Plenty to look forward to with Mariah heading team; GRASS ROOTS Amy Bennett talks to Paul Murphy, breeder of Burntoakboy and owner of Mariah Rollins, who is due to have her first foal next month.
SPRING is a season of great expectations for breeders, and Paul Murphy is among those with plenty to look forward to. His Grade 1-winning mare Mariah Rollins is due to have her first foal at the end of March, and among the runners produced by his Wychnor Park Stud, near Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire, is the smart Burntoakboy, as well as promising bumper winner Mad Max.
Murphy began breeding in the mid-1990s, having been drawn into racing when owning a horse with a friend. The pair decided to breed from their mare, and Murphy soon accumulated several horses in training along with his broodmares.
He bought the 100-acre farm that became Wychnor Park Stud in 1996 in order to keep all of his breeding stock in one place, and the stud now boasts an impressive strike-rate. From 17 horses of racing age, the stud has produced 11 jumps runners and five winners, and two winners on the Flat from six runners.
A bookmaker grandfather is the closest connection to the sport in the Murphy family tree, but the racing bug is continuing into the next generation, with Murphy's 15-year-old daughter Amy. Having bought a Doyen filly foal at Tattersalls last year, Amy also rides out for Nicky Henderson during her school holidays.
Formerly chief operating manager of private healthcare company BMI, Murphy retired 18 months ago after the sale of the company, allowing him to devote more time to his breeding operation and his ten horses in training, which are spread between four trainers, the bulk being with Henderson.
While Burntoakboy is the highest-rated horse Murphy has bred, the Dr Richard Newland-trained ten-year-old was not always the apple of his breeder's eye. Murphy offered the son of Sir Harry Lewis at Doncaster's November sale as a yearling, where he was purchased for the minimum price of 500gns, a move that haunts Murphy still. The gelding's dam, Sainte Martine, had been sold at the equivalent auction the previous year.
"I didn't like the look of his knees and didn't think his legs would stand up to training, so I got rid of him," Murphy says. "He's run something like 49 times now, so that shows what I know! I have one in training now with Dr Newland and I still pull his leg, saying that I don't think his legs are right."
Burntoakboy may be the one who got away, but Murphy has enjoyed several happier at days at DBS.
"I acquired four cheap mares at Doncaster in 1995," he says. "Nothing cost more than 5,000gns, but I deliberately bought cheap so I could learn with them, and one of them was Burntoakboy's dam Sainte Martine."
Since then he has continually upgraded his mares, until, a decade after he began breeding, Murphy spent the then sale-record sum of 140,000gns in August 2006 to purchase Mariah Rollins at the same venue where he bought his first mares.
Murphy recalls: "I was sitting on a beach in Corfu when she went through the ring, so I had my stud manager sitting with Nicky Henderson bidding on her. The phone went dead, so I didn't know for a while if we'd got her or not."
The mare's price tag matched her race record, which included such highlights as defeating Newmill in the aptly named Grade 2 Future Champions Novice Hurdle, landing the Grade 1 Durkan New Homes Chase in December 2004 and earning Grade 1 places in the Deloitte Novice Hurdle and Melling Chase.
In spite of her hefty cost, Murphy remains sure he got a good deal.
"In retrospect I got a bargain - if she was offered now she would probably make a lot more," he says.
"Compared to what I used to pay for mares, prices have rocketed."
The ten-year-old, who resides at Michael Moore's Ballincurrig House Stud in County Cork, is in foal to Old Vic - "He has a very good record of getting chasers, so I thought with her being such a good chaser it would work" - and will next visit King's Theatre.
His broodmare band now comprises four National Hunt mares following a recent clear-out, and Murphy has no plans to expand his boutique operation, which he describes as a hobby.
While the mares return to Wychnor Park after foaling and covering, the majority of Murphy's stock is raised in Ireland.
He says: "The grass here isn't very good, so after they are weaned they go to Ballincurrig House. The grass is much better over there. Here, we're almost on gravel and if you go down two feet it's sand, so it's not ideal horse country."
WHILE many jumps breeders eventually switch to the Flat, attracted by the quicker returns, Murphy found himself doing the reverse.
"It's very difficult to compete on the Flat as a small breeder, but with National Hunt you always have a chance," he explains. "Breeding for National Hunt is a much more lengthy business. From having the mare standing next to you at the sales to her having a runner can take six years or so, especially as we don't rush them here."
While Mariah Rollins is an undoubted jewel, the other three inmates at Wychnor Park Stud were all very smart jumps performers, in line with Murphy's policy of not breeding from mares rated below 125.
Youngest among the quartet is the French-bred Bongo Fury, who ran up a sequence of five victories over hurdles in 2002-03 for Martin Pipe.
The nine-year-old earned black type when runner-up to Essex in the Totesport Trophy Hurdle at Newbury in February 2005, also scoring over fences.
For her first mate last year, Murphy selected Exit To Nowhere, sire of Bongo Fury's two stakes-performing siblings Phrygien and Nite Trippa.
Another DBS purchase is the Sharpo mare Eponine, placed on the Flat with Mick Channon and later a useful jumps winner for permit-holder Eric Elliott.
Dam of three living fillies to date, two bred by Elliott, Eponine produced a daughter by Kayf Tara for Murphy last year, and will foal to Hernando this year.
The final member of the broodmare band is Carole's Crusader, who was placed in the Grade 2 Bristol Novices' Hurdle as well as racking up five victories over hurdles.
Murphy says: "Mariah Rollins would be the highest rated of my mares, but I think only just. Carole's Crusader was a very good mare. I saw her running at Ascot and made a note of her winning a good race. When she got to an age where I thought she might be retiring, I rang her trainer David Gandolfo and he put me in touch with her owner Carole Skipworth and I bought the mare.
"When Carole sold her she said she would be interested in having a share of one of her foals, so she bought a share in Mad Max and also has a share in Carole's Legacy, who will be running soon."
The dam of seven foals, including a yearling filly by Hernando, Carole's Crusader is again in foal to the Lanwades stallion and will return to him this year.
Hernando, Sir Harry Lewis and Kayf Tara are names that crop up often in Murphy's mating plans.
"I use a lot of English stallions; not many people seem to realise we have some very good stallions here in Britain," he says. "If you look at the percentage of winners to runners by leading jumps stallions at the moment, both Kayf Tara and Sir Harry Lewis have a better percentage than Oscar and Presenting.
"The stallion I use most is Hernando, who of course isn't a jumps stallion. I wrote to Kirsten Rausing and explained I was a small breeder looking to take on the Irish and she has been very helpful in allowing me to send jumps mares to him."
Using British stallions also gives Murphy the chance to secure breeders' prizes, of which he is an enthusiastic supporter.
"Prize-money and breeders' prizes are so important - we don't all have oil wells!" he says. "I've picked up pounds 11,000 in the past 12 months with Burntoakboy winning at Cheltenham.
"Breeders' prizes really are so important, and they can be significant. I got pounds 1,300 for Mad Max winning his bumper and then another pounds 750 for the breeders' prize."
Paul Murphy and his daughter Amy with 'Alfie', their Alflora gelding who is out of a half-sister to Gold Cup winner Cool Dawn