Lifelong horsewoman “Toots” Murphy dies

- -

Catherine “Toots” Murphy found joy in many activities and pastimes, from spending time with dogs to playing tennis, watching and feeding birds to taking in the games of her favorite sports teams – either those in Chicago or the University of Kentucky men’s basketball squad. Murphy also loved horses, so much so she spent a lifetime with them.

Murphy, who passed away last week at age 78 at her home at Oak Knolls Farm in Barrington, Illinois, did many things with horses. She broke and trained young horses, rode fox hunters and trained steeplechase and flat horses to name just a few of her skills during her five decades at Oak Knolls.

Born in Racine, Wisconsin, Murphy passed her trainer’s test at River Downs in 1961 and etched her name in steeplechase racing’s record books five years later when she saddled the winner of the Carolina Cup. Taneha, a 10-year-old gelding by Eight Thirty owned by Dr. James Holloway Jr., won the Carolina Cup for Murphy after prepping in Kentucky for the spring fixture at Springdale Racecourse in Camden.

Taneha was considered one of the main threats for the $2,000 Carolina Cup (then run over timber) for Murphy and Holloway off a third two weeks before in the Midland Fox Hounds Cup at Atlanta. Prior to the Carolina Cup, Murphy was described by the Florence Morning News in Florence, S.C., as “one of two feminine trainers of steeplechase horses in the United States.”

The victory in the Carolina Cup didn’t come without some drama. The 1966 edition of Steeplechasing in America described the situation that unfolded before the race in front of the crowd of roughly 27,000 as a “potentially dangerous diversion . . . minutes before the Carolina Cup went to post.

“A carelessly thrown cigarette started a fire in the tinder dry grass not far from the paddock. While Steward, Charles W. Stitzer watched helplessly, his automobile, a luggage laden Bentley caught fire and finally exploded amid a miniature mushroom cloud of smoke.”

On the track and facing just three opponents, Taneha and jockey Joe Aitcheson Jr. raced behind the others for much of the 3-mile race described in as a “thrilling race in the closing stages” in the 1966 edition of Steeplechasing in America. The complexion of the race changed significantly when the leader Sportation broke down after the 16th of 18 fences, relinquishing the lead to Moonshiner. Aitcheson and Taneha, who was undefeated in three starts in 1964 and ’65 under Holloway’s training, closed ground in the final quarter and won easily by 4 1/2 lengths.

The winners celebrated after the race, Murphy standing with Holloway and his family for the trophy presentation by Marion du Pont Scott and former South Carolina Gov. James Byrnes. The caption for the trophy presentation noted Murphy’s rare distinction as “one of sport’s few women trainers.”

Murphy went to work for Virginia Reinhardt at Oak Knolls Farm in 1966 and worked there until her death. Murphy foaled mares, rode fox hunters and hunted with the Fox River Valley Hunt during her time in Illinois.

Murphy also continued to train horses to race over jumps and on the flat. She won two races on the Iroquois Steeplechase card in 1995 at Percy Warner Park in Nashville. Hot Date started the big day winning the opener, a 1-mile allowance flat on the grass; and Baby Arabian won the fifth race, a maiden claimer going 2 miles over hurdles.

Orobueno won two races at River Downs for Murphy in 1996, an optional claimer going 1 1/2 miles on the turf in June and the 2 1/4-mile starter allowance on the grass that followed the featured Cradle Stakes and annually served as the final race of the meeting. Murphy’s last official winner was Pleasant Ridge in a maiden-claiming race in February 2000 at Turfway Park.

Murphy is survived by her sister, Ellen Glass; godson Mike (Laura) Fitch and their children, Tyler and Trevor; god-daughter Virginia “Boo” Fitch; and many nieces and nephews. She was preceded in death by her parents and her brothers, Dennis, Patrick, Daniel, James, John, Robert and William.

A memorial mass is scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 20 at Saint Anne Catholic Community in Barrington, where family will receive friends from 10 a.m. until the time of mass.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Make A Wish Foundation, Illinois Chapter, 640 N. LaSalle Dr., Ste 280, Chicago, IL 60654, or to Old Friends Farm, 1841 Paynes Depot Rd. Georgetown, KY 40324, or to JourneyCare Foundation, 2050 Claire Ct., Glenview, IL 60025.