BY early January of this year, Olly Murphy had already passed his previous best prize money tally and was cruising along at a handy 20% winners to runners. This, coupled with a sizeable property furnished with everything a burgeoning modern stable could require, should make him a very content young man, but there is really only one thing that keeps the trainer happy.
“I just love winning,” he says, which for someone involved in the fiercely competitive field of horse racing, is, one supposes, just as well.
In case the message had not been delivered clearly enough the first time, Murphy reiterates: “I love winning, whatever it may be.”
In this pursuit he had a good role model. For the 30-year-old, who is now in his fifth season training in his own right, previously spent four years with Ireland’s own winning machine, Gordon Elliott.
Murphy certainly hit the ground running when he set out on his own in July 2017, with his first runner, Dove Mountain, winning on the flat at Brighton.
A little over a fortnight later he ensured his name would be more widely known when saddling four jumps’ winners in a day at Stratford and Newton Abbot.
Since then, as his Warwickshire team – stabled in a range of airy American barns on land adjacent to his family home – has grown, Murphy’s strike-rate has retained a pleasingly consistent feel to it.
Last year’s dipped a little when he recorded his highest tally of 80 jumps victories from a large increase in the number of runs to 567 (from 351), but before that he had operated at 19% over his initial three seasons, and for 2021/22 he is currently farming winners at his most productive rate yet. Even so, he admits that he is wont to fret a bad run as much as he will celebrate success.
“I think the good trainers hurt,” he says. “And I think the trainers that are happy with finishing second or third and thinking it’s great, I think that’s just the level they’re at. The people at the top of our game in England and Ireland are so ruthless. They’re big, they’re ruthless, they just love winning. And they don’t want anyone else to win. And that’s what I’m like, that’s what Gordon is like.
“I’ve got plenty of friends in racing. I like seeing my friends have winners, but there are plenty of people I don’t like seeing winning because I want to win more than them. I want to finish higher up than them on the trainers’ table. I want to train their horse. And that’s not because I don’t like them, it’s not anything personal, it’s just that winning thing I’ve got inside me.”
So, let that be a warning to those trainers above Murphy in the table, which is currently a decreasing number as he has crept into the top 10 for the first time in his career this season.
While this attitude towards his business could be partly accredited to Gordon Elliott, whom Murphy cites as having been almost a third parent to him, the trainer has also inherited his love of racing and will have learned plenty from his own parents, bloodstock agent Aiden Murphy and former trainer Anabel King.
He spent his formative years in Wilmcote at the pretty country yard where his mother trained her small mixed string, which he now uses as a back-up facility just down the hill from his new empire at Warren Chase Stables. He also rode a handful of winners as an amateur.
“It’s home for me, which is special,” he says. “Mum pops up every morning with the dogs, Dad is always around, and he is such a huge help to me at the sales. And sometimes you need to take a step back and see what’s happened in a short space of time. I’m not very good at that.”
What has happened at Warren Chase is that along with the barns and the installation of a four-furlong oval gallop of deep Wexford sand resembling that used by Elliott, a warm-up manège has been positioned on the highest point of the property. Each of the day’s five lots take their turn in there, the trainer watching on with a panoramic view of the Cotswolds. From that vantage point, National Hunt racing’s own version of Mecca must feel agonisingly close.
“I put pressure on myself,” says Murphy. “I haven’t trained a Cheltenham winner. I’ve had plenty of horses placed there. I haven’t run a whole lot there either but, oh, you want to win there so bad. It shouldn’t be all about Cheltenham, but there’s something about it. You could have a really bad year and have a winner at Cheltenham, and suddenly you’ve had an amazing year.”
Returning to his mentor, who trained the Gold Cup winner Don Cossack during Murphy’s days with him, he continues: “Cheltenham is the be-all and end-all for Gordon Elliott. He will have everything 110% going there, and it’s been a very successful festival for him. And listen, I’d love to be like that one day. I know it takes time. I’m beating myself up, I’ve just turned 30, and I want it all now. I don’t want it in a year’s time, or three years’ time.”
Murphy freely admits that Warren Chase is run along very similar lines to Elliott’s Cullentra House Stables, even down to the feed ordered in from Ireland and the racing tack he uses. Further tribute is paid by the portraits of the trainers together on the wall of Murphy’s owners’ room, and a giant poster of the great Tiger Roll on the side of one of the barns.
He says: “I think a lot of people go and work for a big trainer and then leave them and think, ‘I’ll do this different, I’ll put in a different gallop’. And I think that’s where they go wrong. But I thought Gordon was good, so I came back and did what he did, and it’s worked great.”
