Timmy Murphy: Murphy riding high after painful fall from grace

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It's not going to be raking over the past is it?" inquires Timmy Murphy, perhaps the best National Hunt jockey at work, when I first ask him for an interview in the weighing room at Sandown.

This proved two things. Firstly, the Irishman by now understands the minds of journalists and, also, that his history is significant. The past is indeed essential to the present and indeed future of Timmy Murphy, a drunken imitation of a rider less than three years ago, but now the hugely successful stable jockey to the 14-times champion trainer, Martin Pipe.

This particular phoenix has risen most swiftly, but then it would have ignited quite quickly as well considering its contents. As he treads the road to redemption, Murphy is most grateful for a second chance at the age of 30.

"I've always loved riding horses and no other profession has ever entered my head," he says. "I've always wanted to be a jockey, but I've spent the first half of my career trying to mess all that up. I want to make a decent crack of it in the second half.

"I didn't realise what I was doing for the first half of my career. I suppose I've been lucky. I don't want to be one of those jockeys looking back on his career and saying that without drink I could have been anything. At least I can give it a fair crack now."

The devil, steaming and sharp-horned, is in the detail. In April 2002, Timmy Murphy, or the man that used to be Timmy Murphy, boarded a Virgin Atlantic flight at Narita airport, Tokyo, after he had ridden Cenkos in the Grand Jump at Nakayama. Vodka and orange was already swilling around his system.

Murphy continued to drink, switching to wine at the first-class bar. He consumed enough to wipe his memory banks, which is just as well. The jockey has been told he next stuck his hand up a flight attendant's skirt and fondled her. He was also spotted urinating on the door and walls of the flight deck. On arrival, police boarded flight BS901 and Murphy was arrested.

A journey which should have finished at Heathrow actually ended 15 miles to the north-east, at a place which also has wings, bars and uniformed personnel. On 23 July, at Isleworth Crown Court, Murphy was sentenced to six months in Wormwood Scrubs. At the trial it emerged the jockey's first conviction for excess alcohol was in 1997 and that he had been also ordered to do 110 hours community service in 2001. Alcohol had won.

Even worse for Murphy was the fact that he had been mistakenly placed on the sex-offenders' register. These are not the people who receive ticker-tape receptions in jail. The three weeks between his incarceration and the judge's ruling that an error had been made in law were the worst. It was Murphy's life nadir.

Yet there is a piece of Timmy Murphy which does not regret that flight BS901 happened. He remains enduringly repentant about his behaviour, ashamed about what he put a stewardess and his family though. But Murphy had descended a lot further than the aircraft he was aboard that day and he needed to get off. This was the terminus. His destructive life had come to an end.

The Scrubs, as was the intention, frightened him, especially the early days, when great thumps on the door were followed by dark suggestions that "the rapist" would not see out his stretch. That menace abated, yet only once did Murphy take advantage of the daily hour's exercise. He preferred press-ups in his cell.

Murphy took the lack of opportunity to write letters, he got on the painting detail that redecorated the block. Then, on 22 October, he was released from A-Wing after 84 days, 7lb lighter than when he went in. The sentence was shortened for good behaviour, but then there was nothing inside his body to make Murphy behave badly.

By that time, the word "alcoholic" had entered his vocabulary. Murphy had finally accepted he had a problem. He was not, however, the most pliable of patients when first introduced to the Priory Clinic as he awaited trial.

"I wasn't having any of it," Murphy says. "I was down there for four weeks and, for the first three, I was telling them they were wrong because I didn't have a problem. I had to do an extra two weeks because it wasn't registering. And there's me who lost his licence twice, trying to tell them what to do. You haven't met someone like me before, I said. They had."

Part of being a jockey, and especially a National Hunt rider, is a trench mentality, the thought that any day could be your last. It is a work-hard, play-hard philosophy which traditionally involves plenty of drinking. There is no shortage of raddled figures in the celestial weighing-room. The young Murphy saw nothing outrageous in using his nights as a vehicle for inebriation. It was, however, a habit that was to grow into a horrible beast.

"When I was younger, working on the Curragh, it was the done thing. You went to work during the week and got pissed at the weekend. That was life. No one I knew was any different," he said. "If you had a winner you went out and celebrated. If you had a fall you went out and got pissed. Fell over."

It was a destructive tendency which continued when Murphy came over to ride in Britain, first for Kim Bailey and then Paul Nicholls. The soothing qualities which the jockey had been able to transmit to his mounts were replaced by more primitive urgings. The very skill which had attracted British trainers was disappearing.

