Sentimental favourites & harsh reality
EMILY Murphy arrived at Murray Baker's stables the week after Lion Tamer died, and felt the sadness. "It's a terrible thing, I would be devastated," says the 22-year-old, thankful that she's yet to experience racing's harshest reality. "I can only imagine . . . it must have been awful for them."
She rode a rising two-year-old that first day, who everyone knew as Chappie, after his father, High Chaparral. She's ridden him most days since, cared for him like he's her own. "I know if anything happened to this horse I'd be absolutely devastated."
She thinks going away with a horse is like moving in with your boyfriend. "You see them for who they really are and you get attached to them."
Centre stage and "nobody told him he's small." It's A Dundeel with trainer Murray Baker and strapper Emily Murphy. Photo: Pat Scala
Baker is 66 and knows better. Murphy thinks her boss is lovely, a pleasure to work for; perhaps there is some bluff in his detachment. "You can't get too involved with them, it's next horse along," Baker says. "And that might be the one you dream about."
As it happens, that little horse his travelling head girl hopped on just after she'd landed in New Zealand might be just that. Until last Saturday, It's A Dundeel was racing's latest untouchable. The colt remains favourite for Saturday's Victoria Derby, although a first career defeat at his debut Victorian run has left bookmakers prepared to take him on.
Cox Plate day duly delivered another hiccup to the Baker stable, but in racing such matters are relative.
On the same morning last year, Lion Tamer left the box "Chappie" has been calling home at Russell Cameron's Flemington stables for another day at the races, and never came back. His leg broken, he was euthanased around the back of the Moonee Valley track, loaded onto a float, driven to the Werribee vet clinic, and spent the night in a freezer, awaiting an equine researcher's scalpel.
Lion Tamer won Murray Baker and son Bjorn, who headed up the Sydney arm of his stable before branching out on his own, a Victoria Derby in 2010. Twenty-two years had passed since this matter-of-fact Kiwi trainer first set out to win the race that fascinates him with a tough stayer called The Phantom. Surely Lion Tamer's passing was cause for reflection?
"I went out, had a few beers, a good meal," Baker recalls of Cox Plate night, 2011.
To toast a good horse lost? "Well, yeah . . . but just carried on."
He briefly spared a thought for Phil Bayly, the horse's near-90-year-old owner. Then he pondered the good horses Bayly has had — Harris Tweed, Eagle Eye, My Blue Denim among them. "You do feel for the owner, [but] this is one small breeder, he's had a pretty good run."
Besides, he remembers Bayly, "a tough bastard, a farmer", telling him he'd never bothered to have Lion Tamer insured. "I asked him why not, and he said, 'Oh, you go out in the paddock, your prize bull's dead, that's just farming, that's the way it goes'."
The ensuing year has trampled whatever skerrick of sentiment he might have been hiding about the only horse to have won him what he calls "a great race, a traditional race". Baker points over his shoulder at the Flemington track. "Lion Tamer was a pig. He had all sorts of tricks. He'd stop out here and wouldn't go in training, refused to budge."
It was a case of like father, like son; Baker suggests searching "Storming Home" and "Arlington Million" on YouTube, where you'll find Lion Tamer's old man "winning this group 1, a million dollars, and dumping Gary Stevens on the line". The winning jockey was scraped off the track with facial fractures and a punctured lung.
Another Emily had the tough job of taming Lion Tamer and has since left to train horses of her own in Rotorua. Baker says good help with horses is hard to find and harder to hang onto. "In the end, they move on, that's part of the thing."
Marrying a Swede opened a rich recruitment vein; three Swedish girls are among the staff at his Cambridge stables on New Zealand's north island, with another starting soon. "They're very good animal people, a nice touch with them."
He invests great trust in his workers; Baker recalls sending another Swedish horsewoman to Australia all those years ago with The Phantom. "She's a hostess now for Air New Zealand out of London, but, gee, she was a capable girl. She had 18 trips to Australia [with his horses], went to Brisbane, Adelaide, won good races."
After another unhappy Cox Plate day last weekend, he flew home and left It's A Dundeel in the sole care of Murphy, a lass from Sussex rather than Stockholm, but who he has no hesitation in leaving in charge. "She's exceptionally talented, one out of the box . . . she's got terrific natural horse skills, got a great feel for it." He jokes that she speaks well and has a good pedigree, too. "She's actually a bloody nice girl."
Murphy is just happy to be on what she thinks is the ultimate working holiday. She was 16 when she began riding out part-time around her schooling while working for Ado McGuinness in Ireland ("I learnt a lot there — it was hang on, or that was it"), then as racing secretary for English trainer Amy Weaver, and in pedigree research at Juddmonte Farms, birthplace of Frankel.
She was headed for university when her mother suggested she spend a year travelling, working with horses along the way. "I've never really made it back."
At Peter Snowden's operation in Sydney, someone told her there was a job going with Baker; she remembered an English trainer farewelling her with the advice that she simply must work for "a fantastic trainer named Murray Baker", and thinking, "yeah, right, sure". Now, she's convinced it was meant to be.
His knowledge and knack astound her. "This horse, it ran once in a maiden at Ellerslie and he picked it out straight away to come over here [for the Derby]. I admire him a lot, I'm learning so much from him."
Chappie has been a wonderful companion, full of character and aware of his standing, which, in a physical sense, isn't much. "Nobody told him he's small. He's very cocky and confident. As far as he's concerned everybody goes out to the track in the morning to watch him. He's always got his ears forward and he's interested in what's going on. He knows he's a good horse and that's how he behaves."
The doubts aired about him since last Saturday's second placing at Moonee Valley — chiefly that he hit the line like a horse looking for the spelling paddock — have irked.
"I get very protective. I suppose it takes the pressure off a bit, but you want him to do well because you want people to see what a superstar he is."
Baker knows nothing in this caper is a done deal. The Phantom was looking good for the 1988 Derby before running off the track at the old Flemington "gap" on the Thursday morning, injuring his back and having to be scratched. His fourth from last at the turn in the next year's Melbourne Cup — having been tailed off when Saratov and Salisopra dumped their riders, Steven King and a 17-year-old Damien Oliver — was massive. A year on, The Phantom had every chance but ran second to Kingston Rule.
Harris Tweed boasted seconds in the AJC Derby and Caulfield Cup, back-to-back fifths in the Melbourne Cup, and prizemoney of $1.4 million. After respiratory surgery as a five-year-old, the Bakers gave him three races before conceding he was done. "So we gave him away for a hat."
Asked what happened to The Phantom, he answers like someone reporting that it rained yesterday. "I think he died the other day, he got put down."
What, literally just the other day? "Yeah, so I got told."
Enough of looking back. He says It's A Dundeel isn't technically a three-year-old until November 15, but you've got to have a go. "Just to have a horse race here's a privilege, very humbling, you know what I mean? It's the greatest carnival in the world. It's a thrill to be here, that's the way I look at it."
Today is another day. "Sometimes you have a bit of luck . . . one came along," Baker says. "A bit of luck. We're always looking for that next good one."