Murphy’s Festival cavalry building confidence

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SHE powers round the corner and then asks the white-faced De Boitron, her Cheltenham Festival ride, for a big jump.

Immediately the horse obliges for Lucy Alexander, one of jump racing’s finds of the season. They are at one through the air.

Trainer Ferdy Murphy and his injured stable jockey Graham Lee nod in quiet contentment.

A moment later, the grey Divers – looking for back-to-back Festival triumphs – sees a long stride and takes off several feet before the fence. He does not touch a twig.

“For him to do that, he’s in good order,” Lee, on crutches as he recovers from a twisted hip, shouts across to Murphy.

“Grand,” replies the trainer who has endured a challenging season characterised by a loss of form, bad weather and two serious injuries to the inspirational Lee, who recently rode his 1,000th career winner.

“My effing hip is starting to feel some gyp,” adds Lee. It is unclear whether the cause is the rough terrain or the Festival winners that he might miss. Or both.

The pair continue to keep a watchful eye – it was one of these schooling sessions that has left Kauto Star’s Gold Cup participation in the balance.

Murphy, who has trained 10 Cheltenham winners from his North Yorkshire stables since 1996, has deliberately chosen to use a larger than normal schooling fence that is only marginally smaller than the obstacles that his seven-strong cavalry will experience in the Cotswolds next week.

“It’s a refresher and it’s all about giving the jockeys confidence,” explained the Irish-born trainer, who served his apprenticeship with Paddy Mullins, the man whose mare Dawn Run was the first horse to land the Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup double.

“It gets their eye in and, with Graham here, he can ring AP McCoy – who rides Divers – and tell him. Confidence, it’s priceless.”

Confidence is also important at the Wensleydale yard, nestled between Leyburn and Hawes at West Witton, that has returned a below par 18 winners this season, although, importantly, two have been in the past week.

On a chilly, near windless morning, Murphy is remarkably relaxed, given the pressures associated with Cheltenham. His biggest obstacle is an unwelcome flock of sheep congregating on the gallop where he is about to work Kalahari King, who has been placed at four successive Festivals, and is raring for the off.

“Wait ’til I see the farmer,” says the trainer, who is then on the back of his tractor – repaired after a wheel came off a few weeks ago – harrowing the gallop and then trying to shepherd the flock away. Murphy has no intentions of becoming a shepherd.

Beaten by a short-head in the 2009 Arkle Trophy before being denied by a McCoy-inspired Albertas Run in last year’s Ryanair Chase, 11-year-old Kalahari King’s campaign has been indicative of Murphy’s season.

Fifth on his comeback at Kelso in November, he damaged a splint bone at Ascot and has been off the track for four months. Not a huge horse, he does, however, have a giant personality, his ears pricked, as he powers forward under John Roche.

It is Roche, an engaging 21-year-old from County Wexford, who has the good fortune to ride Kalahari King every day. And that the rider senses the horse enjoying his work gives Murphy another vote of confidence to pass on to Noel Fehily, who will only sit on Kalahari King for the first time during Thursday’s Ryanair Chase preliminaries.

“It’s great to ride a good horse every day,” says Roche as Kalahari King tries to nibble this correspondent’s notebook. “That’s another good sign – him being cheeky. But he always comes into himself at this time of year. He’s feeling as well as he did this time last year.”

Murphy is encouraged – Kalahari King is, he says, one of the each-way bets of Cheltenham at 20-1. He also knows this gelding, sired by the 1988 English and Irish Derby winner Kahyasi, is better fresh and could have landed the Queen Mother Champion Chase two years ago if he had not run him in a punishing handicap at Doncaster five weeks beforehand. Ironically, it was the horse’s last victory.

“He’s a smashing little horse, not over big so you have to pick your work days,” says Murphy, whose nagging doubt is that there is more strength to this year’s Ryanair field – with the likes of Henrietta Knight’s Somersby.

Thursday’s schooling session was also about instilling confidence in 21-year-old Alexander as she prepares for her first rides at Cheltenham on the Grand Annual Chase-bound De Boitron, Wetherby winner Charingworth and, possibly, Riguez Dancer – entries permitting.

That she has no course experience does not perturb Murphy. Nor the fact that she is a female jockey. “She’s accepted because she’s good enough,” he says.

Shy in front of the cameras, she has taken her rise to prominence in the proverbial stride. Her only moment of unease came when trying to pass the stable’s seven dogs as she made her way to Murphy’s office to check the latest declarations.

“I’m looking forward to Cheltenham,” she says. “I’m just going to treat it like a normal day. Walk the track, take the riding orders from Ferdy. When I was at school, I never thought I’d get the chance to be a professional jockey – it just didn’t happen.”

The quietly-spoken Alexander is almost embarrassed by the attention that she has attracted after her 26 winners surpassed a record set by Lorna Vincent a decade before she was born. The biggest compliment was she did not look out of place when trying, albeit in vain, to beat AP McCoy, the winning-most jumps jockey in history, on the Kelso run-in last Saturday. “I was concentrating on my own thing that I didn’t realise it was AP,” she said.

Alexander did recall how she beat Grand National-winning jockey Jason Maguire in a tight finish at Southwell. “He wasn’t very pleased about it.”

That she can still claim a five-pound weight allowance because of her status as a conditional rider means De Boitron, fourth in last year’s Grand Annual, is incredibly well handicapped for this year’s Festival finale.

The way he schooled left Alexander and Murphy in a contented frame of mind. “Most of the work is done,” added the trainer. “We just need a bit of luck.”

Given his Cheltenham record, few would bet against Murphy’s stable returning empty-handed from the Festival – sheep permitting.