Racing: Celestial soars to new heights with Murphy

Martin Pipe's latest equine hero follows up success in Paddy Power with victory at Newbury
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The Independent Online

On the racecourse which stimulated the imagination of horseracing's greatest fiction writer it would have been highly appropriate if the denouement to yesterday's centrepiece had been "like a plot from Dick Francis". It was anything but.

On the racecourse which stimulated the imagination of horseracing's greatest fiction writer it would have been highly appropriate if the denouement to yesterday's centrepiece had been "like a plot from Dick Francis". It was anything but.

As Francis, now 84, who retired as a jockey in 1957 - the year that Mandarin won the first Hennessy Gold Cup - presented the trophies to a Martin Pipe-David Johnson-Timmy Murphy triumvirate which had dominated the afternoon's events, the only conclusion could be that yesterday's renewal of the pre-Christmas spectacle was scarcely a mystery. Unless we refer to the title of Francis's first story, Dead Cert.

Which is not to say that the victory of Pipe's Celestial Gold, the 9-4 favourite, partnered by Murphy, complementing his triumph in the Paddy Power Gold Cup at Cheltenham earlier this month with a stylish length-and-a-half victory over Nigel Twiston-Davies's novice Ollie Magern, failed to stir a vociferous crowd.

It may have been a victory by a Pipe horse. But not in the manner we have frequently come to anticipate from a Pipe horse. Whereas the familiar image of Tony McCoy on one of the stable's charges is of the Irishman asserting himself, with his mounts being ridden close to, or forcing the pace, his successor Murphy operates under his own rules. "My belief is that horses enjoy passing horses in front of them, as opposed to being passed," says Murphy, who comprehends that racing, too, can be a proverbial game of two halves, and who prefers his horses to be strong for the latter part of a race.

That's precisely how it proved here as the well-handicapped Celestial Gold, initially restrained, crept stealthily through the field until he was within striking distance. Ollie Magern had established a decided advantage at the second-last, but was unable to withstand the smooth challenge of his fellow six-year-old. Royal Auclair finished a further length and a quarter back in third.

Murphy, not for the first time recently, could luxuriate in the acclaim, particularly from favourite-backers, as he stood on the podium. It was not exactly what the 30-year-old jockey was contemplating when, a little over two years ago, he was incarcerated in Wormwood Scrubs, serving a three-month sentence for drunkenness and indecent assault on a flight from Tokyo to London. He has remained philosophical about that humiliating episode; as unforgivable as that moment of madness was, it prevented him from doing something infinitely worse. Like killing someone while under the influence. Because it was the fact that he was an alcoholic that provoked him that day, rather than the fact that he is inherently a bad character.

Yesterday, during which he rode a three-timer, could be described as another step in the rehabilitation of Murphy, who, during that Cheltenham Open weekend highlighted by Celestial Gold's triumph, rode no fewer than seven winners and was comfortably leading rider. Nine days ago, he deputised for the injured Jim Culloty on Best Mate at Exeter and conjured a narrow victory in the Henrietta Knight-trained gelding's first race of the season.

Murphy's riding style perhaps partly explains why, initially, he was reluctant to put himself forward when McCoy departed the Pipe yard in the summer for that of Jonjo O'Neill. When he did eventually submit his claim, it was Pipe's principal owner David Johnson who was rather more enthusiastic than the trainer. It was Johnson who declared afterwards: "AP [McCoy] was always going to be a tough act to follow. Timmy has lived up to every expectation we could have had. I'm pleased for him and it's great to have three winners on a big day like this. It's a once-in-a-lifetime day. I had a few shillings on after he won the Paddy Power, and that makes the win even sweeter."

Pipe added: "Celestial Gold is settling really well and jumping well. I don't know where we will go next. I suppose we will have to enter him in the Gold Cup. He's in the Tripleprint [now the Gold Cup] back over two miles and five, but we will have to see about that. He is still only six and just a baby."

The Pipe-Johnson-Murphy combo had also secured the opening novice hurdle with the ex-French-trained gelding Marcel, whose six-length win had the bookmakers offering 12-1 about his chances for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle at the Festival.

That was expected. The same could hardly be said of Pipe's Vodka Bleu, who overcame the odds-on Fundamentalist in a field of three. Or was it that the talented Fundamentalist defeated himself? Partnered by Carl Llewellyn, the six-year-old's tendency to jump left caused the pairing to lose crucial ground. Indeed he nearly ran out at the last. "It's a hell of a shame to lose a race like that," said the runner-up's trainer, Twiston-Davies. "It was one mistake at the last that got us beat. I think this is a run we can safely forget."

Unlike that of Celestial Gold and Murphy, at the conclusion of a year the latter will long remember.