Saturday 25 November 2017

Murphy back at scene of Inca's finest hour

Killenagh trainer reminisces on never to be forgotten Cheltenham adventure

Flashback to March 14, 2006 as Brave Inca, with Tony McCoy up, leads en route to success in the Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy at Cheltenham
Flashback to March 14, 2006 as Brave Inca, with Tony McCoy up, leads en route to success in the Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy at Cheltenham

Twelve years ago this week, Colm Murphy sat in Dublin Port, 'eaten by nerves'.

The plan had been to travel with Brave Inca from Rosslare that evening, but inclement weather dictated otherwise. Re-routed to Dublin, he sat waiting for his ship to come in alongside his travelling companions, Tommy Woods and James Kirwan. Three lads with nothing else to do but watch the clock, as the hours dragged by.

In an effort to kill some time, Woods, the lorry driver, asked which of the following the others would prefer - to win the Lotto, which was a couple of million that week - or to win around Cheltenham.

Murphy didn't have to think about his answer: 'the Lotto'. Then Francome (James Kirwan, but because of his long curly hair he had been known as Francome ever since Murphy's days in Aidan O'Brien's yard) was asked the same question. He got the same answer.

It was clear the team of Cheltenham rookies had no idea what they were getting themselves into. On the way home, Woods asked the question again. This time, he got two very different answers.

Brave Inca went on to win a thrilling Supreme Novices race that season, beating future Gold Cup winner, War of Attrition, by a neck. The following year, he returned, and finished third to Hardy Eustace in the Champion Hurdle.

Twelve months on, in 2006, trainer and horse conspired brilliantly when Inca swooped to victory, beating Jessica Harrington's subsequently tragic Macs Joy. Ten years ago this March, and Murphy often wonders where the intervening decade has gone.

'It was one of those days that you remember everything about,' he said. 'Looking back, it's hard to believe it is ten years ago, it feels like it was the other day. The fact that he was favourite and expected to win added a lot of pressure, and in many ways made it all the sweeter that he did win. I just wish I had him going back this week.

'Hardy Eustace and Macs Joy were in the field that day, Rooster Booster was on his way down after being up there. It was more the run of the race that you were afraid of. He had a lazy way of racing.

'Going by the stands the first time he wasn't travelling, and there were alarm bells going off. The man on board, A.P., knew him so well. It is hard to believe how much belief he had in him. I remember his interview after, and they asked him when did he think he would win the Champion Hurdle. He said it was "last Christmas".

'It was probably a feeling of relief when he got over the line first. It's hard to describe but certainly a feeling of elation, initially relief, and when it sinks in, joy. You just hope that it goes right and that you do the horse, and everyone, justice. The biggest thing is that it is on the big stage, the jumps racing of the Olympics, and it's nice to do it there.'

Murphy's Cheltenham story is the stuff of legend around Killenagh, near Gorey, in north county Wexford. He holds the record of being the youngest trainer to have won both the Champion Hurdle and the Queen Mother Champion Chase (when Big Zeb obliged in 2010).

His unassuming way has won him many fans and friends, and after a few years of a break from the Cheltenham action, his followers are delighted to see him back in the Festival fold.

In 2012, he entered the fray armed with three 'long shots': Voler La Vedette (20/1), who ran the mighty Big Zeb so close in the World Hurdle; Glam Gerry (33/1), who ran a gallant third in the Racing Post Hurdle, and the returning former champion Big Zeb (13/2), who finished third in that year's Queen Mother Champion Chase.

'Once you get a taste of Cheltenham, you want more,' Murphy admitted. 'The competitive edge keeps you going. The last time we went over the pressure was missing. It was different in 2010 when Big Zeb won the Queen Mother, the pressure was off then too.

'We half fancied him ourselves and would have been disappointed had he not run well. The manner in which he won it made it even nicer.'

Murphy is the superstitious type. All his runners get blessed with holy water before they run. His dad, Pat, usually does it as they are about to leave the yard. The first time they left for Cheltenham, Brave Inca was almost drowned in it.

This year, he sets sail for the Cotswolds on the back of one of the quieter times his yard has been through. The hedonistic Celtic Tiger years are long a footnote in Irish history, and though the term 'economic recovery' was waved about on recent election slogans, Murphy feels it could be quite some time before the racing industry really benefits.

'It was about five years after the crash when racing really started to feel the impact, and I suppose it will be another five years before it feels the recovery,' he said. 'There was a big change in owners. At home, syndicates made up the majority of our clients. It made the game affordable to everyone.

'Everybody and anybody had a leg in a horse, and there are very few syndicates now. Far more single owners which is understandable, it's a very expensive hobby.'

The early months of 2016 have seen a return to form for Murphy. Big-race wins for Empire of Dirt, and Marlbrook, has catapulted his name back into the headlines, and it is with less pressure, but equal confidence, that he returns to the scene of Brave Inca's finest hour.

'Like any athlete, for a horse to win at Cheltenham he has to be naturally talented. You need something tough for there is a lot of hurly burly, and a lot of undulations. Cheltenham doesn't suit every horse, hence you want a really balanced horse. And a horse that wants a bit of nice ground.

'Empire of Dirt is entered in the two-mile, five-furlong handicap chase on St. Patrick's Day. We thought he would run well in the Troytown at Naas but he tipped up at the second last, and he looked to be travelling really well that day.

'We went to Punchestown after that where he finished second, but didn't really handle going right-handed. He's better going left-handed.

'We went on to Leopardstown at Christmas for the Paddy Power where we thought he had a right chance, but unfortunately he never got away at the start, which is so important, especially in a competitive handicap like that.

'After that it was on to the Leopardstown Chase, and luckily enough everything went right in that. He's nine years old now and you just hope he keeps improving, and that he can move on to the next level. You only get a year or two at the top.

'Sizing Granite will go for the Queen Mother. He is a straightforward sort, a proper gentleman at home. He was a good novice last year and will have to improve to be going in the Queen Mother this year. I think if Un De Sceaux stays up, it is hard to see him getting beat, and the rest are running for second.'

Returning with little fanfare, and two potential aces up his sleeve, the Cheltenham Festival is all the better for Murphy's presence.

And in this particular field of dreams, it would be a brave man who would write off the chance of a fairytale ending.

Wexford People

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