COLM Murphy stood beside Paul McKeon in the stands at Down Royal two weeks ago yesterday to watch their mare Impervious in a Grade 3 mares’ novice hurdle.
The five-year-old daughter of Shantou was having just her third start but she’d won her first two and that was enough for bookmakers to make her second favourite, behind only Gordon Elliott’s Party Central.
It didn’t surprise Murphy that was a little bit keen in the very early stages of the race. He was more content with her as the race went on, as Brian Hayes allowed her to race up close to the leaders and got her into a racing rhythm.
He shuddered when she made a mistake at the third last but was buoyed by Hayes’s reaction, no panic.
And then all of a sudden, she was jumping the last alongside outsider Sit Down Lucy, with the race between only them.
Without even noticing himself, Murphy was off on one, roaring her home. He says that’s not like him, that he’s usually very quiet watching a race, that he doesn’t get too worked up, but he couldn’t help himself this time.
The further Impervious went, the better it became, and there it was for Murphy, that feeling back again, that beautiful, satisfying feeling of a big-race winner, the feeling that makes it all worthwhile.
“Like a bad drug,” he describes the whole equation of training racehorses.
In the winners’ enclosure afterwards, he was asked could Impervious be as good as the previous mares he trained and he said that based on what he’d just seen, she could.
That’s a big call given Murphy has trained two separate Grade 1 winning mares over hurdles. Indeed, one of Impervious’s potential next targets is the Voler La Vedette Mares’ Novice Hurdle at Punchestown next month, just one staple of what the Wexford man achieved in his first stint training.
Murphy’s second stint in training is starting to brighten now. Last Saturday Aldo The Apache won the Brown Lad at Naas in fine style and that was his sixth winner of the campaign, five more than he had last season.
“We knew it was going to be slow starting back off again because they were all youngsters here, we actually had no older horses at all,” Murphy reflected this week. “It was going to be a slow burner for a while and the horses that we’re seeing coming through now are the ones that we were breaking and bringing along in the earlier stages.
“It was great to win the Brown Lad with Aldo The Apache on Saturday as well. We’re so lucky to have these few horses, they are the shop window. And it’s like, people remember you can train again, so hopefully they’ll send on a few nice ones again.”
Colm Murphy can train horses alright. He has won the Champion Hurdle and the Champion Chase among four Cheltenham Festival wins and he has no less than 20 Grade 1 victories to his name. That’s why when he decided training was no longer viable for him in 2016, it was a real shock to the industry.
If Colm Murphy can’t continue, where are we at? Can anyone compete with the top four or five?
Murphy’s decision to stop training wasn’t sudden, it was more gradual. He’d been thinking about it for months, while all the time trying to make it work, rowing against the tide to keep on in a way of life he had become accustomed to. But he was a qualified accountant before he even began his career in racing and when the numbers didn’t add up, it was black and white for him.
“I think the toughest part of the decision was that you were walking away from that way of life,” Murphy recalls. “It was easy to walk away from the work part of it but you’re basically completely changing your lifestyle.
“Look, things got tighter. We probably weren’t selling as many. We were down in numbers and it was probably an easy decision in the end.
“There is no doubt that training was my first love but there’s probably not a lot I wouldn’t do in racing. We always kept it going here, we always had young horses so it wasn’t as if we were never going to get back into it.
“If anything, I’d say, looking back now and hindsight is a great thing, but it probably gave me a different outlook on it, you know? In the sense that it’s hard to see something when you’re on the inside but when you’re on the outside looking in, it makes things an awful lot clearer. By stopping and starting again, it definitely gave me a different perspective on things.
“When the opportunity with Paul (McKeon) arose, it was a no-brainer to get back into it. It’s something we do enjoy doing and it’s nice to get rewarded for it. Looking back at it now, and it’s probably not something I’d have said before, but we’re good at what we do, hence why the little bit away from it probably puts things in perspective.”
Murphy and McKeon go way back. All the way back to when the former was riding out for Aidan O’Brien on Owning Hill. He rode a winner for McKeon as an amateur rider and there and then the connection was made.
When Murphy stopped training he took up a stewards’ secretary role with the IHRB but all the time he and McKeon kept young horses at his base just outside Gorey, Co Wexford. They began to build up a broodmare band, with the intention to breed to sell the geldings, while also purchasing young horses at the store sales with the same intention.
Most notably, Murphy bought subsequent Champion Bumper winner Relegate for McKeon at the 2016 Derby Sale.
The decision for Murphy to return to training was borne out by an adjustment to their business model that better reflects the current lucrative market for Irish National Hunt horses. And whatever they don’t sell, goes into training. Impervious is the perfect example of the type of horse that Murphy will be hoping to prosper with at his base in Ballinadrummin. He has 40 horses in training now and lots of other owners have come back to him.
“The idea came to fruition itself really,” Murphy explains. “We just thought we could breed a few nice horses ourselves to sell. We’ve been pretty lucky to have come across a few nice ones and if you can come across one or two nice ones a year, the money on offer for a point-to-pointer at the moment is phenomenal.
