorrow night.
“Chess Grand Master and The Game Of Life are in good form. They have won recently, so we’re looking forward to that and would be very hopeful for both of them.
“The Game Of Life has only had two runs and is unexposed so we’ll see how he goes. Chess Grand Master is bred very much in the purple and we’d be pretty hopeful with them over the next three or four weeks.”