Murphy continues: “Gordon works hard. He has made a good living out of it and has an unbelievable place that he’s built from scratch. He’s a remarkable man that I look up to. He’s obviously had his bad press, and things have happened that shouldn’t have happened. That’s out of the way now and I’d certainly be someone who would be standing up for him as a human. He’s been very good to me, and to my mother and father. He gave me a bollocking when I needed a bollocking but he also gave me plenty of responsibility.”
Murphy’s own burgeoning stable, which is now home to around 130 horses, is not far from that of one of his main rivals, Dan Skelton. Two other names above him in the table, Fergal O’Brien and Nigel Twiston-Davies, are nearby in the next county of Gloucestershire, causing something of a shift from the former English National Hunt strongholds of Somerset and Lambourn, homes respectively to Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson.
With such increased activity in the area, Murphy is easily able to call upon a host of jockeys to ride out and school. The retired Ger Tumelty is now his assistant trainer and regular rider of one of the stable’s highest-profile members, Brewin’upastorm, and Aidan Coleman is retained by Murphy.
“Then we have David England and Fergus Gregory, who has just ridden out his claim,” Murphy notes. “Adrian Heskin comes in, Sean Bowen and James King, who is champion amateur, and some really good young lads. If they’re good enough, they’ve got opportunities. And I think they’ve seen Fergus come in here as a 10lb claimer and he’s ridden out his claim in three years, and ridden in two Grade 1s recently. If they work hard and they’ve got ability, they’ll get a chance.”
Of course, racing ultimately comes down to horse power, not just in numbers but also quality. And it’s a battle that these days can often start in the sales ring, if not in far-flung French pastures.
Murphy says: “There’s no point thinking we can take on the Irish in this-and-that if we haven’t got the horses to be competitive, because we’ll come home disappointed.
“One thing Gordon told me when I left was ‘if you can train a racehorse, and if you win in the sales ring, you’ll win on the racetrack’. You’ve got to go to these sales and do what Gordon’s done, do what Willie (Mullins) has done, do what Paul Nicholls, Nicky Henderson has done.
“Go and buy two, or three, or four horses at every sale for 100 grand or more. And by the end of the year, you’d have bought 25 or 30 horses for six figures, and that’s only from the sales ring. That’s without going to France, or buying them privately – which these yards are doing every single week – and then four out of 50 might turn out to be racehorses.”
He continues: “I’m not undermining what the Irish have done, and how good they are, but they’re buying the best horses. With some they’re not even crossing the line at Irish point-to-points and they’re bought. They go into sales with bigger budgets because they’re winning so much, and because they’re winning, they’re getting wealthier owners and more support. And that’s just the way it is at the moment. I’m sure it will come around but we’ll have to do something about it, and try to get more competitive in the sales rings.”
That said, Murphy is not predicting such a pasting for his colleagues at home during this year’s Festival.
“It will be interesting,” he says. “I think the English are quite strong in the novice division this year. I still think the Irish will be dominant taking on the English, but I think the English have got quite a strong hand in a few divisions this year.”
As for his own assault on Prestbury Park in March, with Itchy Feet and Brewin’upastorm more likely to head to Aintree, Thomas Darby, owned by his biggest patrons, Grahame and Diana Whateley, could be be one of his leading contenders in the Stayers’ Hurdle.
A recent young recruit from David O’Meara’s stable, Dr T J Eckleburg, defeated elders at Taunton in February and has been given a Triumph Hurdle entry, and the promising Copperless, co-owned and bred by Aiden Murphy and Alan Peterson, is on the comeback trail from a fractured pelvis and is a possible runner for the County Hurdle.
“I’ll have some horses that might sneak into the handicaps and I have some nice juveniles I haven’t run yet but I won’t take anything there just for a nice lunch and a good day out,” he says. “It kills me going there, and running horses for the sake of running them. At the moment I haven’t got a novice I’m thinking could be competitive in the Supreme or the Albert Bartlett.”
With Itchy Feet having given Murphy his first taste of Grade 1 success in the Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase in just his third year with a licence, the trainer is plainly hungry for more, and despite his rapid ascent in the rankings this season, it can’t come soon enough.
“I went into Christmas this year and for the first time in my career I was in the top five on the trainers’ table, and that’s not good enough for me. I want to be fourth, I want to be third…,” he tails off momentarily.
“But still, from where we’ve come in a short space of time, starting out with nothing five years ago, we went into Christmas in the top five, and we have got a lot of good trainers over here. The whole place has come forward in a short space of time, and hopefully it’s just going to keep going one way.”
One day there may be time for Olly Murphy to step back and see how far he’s come in a short space of time, but not just yet, especially with Cheltenham almost literally on his horizon. ?