“We had a bit of luck with a nice horse called Es Perfecto. He won a Tattersalls point-to-point with Jimmy O’Rourke and he’s now with Alan King. He’ll get better with age and he’s exciting already. That’s the basic plan, all our four-year-old geldings will go point-to-pointing.
“Don’t get me wrong, the training fees pay the wages and the expenses, but the cream is selling the horses. Before we were selling very few horses or any horses. But now everyone knows a good business model and all the nice ones are for sale.
“Of course it would be nice to keep a few in the yard, but you can’t turn down that big money at the moment. Hence, when you get a nice couple here, it’s great to have them. Hopefully we won’t have to sell all of them. If we can keep one or two nice ones for different clients, it would be fantastic.
“I’m training for plenty of others as well. When I stopped training, a few of my owners said that if I ever came back, they’d send me one, and true to their word, they did that. There’s always room for more, you’re always looking for more quality.”
Murphy graduated from Waterford Institute of Technology in 1994. You don’t need a degree in Accounting to go riding racehorses, you just need experience and he had that from riding his father’s horses around the fields at home and working the odd day in Harry de Bromhead’s when he could.
He rode his first winner on his first ride for O’Brien in a qualified rider’s handicap hurdle at Tralee in August 1994. Soon he found himself working in the office as well for O’Brien in the afternoons and it was a nice position to have.
But when O’Brien made the move to Ballydoyle in 1996, things changed out of necessity. His riding career was jeopardised because he was never going to be light enough to ride on the flat.
He rode out for Charlie Swan for a year, while starting to work on his own point-to-pointers at home. Then he decided to take out his own licence. And not long after that, he found Brave Inca for 14,000 guineas at the 2001 Land Rover Sale. That changed everything.
After struggling on his first four starts, the son of Good Thyne won a Fairyhouse bumper by 20 lengths in March 2003. He then proceeded to go on a 29-race run, spread over six years, finishing outside the top three only twice. He won 10 Grade 1s in all.
From there you can trace Murphy’s career by horse: Feathard Lady, Big Zeb, Voler La Vedette, Quito De La Roque, Empire Of Dirt. Indeed there was never a time he spent training without at least one Grade 1 horse to go to war with, and he took full advantage of that.
Colm Murphy 2.0 has a different outlook in a different Irish jumps racing landscape. Finding that store horse for affordable money is nigh on impossible these days. With McKeon, he has adjusted accordingly, but the basic love of training has never left him, despite the stress, the hard work and the inevitable constant stream of disappointments in the jumps game.
“I’d love to say my work-life balance is better than it was when I was training before but it’s 24/7,” Murphy says. “Fortunately or unfortunately, it’s one of those games that if you’re in it, you’re immersed in it, you’re married to it. My wife Louise would probably be the best one to ask about that.
“You’re trying to find a balance. I’m probably lucky in the sense that if I didn’t have Louise and Sasha (daughter) I’d never come up out of the yard because it’s one of those games, you just have to be so much on the ball. Maybe I am over the top and too much into detail but it’s all about results.
“I suppose it is the bigger days that lures you in and makes it all worth it. There’s so much bad news and injuries and so forth but I think the few big days or nice days just makes up for the bad days, you know?
“The bad news is something we don’t dwell on too much. Training horses, you don’t want to mind work or mind the bad news, you just want to get on with it.
“There’s no doubt that the satisfaction of the mare winning at Down Royal and Aldo winning the Brown Lad, makes it worth it. There’s no doubt that when you’re after buying them, breaking them and getting them going, and they end up being nice, there’s a hell of a lot of satisfaction there. It’s like a bad drug.”
Murphy has a good team of staff with him in Ballinadrummin and that’s invaluable these days. Like plenty of other predominantly National Hunt trainers, he has also invested in a few yearlings this year, hoping to exploit a worldwide market for Irish horses.
He’s excited about that project but he says Cheltenham is still the Olympics for him, the first source of daily motivation. Impervious could get him back there, but only if it suits her and she proves herself to be good enough.
“I don’t know about wanting to have runners at Cheltenham, you want to have winners there,” he says. “It’s the loneliest place in the world if they run badly. I don’t think we plan to go to Cheltenham at the start of the year.
“I think if Cheltenham is the right thing and if we have a realistic chance of winning, we’ll go, but otherwise there’s plenty of massive prizes at home here without going to Cheltenham.
“The Royal Bond is an option for Impervious. We thought we could be sorry if we didn’t have her in it. She has other options at Punchestown and at Christmas as well. We’ll see.”
She is an important mare now for Murphy. A readymade reminder of how good a trainer he is. The landscape has changed but the ambition is still there.
“The standard of racing in Ireland is phenomenal now,” he asserts. “There is no doubt that you need buying power if you want to be competitive at the top of the table. The standard has gone up and a lot of that is coming from the point-to-points, which has been a game-changer. It’s such a professional game now and it all filters through.
“We’re ambitious enough that we think we can eat off the top table again. It’s hard to find the good ones when we’re buying three-year-olds, because it’s a pure numbers game.
“But again I’m hoping with the few high-profile winners we’ve had recently, that people, if they’re wondering where to send horses, they might send a few down here.
“We can do the job.”