Colm Murphy trains 50 horses in Ballinadrummin, Killena, Gorey – an address more Harry Potter than Dick Francis, but apparently it’s in the heart of County Wexford. We didn’t meet face-to-face and only spoke on the phone – he was too busy finalising his Festival plans and I couldn’t find platform nine and three quarters.
The former amateur rider, who has a degree in accountancy, is no stranger to Cheltenham success, with three wins already under his belt, and his Big Zeb is looking to defend his crown in Wednesday’s sportingbet.com Champion Chase.
As the name may imply, Big Zeb is big. He is 16.3h (that’s 16 hands and 3 inches measured from the highest point of the withers, where the neck meets the back). Named after his owner Patrick Redmond (nicknamed ‘Big Zeb’), he (the equine version) is apparently “very shy” and “doesn’t really enjoy the big occasion. He just gets on with the job.” Well, he has got on with the job pretty well so far in a career that has seen him win 24 races and over £500,000 in prize money.
“He’s in grand order,” Murphy assures me. “Things have gone a lot smoother than last year when we had all kinds of problems after Sandown. I’m really happy with him.” There is almost a tone of confidence in his voice, but he is certainly not complacent. “He is a year older, a year wiser and I’m not going to tempt fate by saying that he is a better jumper,” he continues. “He fell in this race two years ago and you are only one mistake from hitting the deck again. However, we’ve mirrored last year’s routine and its gone well – if it ain’t broken it doesn’t need fixing.”
The eerily calm Murphy acknowledges that this will almost certainly be Big Zeb’s last year at the top level and the pair, with two other stablemates, will have begun their journey across the Irish Sea by the time you read this. “We’ll leave the yard at about 6pm on Sunday night, drive for about an hour to the port, then make the crossing in around three-and-a-half hours. That means we should arrive just before 1am and reach Cheltenham by 5.30am.” I will never complain about my 90-minute drive to the Cotswolds again.
Murphy and his team will spend every minute of the pilgrimage with the horses, that is except for the actual ferry crossing itself when nobody is allowed down below. Yet, that’s not a worry as the horses are “as calm as anything and have done it all before”. It all means that the meticulous trainer can exercise his string when they reach Prestbury Park and they won’t miss out on their routine.
All three runners are scheduled to strut their stuff on Wednesday and the stable’s unknown quantity Raise The Beat is certainly not without a chance in the Champion Bumper. However, Quito De La Roque will only run in the RSA Chase if the rain arrives. Murphy tells me that his potential star of tomorrow will travel over, but definitely won’t take part unless the word ‘soft’ appears in the going description. One feels that the word ‘soft’ would never appear in any description of his trainer.
Murphy is set to stay in the same B&B he stayed at last year with his partner Louise and doesn’t yet know whether he’ll be travelling home on Wednesday night. “Cheltenham is the last place on earth I want to be if things go pear-shaped on Wednesday. I’ll be the first to leave the course if they do.” However, if any of his three runners are successful, he won’t be in quite such a hurry. I asked him if there was any particular bar, restaurant or club he’d be visiting if they were to toast success. He told me it’d be easier to list those they won’t visit.
“We’ve had plenty of success, but wouldn’t have had that success if we hadn’t been lucky enough to be sent good Grade One horses in the first place,” says an unbelievably grounded Murphy in answering how important Cheltenham is to a man who has only been training for a decade.
Success on National Hunt racing’s biggest stage certainly fills the boxes, which in turn pay the bills. It’s as simple as that. Is it really life or death? Of course not, it’s much more important than that!