If true grit is one of the qualities needed for the Grand National, then look no further than Wynbury Stables at West Witton, on the A684 that climbs steadily through Wensleydale to the wild, windswept Pennine fells. From the main road in the village to the High Moor gallops where Ferdy Murphy's horses take their exercise is an ascent of the type associated with Lance Armstrong and his mates, a steep, winding zigzag clinging to the side of the Ure valley.
It's exactly a mile from foot to summit and the Murphy horses are expected to jog-trot the whole way, over Capple Bank Beck, through the Witton Steeps. "When they first come to us, they get so far and just stop. And walking down this gradient they work just as hard, building muscle and balance. When I first came here and saw this hill, I thought, 'That'll do me'."
Murphy's 130-box yard is just over the hill from the Yorkshire Dales' mainstream training centre, Middleham. This, with its limestones, millstones and shales and springy, sheep-cropped moorland, is hard country for hard horses. The thoroughbred was, after all, invented in this part of the world, home to two of the breed's so-called founding fathers, the Darley Arabian and the Byerley Turk.
On a bleak day the craggy brow of Penhill Scar, towering above Wynbury, and High Moor, 1,000 feet above sea level, would cause "nesh" southerners to tremble. But last week, with Redmire and Cross Gill Moors high and distant across the valley and the stonewalled pastures below shimmering in the spring sunlight, it was difficult to dispute that this is indeed God's own county.
Wexford-born Murphy, 53, has come here via his native Ireland, where he worked for Vincent O'Brien's younger brother, Phonsie, straight from school, was head lad and stable jockey to Paddy Mullins and private trainer to the Durkan brothers in the era of the great two-mile chaser Anaglogs Daughter; the late Geoff Hubbard's yard in Suffolk; his own place in Somerset; and a brief spell working for Sir Robert Ogden in Middleham before settling at Wynbury four years ago.
On Saturday, he aims to saddle no fewer than five horses in the 155th running of the race that, for him, embodies the sport. To produce just one equine gladiator ready, willing and able for a race like the National, is some achievement; a quintet is verging on the miraculous. Each horse is very different, and none – despite just one win between them this year – is going just for the glory of a run.
The best-fancied is Ivan Straker's 10-year-old Paris Pike, lucky to be alive. Then there's dependable syndicate-owned dark-brown Streamstown, the youngest at eight; yard sponsor Russell Spence's strong, talented nine-year-old Ackzo; dour stayer Birkdale, the 11-year-old grey who could make a dream come true for the Wigan solicitor who has won proprietor-ship for the day in a competition; and Andrew Chappell's nine-year-old Luzcadou, who owes the yard one, having put stable jockey Adrian Maguire in hospital when he fell two runs ago.
Paris Pike, to be ridden by last year's victor, Richard Guest, looked a superstar when he won the Scottish Grand National two years ago as a novice, but a minimal leg injury picked up in the race almost killed him. "He reacted badly to an injection of local anaesthetic," said Murphy. "A massive abscess developed, he had to go on a drip and was at the vets' for three weeks. He came through, but it was a close call.
"He's a bit special. When he first came here he was a bit of a wimp, but Jed McGhie, who does him, has brought him out of himself. He's a horse who does not like being crowded, and out in the field with the others he was always on the fringe of things. But he's got better and his mate Paddy's Return, who is in the next box, kind of minds him a bit, and he'll fight his own corner more now.
"Streamstown is a dream to train, a good-natured horse with good legs who eats well and gets on with life. He's tough as nails and if Adrian had been here he'd have had a difficult choice. He made the horse. He used to be headstrong but Adrian got him sorted in one run.
"Ackzo, you know, could be the one of ours to spring a surprise. He's built like a tank, his jumping has got better and better. I told the owner two years ago that he would be a National horse and I haven't changed my mind.
"Birkdale hasn't won for us yet but his form against the best staying handicappers is spot-on. He jumps for fun and he's a relentless stayer, he'll still be galloping when many others have cried enough.
"Luzcadou had lost a bit of confidence when he came to us but he's now the best jumper in the yard and I hope he gets in the race because he'll give whoever is on him a hell of a ride. He wouldn't be that slow either, has a bit of class about him. He's not been the luckiest; in the Racing Post Chase a stirrup leather broke and he was cantering in front when he buried Adrian at Warwick."
Murphy's first visit to Aintree was when he led up the O'Brien-trained Fort Sun in the 1969 National and saw his charge come home seventh behind Highland Wedding. And – though it was riderless Paddy's Return who caused much of the mayhem last year – the place has brought other fond memories; his then-teenaged son Paul notched his first win there 10 years ago in the Fox Hunters' Chase and his first National runner, Addington Boy, came in fourth three years ago.
The spruce dressing on the schooling fences on Low Moor speak of the excitement brewing. "It is going to be a serious race on Saturday, fantastically competitive," he said, "but then with half a million at stake so it should be. We've won the Scottish, Midlands and Kerry Nationals and we'd like this one. I'd rather win one race like this with a horse that has been allowed to develop properly than six novice hurdles with one that burns out. Staying chasers are what the game is about. They're what we're about."Reuse content