Sport Horse Racing

Wednesday 16 October 2019

Murphy fears new reality of tight margins

Trainer Colm Murphy tells Ian McClean that if numbers don't add up, his future is elsewhere

On St Stephen's Day in 1982 Michael Dickinson sent out 20 runners from his Harewood yard in West Yorkshire. He returned with 12 winners including first and third in the King George and every runner was placed except for one. The most remarkable aspect of the achievement is that he only had 55 boxes in his yard at the time.

That seasonal feat took place against the backdrop of record unemployment, steelworks closures, the miners' strike, De Lorean receivership and the Falklands War.

Nearly 30 years on, I am talking to Colm Murphy about the lot of a regional trainer with 50-odd boxes trying to run a business during a recession and looking forward with anticipation to the Christmas period. I have met Colm for formal interview on three previous occasions, beginning in 2005. One measure of his progress is the number of boxes in the yard each time. First 25, then 40, then 54. Today it hasn't increased, but his brother John has a further 12 boxes that serve as an overflow when required.

Is this quaint Wexford National Hunt yard in Ballycanew, outside Gorey, a slide-rule for our times?

Although an accountant by background, more than ever Murphy realises the value of publicity. Reserved and mild-mannered by nature, he would never be a natural media-seeker but what you want and what you need are not always equal. And, in this climate, needs must. His profile is particularly high all week given the heightened interest in racing over the Christmas break.

"It would be a lot worse if you guys weren't calling, and if you are there must be a reason," exclaims the trainer in a manner of fact. This year there isn't just one reason, there are three, Big Zeb, Quito De La Roque, and Voler La Vedette. Three bullets: Three Grade One targets.

Although our conversation centres on the present, Murphy has one eye firmly on the future. His delight surrounding his present crop of stars is tempered somewhat by the fact that there are none coming through and the sustainable success of any business is centred round succession planning.

He refers to the fact that he has been "lucky" to have always had one on the up. Brave Inca effectively paid for the yard. He was followed by Feathard Lady. Then Big Zeb, Voler La Vedette and finally Quito De La Roque. All Grade One winners. The calling card of achievement on his website is impressive. Murphy chuckles: "We've won more Grade Ones than maiden hurdles."

This is said without a trace of ego. The years from 2004 to the present ably demonstrate the profile, baton passing from one to the other. Murphy's concern is there is no new hand currently there to receive it, and the implications of that for the future. "Last year is the first year we didn't have a graded horse come through. And I can't see one for this year. And if you didn't have one the next year or the year after . . . all of a sudden your best horses are out of the spotlight. We've been so lucky to have them every year -- but you need a star."

Murphy is training long enough to have experienced both extremes of our economy. "When we got into the game we were lucky that there was plenty of disposable income. Basically everybody that had a dog had a leg in a horse. We were lucky we got dealt a good hand of cards with some nice horses out of it and they raised our profile."

And that profile was enough to attract a different calibre of owner. It is illustrated by the fact that both Brave Inca and Feathard Lady were bought cheaply on behalf of syndicates, while Quito De La Roque is a Gigginstown House horse.

Murphy reflects the difference between the boom and the bust. "The phone doesn't ring any more. It's people who can afford it now have the horses."

This leads him to reflect on the most critical ingredient to success in his profession. Not talent or skill. Not training regimes or race planning. No. "It's a numbers game" says Murphy simply. "It's always been a numbers game. The more horses you have, the more good horses you'll have. The problem at the moment is finding the ammunition. We just don't have the same volume of horses going through that we used to. I never thought about it as much as I do now. I never worried about it as much as I do now."

Colm Murphy started racing life double jobbing as an amateur rider and an accountant for Aidan O'Brien in Ballydoyle (1994-2000) and afterwards continued the double act for Charlie Swan until taking out a licence. In that sense he is unusual in that he applies a natural accounting mindset to the job.

"It is a business. It's so glamourised in one way when you're looking at the sports awards on RTE. There's times you wonder why you do it and then you have the good days -- and that's why you do it. You still have to run it like a business with costs and margins and so forth. We're very fortunate we're in the home place so there's no mortgage. If we had, that would put a whole different perspective on it.

"As much as I love and hate the game, I don't think I'd be doing it just for the love of it. Bar there's some financial reward, or bar you're getting a nice lifestyle out of it, I'd sooner be picking strawberries I'd say. If someone offered me a serious job in the morning, the type you couldn't refuse, you'd want to have a few Big Zebs and Quito De La Roques in the yard to stop you doing it. I hope I stay training for a long time, but I won't be doing it for the pure love of it. Saying that, I know a lot of lads, particularly when I started, who got out of horses. And I'd say 99 per cent of them have come back in."

If a leading trainer can feel so threatened by the economic environment, what about the lower profile guys? "That does worry me," he responds earnestly.

This Christmas programme has a peculiar balance to it for Colm Murphy's yard. On one side, never has he had so many big race chances, but he has also never had so few runners. This year quality trumps quantity. Historically, Christmas has been pretty good for the yard, but not always. "Usually there's no in-between. If one wins they'll all go close. If the first one gets beat, we may start packing up."

We discuss the Big Triumvirate, each in turn, starting with the flagship, Big Zeb. "We're on bonus time with him. But he seems as well as ever." It's well documented how he has been a difficult subject with arthritis in the joints. "Like an auld lad going out to play a soccer match -- but we're managing it better nowadays. He looks better this year. Last year he looked like death. Going for the Fortria at Navan last year I had to put a sheet on him before he went into the parade ring because I thought he looked shite. It's taken us nearly 11 years to figure him out."

On to Voler La Vedette which has a choice of races, at two miles and at three. "I'm leaning towards the two-miler. Another Grade Two isn't gonna make that much difference to her CV, while I'd love to win another Grade One with her. This year she's over the niggly little joint problems she's always had. She's better mentally and I'd say last year made her for this year. She's settled better this year and that's the key to her. They're gonna have to go a proper two-mile gallop if she's to have a chance in it."

Finally, Quito De La Roque, his most recent Grade One project: his New Kid on the Roque. I ask about his Down Royal comeback where he was made to scrap very hard. "It wasn't ideal going there. It'd be one thing having him going there singing and getting a race like that. But having him going there needing the run and to get the race he got leaves you wondering what little scar it might have left. Saying that, we missed the John Durkan with him and he seems well and fresh again. In the ideal world though we'd have given him two runs before the Lexus -- but I didn't want the second run to cost us the Lexus."

I venture that he looked like a bit of a slogger at times last year before the spring. "He's not slow. He's like Brave Inca in that he looks slow, but he's got plenty of pace. He surprised me at Aintree how well he travelled on good ground. He was the only horse travelling turning into the straight."

All his other big lights have in common that their potential was always apparent, but not Quito. "He surprised me. He never shows anything on the gallops. People laugh at me but you would literally pass him out on the gallop at home he is so lazy. He's a pure dosser."

Murphy refers to Leopardstown as the Christmas Cheltenham. "To get a winner there -- and particularly one on the telly gives you a wider audience. It's important to be there on the big days."

To the accountant, the equation is simple. More big winners means more profile. More profile means more horses. And more horses means better horses. And better horses mean more big winners. The virtuous circle is complete.

The closer we get, the edgier the nerves. "It's a few days away yet and every day is a nightmare," he says. "So, fingers crossed at this stage we'll just get the three of them there in one piece". I'm sure even Michael Dickinson allowed himself a few butterflies for Christmas.

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