Racing: Murphy discovers an appetite for success: Josh Gifford's jockey learnt his trade from a childhood hero. Paul Hayward reports. Officialdom was the biggest obstacle when a former champion Irish pony rider turned his attention to steeplechasing

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The Independent Online
DECLAN MURPHY wanted to be a vet or an accountant or a businessman, not a jockey. But then success kept pestering him, and as he contemplates his ride in the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day he is finally prepared to exploit his potential. Talent, you learn, can be a bit of an encumbrance.

All those panting journeymen, those breadline horse-belters of the jumping game, must bang their already woozy heads against weighing room walls when Murphy talks of his semi-reluctant ascent to become one of the country's best big-race riders. At the top of the scale, Scudamore, Dunwoody and Maguire will be equally anguished to hear Murphy say: 'It's only now that I've thought I'm going to go hammer and tongs at it. Get a little bit hungrier.'

That means more rides and a more expansive campaign. No longer will Murphy play the Simon Sherwood role of preferring quality over quantity and eschewing dull days at Fakenham or Folkestone in favour of the high-adrenalin payouts of Ascot and Cheltenham. If Christmas is about pretending to like your gifts, Murphy is at last embracing the capabilities that riding scouts on both sides of the Irish Sea have always said he has.

At 26, Murphy is only now setting about acquiring an agent, but on the evidence of the current jumps season, his envoy should be receiving more calls than he will have to make. Murphy has always had more job offers than he has been willing or able to accept, and one of the clearest indications of the regard in which he is held came when Michael Stoute appointed him to ride the former champion hurdler, Kribensis, at Cheltenham earlier this month.

It could have been vastly different. Think of all those pictures of Murphy stepping sullen-faced down the steps of 42 Portman Square, the Jockey Club's headquarters in London, after yet another disciplinary inquiry had found against him for trying too hard with the whip, or not trying hard enough, or even, once, for falsifying medical evidence. Murphy got four months for that, though he still bitterly proclaims his innocence.

Look again at those photos. Alongside Murphy, always, was the intimidating figure of Ireland's most renowned big-time punter. The man whom Murphy had seen interviewed on Gay Byrne's Late Late Show, and had caused this pony-riding schoolboy to say to his mother: 'One day I'd like to ride for somebody like him.' It was Barney Curley.

And now we are into mutual admiration on an Olympic scale. A couple of months after Curley's appearance on television, Murphy was invited to his mansion, Mullingar (which was famously raffled), on the grounds that Curley was to set up as a trainer in Newmarket and wanted 'the best available jockey' to go with him.

'We sat on the doorstep,' Murphy recalls, 'and I was just fascinated by the man. Within half an hour I knew I was going to England with him, if only to see how he worked. So it was him, rather than the racing, who brought me to this country. I thought I'd be here for a couple of years and then go back to college. I thought the time would work for me because I was getting to know someone who fascinated me. A great man.'

But it also worked against him. As a major gambler, Curley was regarded with suspicion by the authorities, and as his young and adoring jockey, Murphy was inevitably scrutinised by the Jockey Club's disciplinarians. Curley recalls a member of staff at Portman Square joking that he and Murphy should have a special waiting room set up there, so often were they on the mat for this alleged offence or that.

Curley scored several famous victories over the Club, but Murphy's nascent career was nearly ended by that four-month suspension. A horse of Curley's had finished fourth, beaten two lengths, at Sedgefield. The Jockey Club said it should have won, or put another way, that it had been stopped. Murphy produced medical evidence to show he had cracked his collarbone in the race, hence his poor performance in the saddle. The Jockey Club said: nonsense.

Paradoxically, Murphy's relative indifference towards his art kept him going. 'I was never that interested in being a jockey. If I had been, the whole thing would have affected me a lot more,' he says, though he did go to the United States for six weeks, 'to get away from the whole thing.

'Bruce Hobbs (the former trainer), who was on the disciplinary panel, invited me over to his house and said that because I was riding for Barney, I was being focused on, which I already knew, but it was nice that they they actually told me,' Murphy says. On the other hand, there is little doubt that he was too severe with the whip when he started riding here.

Uncertain about his commitment he may have been, but a sybarite Murphy never was. He neither drinks nor smokes and he trains hard. Before he landed the job as Josh Gifford's No. 1 jockey he was taking a business studies course to broaden the education he abandoned by coming to Britain with Curley. Unlike most jockeys, he does not relish going to pubs and restaurants in the evening and discussing only racing. 'That would bore me to tears,' he says.

Throughout a conversation with him, you get the impression that Murphy could have done almost anything had his aptitude for riding not pinned him to the steeplechasing game. His brother, Eamon, is also a jockey at Gifford's yard; another brother, Pat, is a trainer, while Kaithlin, their sister, was herself a leading pony rider in Ireland.

Murphy's first engagement in a pony race was a winner: 'I went there half faking it. I didn't know how to ride.' So was his first as an amateur in Ireland, and his first ride back after that four-month ban. Murphy was champion pony rider in Ireland at the age of 11, and on his last day in those Mothercare realms scored on his first five mounts. 'The sixth one ran into the sea,' he says. 'That would have won as well.'

So success has always stacked up for the once hesitant jockey, who says now, in his new mode: 'There is absolutely nothing to compare with the pleasure of riding good horses.' Or selecting them correctly, as Murphy did when faced with the choice between Deep Sensation, the winner, and Bradbury Star in this season's H & T Walker Gold Cup.

The same choice is facing him before Boxing Day, of which Murphy says: 'Whichever horse I go with, there will be very little between him and The Fellow.' There will be very little, too, of the old reluctant Declan Murphy.

(Photograph omitted)