Murphy is more than a memory

RACING: The confidence and courage of Josh Gifford's stable jockey have never been in doubt - now he aims to test those qualities again Richard Edmondson talks to the jockey whose brush with death a year ago has not dented his determination
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The Independent Online
Oak Tree House, on the outskirts of Newmarket, stands behind a 6ft high brown fence and dark green gates. On the way in, visitors encounter an ex-police Alsatian and a black Alpha Romeo with personalised number plates and the mascot of a horse on the bonnet which give some clues to the owner inside.

But while the neighbours know who has lived at this address for almost a year the man inside has memory of only the last six months. For Declan Murphy, history is only a flickering record.

Next week marks the anniversary of the Irishman's dreadful fall at Haydock, the day when Arcot fell fatally beneath him and delivered the jockey into hooves which almost kicked him into the grave.

Murphy survived a fractured skull and an operation to remove a blood clot from his brain, but lapsed so badly at one stage that the family was called and screens were pulled around his bed. Almost 12 months on, however, the jockey is planning his competitive return to the saddle. He is expected to participate in a charity race at Limerick in a month's time, and then, sometime in the autumn, will come his official return to National Hunt combat, at either Cheltenham or Newbury.

There remain after-effects of Murphy's greatest fight. He is only just getting used to living in the home he bought two weeks before his accident. "After I came out of hospital people brought me here but I just didn't recognise the place," he said. "It was like someone else's house."

The 28-year-old certainly has time to enjoy it. He now sleeps an average of two hours each night. "Last night I got four hours, which is very good for me, but I think we oversleep anyway," he said. "I've had some stuff taken out of my head but I don't think I really needed it. I don't feel like I've had an operation, I feel more as if I've had a brain service."

That he can turn the removal of matter from his brain as a positive action explains much about Declan Murphy's attitude and recovery. He has always been close to the cocky end of self-confidence.

This manifested itself when, as a young boy in Co Cork, he was asked if he could ride in a pony race. He had never ridden in a race in his life, but he reasoned that if his older brother Eamon could do it then so could he. He won.

Similarly, as a complacent amateur, he turned up to ride Prom, a 20-1 shot, for Kevin Prendergast at Navan one day. "As soon as we started I felt they were going fractionally too quick and so I ended up being four lengths last going past the winning post with a circuit to go," Murphy said. "I won five lengths and Kevin couldn't believe I'd had the nerve to do it."

Murphy could still have been lost to a variety of other trades, including accountancy, or remained in Ireland at the very least, had it not been for an approach from Barney Curley. The young rider did not want to move to EngIand, but he was captivated by the thought of working with a fellow maverick, a man who had taken holy orders before becoming one of the most feared gamblers in Europe.

"This was someone who had just raffled his mansion, which I thought was amazing," Murphy said. "The place was worth about £750,000 and I think he made £1.5m out of it. They said he had to give £10,000 to charity so he gave £50,000. I had to know what made him tick."

After good times riding for Curley, Murphy became stable jockey to Josh Gifford, a position that has been kept open for him during his time out of the saddle. With Gifford he established the reputation of being the most thoughtful and persuasive of riders. "And that's all I ever wanted to do, prove myself as one of the top jockeys," he said. "Now I want to do it all over again."

Getting back atop a horse for the first time was another strange experience. "It felt natural but strange at the same time," Murphy said. "I couldn't remember doing it before.

"But if anything, I think I've improved. I'm definitely riding work better than I have ever done. Tommy Stack [who provided Murphy with his last winner] says I'm exactly the same and it's nice when people I regard as good judges say that."

Murphy has forgotten most of the races that have gone before and has to watch video footage to understand his own achievements. A regular, and eerie, sensation is watching himself in a race without knowing the denouement. "I sit there and I know in my mind what the rider [himself] should be doing next. And then, as if by magic, he does it. That's weird."

When Murphy does again pull the skull cap over his tousled, straw-coloured hair, he will be careful not to let the moment pass him by. "I never really got the mileage out of racing I should have done," he said. "As soon as I won a race before I just looked for the next one. I didn't enjoy the moment.

"I've become aware that jockeys are privileged to be in the position they are in. I don't believe there is a jockey alive who realises that, but having been through what I've been through and now being on the outside looking in I realise how lucky we all are.

"I've missed the riding unbelievably and now I want to ride for pleasure, to ride for me. Most of all I have missed the communication between horse and rider.

"One ride I can remember was on Buck Willow at Sandown. He was enjoying himself, I was enjoying myself and we seemed to be working so well with each other. It was such a wonderful feeling, a roller-coaster of a ride, that for the first time ever I wanted to go round again. I think a few more rides might be like that from now on."

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