Murphy’s Law: Trainer discovers timber gold

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Alicia Murphy shops for steeplechase prospects in the bargain aisle, and knows what she wants. She’s not all that sure how to explain it, however.

“I should be tougher about it, but it’s their way of going,” she said. “My ears perk up if they have breeding that sounds promising. Fairly injury free, that helps. Past performances mean very little sometimes. The more unsuitable they are for (flat racing), they more suitable they are for this.”

It’s a feel, and Murphy got it the first time she saw Grinding Speed. The Maryland-based trainer bought the timber horse after a nine-start, eight-loss flat career. The son of Grindstone won over hurdles in 2011, and showed a little promise. His game was always going to be longer distances and more precisde jumping, however.

Switched to timber last spring, the gray 7-year-old gelding has been a revelation – finishing first or second in all six tries. Saturday, he looks to open 2013 with a stakes score in the $30,000 My Lady’s Manor at Monkton, Md. Grinding Speed faces six rivals, including multiple stakes winner Bon Caddo and the promising Straight To It in the 3-mile stakes, the first of four races on the all-timber card. Post time is 1:30 p.m.

Bred in Maryland, Grinding Speed has proven plenty suitable for Murphy and owner Mike Wharton. Murphy pays credit to the horse’s athleticism, the way he moves and the pedigree power that comes from his dam Cozelia (by Cozzene).

“He had the raw material to start with, he’s a total athlete and he’s got a great mind,” said Murphy. “If you’ve ever sat on him, you’d say ‘How did he ever get beat?’ He’s an amazing feeling animal. And I keep trying to track down more Cozzenes.”

A year ago at the Manor, he was a timber maiden looking for a purpose. Second to Woodmont in the amateur allowance, Grinding Speed won his next two – a maiden at Winterthur and a novice at Fair Hill. Last fall, he was second to veteran Rainbows For Luck at Shawan Downs and runner-up again to established stakes horse Incomplete at Virginia Fall. At the International Gold Cup, Grinding Speed broke through with a stakes victory. The 12-month circle returns to the Manor Saturday, this time in the stakes. Mark Beecher, aboard for the last five starts, returns for the ride.

Merriefield Farm’s Bon Caddo won the Manor and Virginia Gold Cup en route to the timber championship in 2011. Last year, the Canadian-bred finished third in the Manor and third again in the Maryland Hunt Cup. Away from the races since, the 12-year-old eyes another try at the Hunt Cup for trainer Bruce Fenwick and jockey Chris Read. Like all Hunt Cup horses at this time of year, Bon Caddo is working toward a peak effort on the last Saturday in April. Two weeks to go.

“I watched him today and he’s still a little heavy,” said Fenwick. “I don’t have him as tight as he can be, but he ought to be as tight as he can be by the Hunt Cup. That’s the goal. He’s good, on his toes.”

Chris Read will ride Bon Caddo Saturday, but will yield the steering to English amateur jockey Michael Ennis for the Hunt Cup. Ennis will make his American debut in the 4-mile timber classic, following the path of Sam Waley-Cohen who rode Bon Caddo in the 2012 Hunt Cup. Ennis won the Midlands Grand National aboard Big Occasion for trainer David Pipe in March among other victories.

Straight To It is 2-for-2 over timber since making the conversion last year. The 7-year-old son of Giant’s Causeway, trained by Jack Fisher for Sheila Williams and Andre Brewster, placed in a stakes over hurdles and is a threat to the top pair with another step forward. Others in the race are Eye Said Scat Cat, Yin Yang, Sand Box Rules and Moonsox.

 The card also includes two maiden timber races and an amateur-jockey timber allowance. Alfa Beat, a starter in the 2012 English Grand National, runs in a maiden timber along with the Jonathan Sheppard-trained Lead Us Not.

Private Attack retires

Alicia Murphy said 2011 Maryland Hunt Cup winner Private Attack has been retired. The New Jersey-bred was in the midst of another try at the timber classic when he was injured in a point-to-point start last weekend.

Owned by Sportsman’s Hall, the 12-year-old won three NSA starts over timber – the 2008 and 2011 Grand National and the 2011 Hunt Cup. Acquired as a polo pony by owner Dan Calhoun, the son of Private Interview proved too much for that career path but converted easily to timber despite battling health issues (mostly related to his feet and tying up).

“Early this spring he was best he’d ever been and I had it all figured out,” said Murphy. “Then everything started happening; the right foot had a problem, then it got better and the left one got an abscess. I kept canceling things.”

Back on track once April arrived, Private Attack ran at Elkridge-Harford Point-to-Point over the weekend. The timber veteran finished sixth under Billy Santoro in the open timber, got tired, made Murphy think about the Hunt Cup.

“He had a ball going around there and got out of it exactly what I’d hoped for,” she said. “He cooled out fine, everything was great and then he took a funny step coming off the trailer.”

The rest, as trainers say, is history. With a tendon injury at 12, Private Attack won’t run again though he’s got a future as a foxhunter and retiree. He won three times in 30 career starts, and earned more than $133,000.

“He’s fine, he’s happy,” Murphy said. “It’s going to be a while before he can do anything, but Billy – not the rest of us – loves to hunt him.”

Murphy also lost young timber horse Nondo (another son of Private Interview) for the season with an injury to his hind suspensory. 

 My Lady’s Manor Entries.