£1million Irish stable lad Conor Murphy has his eyes on the next prize
This time last year Conor Murphy was a second headlad, with ambition but not much money, at Nicky Henderson’s Lambourn yard.
The next three days were to transform his life, however, when a five-horse accumulator, which he had filled in around Christmas to alleviate the boredom of a long winter evening, came up trumps.
After Sprinter Sacre, Simonsig, Bobs Worth and Finian’s Rainbow had all won with relative ease, the fifth of them, Riverside Theatre, stuck his head in front 50 yards out in Thursday’s Ryanair Chase never, at any stage of the race, having looked like the winner.
It netted Murphy £1million and it would have been more but for the limits imposed by Bet365.
On Tuesday Murphy, 32, will return to Cheltenham, one step closer to his long-term goal of going there as the trainer of a runner. He is a trainer but having set up in Kentucky in the summer, he remains a long way from having runners at Cheltenham.
In February, though, he sent out his first winner from his eighth runner when Gallant Eagle won a dirt race at Bulah Park, Ohio.
Murphy is well connected and already among the horses in his Louisville barn are pre-trainers for two of racing’s superpowers, the long established Coolmore Stud, to whom he was recommended by a ‘friend of a friend’ and Pearl Bloodstock, Sheikh Fahad Al Thani’s increasingly influential Qatari operation which, through the manager David Redvers, has enthusiastically supported a number of promising young trainers both sides of the Atlantic.
On Monday Murphy, 32, was back in Lambourn where I met him in the village cafe, a shop he could comfortably buy now if he wished. He is, however, no different to the man who left nine months ago, still very level, still down to earth and the complete antithesis of ostentatious.
Not for him a flash new suit. Not for him arrival at the races in a hired Rolls-Royce smoking a fat cigar. The reality is that he is almost embarrassed by his new-found wealth.
He is, it seems, not doing a great job of spending it having invested just 15,000 gns in a horse at Tattersalls Horses-in-training Sale last autumn.
“I didn’t sleep too much on the Wednesday night,” he said recalling how last year’s Festival unfolded, “though I wasn’t too concerned. When Finian’s Rainbow, a horse who I rode out every day, won the Champion Chase nothing else mattered really. I woke up with a hangover thinking ‘what will be, will be.’
"Anyone who does accumulators, doubles and trebles regularly will know that if the first two win the third usually gets beat but when four won I was beginning to think ‘when’s this all going to stop?’ ”
He added: “When Riverside Theatre had jumped two fences I didn’t think he’d get round, I thought he’d probably pull up. But if one of Nicky’s is in contention at the top of the hill they’ll usually have a say in the finish. I watched a replay last week to remind me just how close it was.
“At the time I didn’t realise quite what had happened. I watched on television and was back in the yard half an hour later for evening stables. Only about three or four people knew about it.
"The headlad had rung to say well done. No one else in the yard knew but I got a call saying it was all round Cheltenham that I’d won all this money. I’d have preferred to have stayed anonymous but the cat was out of the bag by then.”
His colleagues were, to a man, pleased for him. “Well, they all know how much hard work goes into the job, particularly like the winter just gone when you’re getting wet every day. They’d have been happy for anyone of them to have won it.”
It had always been at the back of Murphy’s mind to start training in the United States where he had been an assistant trainer for 2½ years before. He had been back at Seven Barrows for four years and was being groomed to take over as headlad.
“But things change,” he explained. “I always wanted to train and I had planned to stay at Seven Barrows until Nicky retired but it was a combination of me not having that sort of patience and wondering, with all these wonderful horses, whether Nicky would ever retire.
“I’d loved to have stayed here or in Ireland but by the time you’d invested in a yard and bought a couple of horses you’d soon be through your £1million – it wouldn’t go anywhere. In the States I can rent a barn and hopefully get established.
"My day is structured almost identically but the training is different – you don’t tide the horses for so long, you tack them up, stick them on the walker for 20 minutes, trot and canter them on the track, sponge them off and stick them back on the walker.”
“I won’t lie though, I still prefer the jumpers here and in America I’m concentrating on turf horses. The next thing is to prove I can train winners out there and if, one day, the right opportunity arose I’d probably be back. I found it quite tough being over there when Finian’s Rainbow had his first start of this season and I’ve missed the buzz of the build-up to Cheltenham.”
Of course there is always the chance lightning will strike twice but he is not holding his breath.
His accumulators this year include various combinations of Jezki (Supreme) Ponte Alexandre (Neptune), Union Dues (bumper), Captain Conan (Jewson), First Lieutenant (Ryanair), Rolling Star (Triumph) and Bobs Worth (Gold Cup) but he is the first to admit he does not quite have the advantage he had last year of working at Seven Barrows.
“To train a jumper good enough to run at Cheltenham one day would be the dream come true,” explained Murphy. “But I need to train a few winners in America first!”
Conor Murphy will be betting on seven horses at this year’s Festival, culminating in Bobs Worth in the Gold Cup on Friday.