Published 23/01/2010 | 05:00
Nascent daffodils have been spotted popping their heads above the soil this week. Given the sheer brutality of the recent freeze, it's hard to believe that anything in the ground could show signs of life right now, but there they are, little green stalks that epitomise all the budding optimism of spring.
And then you step on one. The little green stalk, having suffered and defied everything that the most unforgiving of winters could throw at it, physically crushed. There's something inescapably sad about such a feisty survivor meeting such an unceremonious end, but them's the breaks.
Colm Murphy might identify with the erstwhile shoot right now. Having weathered a cold snap that so challenged that staple of the modern racing yard, the all-weather gallop, Murphy's plans for one of the most exciting mares in the game were squashed by a more familiar foe.
On Monday morning, as Voler La Vedette was being hosed down after a couple of routine canters at Murphy's Wexford base, the handler noticed her stride shortening behind. The cooler she got, the more obvious the imbalance became.
Within a couple of hours, a pulled muscle was confirmed as the source of the lameness, and tomorrow's Toshiba Irish Champion Hurdle soon took on an altogether different complexion. Solwhit, the bookies' ante-post favourite, went from odds-against to odds-on, as Murphy went looking for a cat to kick. The elements had thrown everything they could at him for the previous three weeks, and now his blossoming flower had been obliterated at the whim of a random physical ailment.
"It's the not knowing that's the worst part now," he sighs. "The timing of it really couldn't have been worse."
Along with Zaarito, which will represent the 35-year-old in the Frank Ward Solicitors Arkle Chase tomorrow, Voler La Vedette's weekend target would have seen her thrust into Grade One company for the first time. The setback in itself is bad enough, but the heartbreak is compounded by what Murphy had endured in the weeks preceding it.
"I spent more time breaking up the gallop and spreading salt," Murphy says, somewhat wearily. "I was getting up every two or two and a half hours during the night just to keep breaking up the gallop. In the end I got a load of salt and harrowed it into the sand. It was pure hardship and I would have got a lot more sleep if I'd managed to get the salt in sooner, but, at the same time, there was a fair bit of satisfaction in knowing that we didn't miss a day with them."
The prolonged and unprecedented freeze, coming on the back of an abundance of fixtures lost to the rains, had trainers all over the country in tangles. Reduced to keeping their steeds 'ticking over', the wholesale loss of races was just the latest in a long line of headaches for a profession already hit hard by the recession.
"Like anyone else, we never had to deal with anything like it before," Murphy asserts. "The temperatures were just unheard of. All you could do was keep them cantering away, and we were probably lucky here to be able to do that much."
It is against this backdrop that the finishing touches were being applied to Voler La Vedette and Zaarito. For the past couple of seasons, Murphy had avoided the temptation to test either in the highest company.
Despite both horses having regularly confirmed themselves richly talented, the trainer resisted over-facing them. Never was that more evident than in his placing of Voler La Vedette at Leopardstown over Christmas.
Conqueror of Go Native at Down Royal in November, the prodigious mare completed her four-timer in a modest Listed race rather than tackle the likes of Solwhit and Sublimity in the December Festival Hurdle. Tomorrow was meant to be the day that she finally took the plunge.
Zaarito, a facile winner of a beginners' chase at Leopardstown, is now left carrying the can in the Arkle. No more dilly-dallying for him.
"We'd kept Voler out of it long enough," Murphy says, "so Sunday should have been the day we really found out where she's at.
"If a pulled muscle is the extent of her problem, then I'd still expect her to make it to Cheltenham. She goes well fresh anyway, so not having a run isn't really an issue for her, and the mares' race would have to be the target -- it looks the obvious race at this stage.
"As for Zaarito, Sunday's Arkle has cut up a bit, and you'd be kicking yourself after for not taking the chance if you didn't let him run. The way he is though -- so highly strung -- there's every possibility that Cheltenham won't be on his agenda. He is taking his races well this year, but you've got good races here like the Powers Gold Cup and the Ryanair Novice Chase, so we won't be forcing him to Cheltenham if we don't think it's right for him."
Murphy, of course, is well accustomed to being in the limelight on Irish Champion Hurdle weekend. Twelve months ago, the mighty Brave Inca rolled back the years to win the race for a second time. Twice more the old warhorse had filled the runner-up berth, and every one of those four renewals left an indelible impression.
In epic skirmishes with Hardy Eustace and Macs Joy, Brave Inca's first three outings in the race were awe-inducing battles that defined a golden era for Irish hurdlers. Last year was all romance, the aging former champion returning from a year and a half on the treatment table for one last, glorious encore.
Ten years into his training career, Murphy's name is already indelibly preserved in the folklore of the Leopardstown showpiece. With Brave Inca retired in the summer, the fear might have been that such glamour days would fade away. Not so.
For all his disappointments, Big Zeb, which won two Grade Ones in 2008, took November's Fortria Chase before flopping in the Tingle Creek and isn't done with yet, while Voler La Vedette and Zaarito are now stepping up to the plate as well. Out with the old, in with the new.
"If those three weren't here," Murphy jokes, "Brave Inca might well have been brought out of retirement he's so well in himself. He's still here and he's ridden out every day, and the decision to retire him was the hardest you'd ever have to make."
In light of the cruel blow Voler La Vedette was dealt this week, Murphy, who learnt his trade under one Aidan O'Brien after graduating with a degree in accounting from Waterford Institute of Technology in 1994, could be forgiven for flashing a rueful glance the way of the resident 12-year-old title-holder. Them's the breaks though, and there'll be time for the mare to flourish yet. More immediately, a win for Zaarito in the Arkle wouldn't half compensate.