TIMMY Murphy’s career was at the crossroads a year ago. The rides had dried up. So, too, the winners. By his own admission, retirement beckoned.
That changed, however, when the jockey conjured a late and winning charge out of the Ferdy Murphy-trained Poker de Sivola in Sandown’s season-ending Bet 365 Gold Cup in late April.
It was a scintillating victory up the famous finishing hill that rekindled the veteran jockey’s enthusiasm – and has led to a succession of big-race victories on some of the country’s finest chasers.
Central to this resurgence has been the brilliant grey who will today look to add the Spinal Research The Atlantic 4 Gold Cup – the highlight of Cheltenham’s pre-Christmas meeting – to the Paddy Power Gold Cup that he won so imperiously last month.
In between these stellar Cheltenham contests, Great Endeavour was fourth to Lord Oaksey’s Carruthers in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury – the seven-year-old had every chance of winning, but failed to see out the three-and-a-quarter-mile trip.
And it is the horse’s recovery from this race, rather than the extra 16lb that he will have to carry in comparison to the Paddy Power, which, Murphy says, will determine whether Great Endeavour can complete a famous Cheltenham double.
“He’s back to his perfect trip and, in hindsight, it would have been better if we had not gone to the Hennessy,” Murphy told the Yorkshire Post.
“I rode him differently at Newbury in the hope that he would stay, like Celestial Gold back in 2004. I dropped him and we arrived with every chance, but we just didn’t stay. Disappointing.
“A lot will depend on how he comes out of the Hennessy. Probably the main reason we’re racing him so soon is that it is good ground. If it was soft ground, we wouldn’t go.”
Both Murphy, and his retained owner David Johnson, however, are driven by a desire to land the major Saturday races – as illustrated by Comply or Die’s victory in the 2008 Grand National after the jockey had successfully come to terms with a well-chronicled, and inspiring, battle with alcoholism.
Four years ago, the combination were dominant – before the recession forced Johnson, a former champion owner, to scale back his racing interests.
The consequence was Murphy, who won 142 races in 2004-05, recorded just 32 winners last season, including Poker de Sivola’s scintillating victory where Murphy’s trademark hold-up tactics were deployed to perfection.
“That was a turning point,” the 37-year-old explained. “Not only were the rides not there, but nor the quality. And, when you’ve ridden the best and, perhaps, want to prolong your career, novice chases on poor jumpers don’t always appeal.
“Great Endeavour has certainly been a big help. So, too, Donald McCain – he’s put me on some good horses while Jason Maguire, one of my very best friends, was out injured.”
The consequence of Maguire’s misfortune was victory in Wetherby’s Charlie Hall Chase on Weird Al, who then went on to finish third, under Maguire, to the mighty Kauto Star and Long Run in Haydock’s Betfair Chase.
Murphy also had the honour of riding the precocious Peddlers Cross, last season’s Champion Hurdle runner-up, in his steeplechasing debut at Bangor.
“In many respects, Weird Al’s run at Haydock was better than his Wetherby victory. He showed, for the first time, that he can put back-to-back runs together, though the ground was probably softer than ideal,” explained Murphy.
“He’s improving and he’s going the right way. And losing to Kauto Star and Long Run, it’s no disgrace.
“As for Peddlers, he’s probably the most exciting novice chaser around. I had the easy job at Bangor – I just had to sit on him. The pressure was on Donald. He’s great at his fences and very professional. He has the speed to win an Arkle at Cheltenham over two miles, but he’ll stay further. It’s a privilege to have ridden him. He’s got the gears.”
With Nicky Henderson’s Quantitativeeasing and Ferdy Murphy’s Divers, second and third, respectively, in the Paddy Power, renewing hostilities, and from a more favourable position in the handicap, the jockey knows he will have his work cut out.
Neverthless, Great Endeavour’s advantage is Murphy, the most consummate horseman of his generation – his tender style suits the David Pipe-trained chaser to perfection.
It also explains why Murphy is enjoying so much success with his second career – breaking in horses, Great Endeavour included, at his Cotsowlds farm; looking after retired campaigners like Comply or Die and Well Chief, and also assisting fledgling trainer Fergal O’Brien, a former assistant to Nigel Twiston-Davies.
“That’s why Great Endeavour is so special. He started with me, and he spends his summer holidays here. He’s a special horse – and they’re the ones you want to ride while you’ve still got the chance.”