Murphy's King heads south to beat big freeze

IN a training career spanning 30 years, Ferdy Murphy struggles to recall a harsher year, weather-wise, than 2010. It began with a big freeze – and the Arctic conditions returned with a vengeance this month to, once again, paralyse National Hunt racing.

The only consolation, says the North Yorkshire trainer, is the British Horseracing Authority finally relenting and agreeing to stage 'bumper' races for NH horses on those all-weather tracks which normally serve to sustain Flat horses, and the betting industry, during the winter months.

This is why the West Witton handler will be sending up to 14 horses – including stable star Kalahari King who was third in this year's Queen Mother Champion Chase – to unglamorous Southwell today.

It is a far cry from Cheltenham's natural amphitheatre, where Kalahari King was unplaced on his last outing but Murphy is keen to support a fixture that has only come about after he personally lobbied the BHA.

When the horse boxes roll out of his picturesque yard, it will be a deserving reward for a marathon 36-hour shift on his part. With Wensleydale in the grip of Siberian-like temperatures, Murphy spent the whole of Sunday night harrowing his gallops and preventing the frost taking hold so he could exercise his string early yesterday and get them race-ready ahead of today's Southwell trip.

He is not alone. Trainers across the country have faced similar ordeals in order to keep their horses fit, with the Cheltenham National Hunt Festival – the pinnacle of the season – less than three months away.

While Murphy has not been afraid to gallop horses like Kalahari King on Redcar beach, he says there is no substitute for racecourse experience.

"It's just a matter of getting a race into them," he said. "The BHA have held these races before, and they did so at Kempton last week. It's been trying to persuade them that we need more meetings to keep ticking over. And, having persuaded them to put on this card at Southwell, I thought I had better support it!"

Murphy accepts that it is difficult to assess the form of his horses, but he is hopeful of a big run from Kalahari King – even without any obstacles.

On his best form, he is the best horse in the field – better than stablemate Riguez Dancer – and will be ridden, for the first time, by young conditional Paul Gallagher whose weight allowance will take seven pounds off Kalahari King's back.

Disappointing when well-beaten by an imperious Master Minded in the Tingle Creek Chase at Cheltenham, Murphy hopes a change of rider will galvanise the horse (stable jockey Graham Lee takes the reins on Riguez Dancer).

"We definitely want to run over longer trips, and try that out before Cheltenham and possibly the Ryanair Chase, but this is all we can do now.

"If he's on song, he will be hard to beat and Paul rides him out most days.

"I've not known a winter like this and I fear racing will not be back to normal until the end of January – it's that bad. We will need more meetings like Southwell's card."

Even though 'all weather' surfaces at Southwell, Lingfield, Wolverhampton and Kempton are supposed to defy freezing temperatures, they, too, have suffered from meteorological difficulties.

Meetings have been abandoned because the tracks have been snow-laden, or the access roads have become impassable. And while Southwell foresees no problems today, Lingfield will hold a precautionary 6.30am inspection to take account of conflicting overnight forecasts.

Turf racing is set to resume today at Ffos Las in Wales where Britain's newest racecourse stages a seven-race card featuring the likes of Tony McCoy and Richard Johnson. One horse that could be worth watching is Tim Vaughan's Nemo Spirit, a 100,000 guineas purchase out of Tom Dascombe's stable who makes his hurdling debut.

Doubts surround Newbury's Grade One card tomorrow and Saturday's New Year Day's meeting at Cheltenham which only went ahead on January 1 this year following countless inspections.

Following the demise of the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day, where the optimism of track officials was at odds with the severity of the frosts, Murphy says it is important that the racing industry avoids such PR blunders where possible.

"I did not declare my horses because I knew, from up here, that they had no chance," he said.

"While we all want to race, we also have to be realistic – and straight with racegoers."

tom.richmond@ypn.co.uk