"Until the last two years I didn't have the patience and I got very frustrated when the horses weren't doing what I asked them to," Murphy said. "That was down to drink. I was drinking too much and it was affecting my head. Nothing was clear to me.

"You've as much chance of getting an elephant to go as a racehorse if he doesn't want to. No matter how much you pull him or beat him or drag him. I look back now and wonder why I got so upset with the horses. You can't make them do anything. There is no point being hard on them. But I've only learned that since I stopped drinking."

Murphy was doing his bit to regenerate his own career when another jockey came along and attached a rocket pack. Tony McCoy was lured away by the pieces of silver at the end of last season to become a contracted rider to J P McManus and ride principally for the Gloucestershire yard of Jonjo O'Neill.

That left the golden vacancy at Pipe's Pond House establishment in Somerset. It was Murphy's good fortune that David Johnson, the champion trainer's main owner, had just bought a batch of expensive young horses. He wanted them looked after. He wanted Murphy.

However, wisdom was that the steely, ruthless Pipe needed a kindred spirit in the saddle and for many years McCoy did not fail him. The horses almost exclusively ran from the front, as if the hounds of hell had been set on them.

No jockey could be seen as more unsuitable as their partner than Murphy, a tiptoe rider who liked to meander round and place his mounts in front right on the line. There were many doubters, among them Pipe himself, and the new pairing fell out over the defeat of Comply Or Die at Cheltenham in October. Events have proved the gelding was facing a near impossible task against the talented Ollie Magern. "It turned out it wasn't too bad a run," Murphy said. "He wouldn't have won in a month of Sundays no matter what way he was ridden."

Pipe has since mellowed with the reality he does not mind how the horses are piloted as long as they win. Murphy can carry them in a fireman's lift for all he cares.

Yet Murphy is no one-pony trick. He collected yet another Saturday feature race at the weekend on Marcel, the most successful horse this season with nine wins. That was from near the front. His forte, however, remains the effort from the shadows, the ride of stealth. "It's a bit tricky and it doesn't always work, but you get more satisfaction doing it that way than from riding it handy," Murphy said. "A P [McCoy] is more of a forceful rider. I'm happier to sit back off the pace and let the race develop. A P would rather be up there and in the thick of it all the time.

"It's a lot easier to knock a jockey coming from behind than one that kicks too soon. No one seems to have a go at a jockey that makes too much use of a horse and then it falls away. They'll say he gave it a chance and it just wasn't good enough. But you're just as guilty of giving a horse a bad ride if you make too much use of him. If you force a horse to go quicker than he wants to then he just doesn't get home.

"The rider who sits out the back and maybe leaves it a little bit late is the one that gets slated. But he may have ridden a better race because his horse is finishing in his race. I'm prepared to take that chance. I prefer my horse to be galloping to the line rather than going backwards when he crosses it."

The greatest advertisements this year for Murphy's skills have come on Celestial Gold, who became the first horse since Bright Highway 24 years ago, to complete the Paddy Power and Hennessy Gold Cup double. After the second victory, Murphy went out to celebrate quietly with his partner, Dawn. It was a little different from a previous moment.

"When Ever Blessed won the Hennessy [in 1999] the party went on for three or four days," he says. "This time there was no la-di-dah, even though there were three other winners on the same day. I appreciated it more this time."

Timmy Murphy tells you all this from his house in the small Oxfordshire town of Shrivenham, five miles east of Swindon. Earlier in the day he had been an uncomfortable visitor to a function at the Blowing Stone Inn, the racing pub at nearby Kingston Lisle. In jogging pants and a tight bobble hat, Murphy did not look at ease in the habitat.

Back home, though, it is different. Murphy is relaxed in his front room, hands behind his head, stockinged feet resting on a footstool. Shane, his four-year-old son, pops in and out and Dawn comes in with coffee and biscuits.

Murphy talks racing but it is not a typical racing environment. The lounge is no great temple to self-aggrandisement. There are no trophies crowded on the surfaces, no photographs to mark times past. It is as if Timmy Murphy is trying to block out what has gone before, the days when there was little focus, of any description.

"I've never been as level as this," he says. "Before I'd be either very down or way too high and partying. Now it's one level of being content, rather than being either ecstatic or depressed. It's helped my private life as well.

"It's a mental thing that comes with being off the drink. And being able to talk to people, which I never did before. I wasn't communicating and it was all building up inside of me. I now know I couldn't handle myself, but it took a long time for me to figure that out.

"Obviously there's a lot more to life than drink and I'm just glad I found that out now and not 20 years down the line. After I'd destroyed a family or someone else's life."