GOSHEN, Ky. —
Last spring, Conor Murphy was a hired hand who spent his days galloping racehorses, combing knotted manes and shoveling manure in a stable in Berkshire, England.
Murphy, 29, knew his horses well. He was able to tell which ones were on their toes and which ones needed a little more care. He also knew his way around a betting window. On a hunch, he bet $75 on five of his favorites. It was the sort of desperate stab only a man who loves horses would make.
But he won — big. His $75 bet paid more than $1.5 million, enough to put down the shovel and become his own boss.
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Now he lives in Kentucky, training horses for some of the most prominent figures in racing. He will be at the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, rooting for Lines of Battle, a horse owned by one of his clients.
“Pure luck,” Murphy said of his life-changing wager. His big bet has become the stuff of lore for gamblers from the backsides of American racetracks to the training yards of England and Ireland.
When he moved to Kentucky, he paid cash for a house in an affluent suburb of Louisville and then leased a barn in Goshen at the Skyline Training Center, hanging out his shingle to train horses for other owners. Now he has 25 horses to train, mostly 2-year-olds just starting their racing careers.
Some things have not changed for Murphy: He still rises before dawn, still mucks stalls and still walks his horses for hours on end. He also bathes them himself.
It is much the same routine from his days in Ireland and England. But it feels very different, he said.
“This is mine — my business and my dream,” he said.
Murphy’s father turned him into a horseman; he had horses that he trained and raced at the small meetings around his home in Cork, Ireland. Conor Murphy said he wanted to be a jockey but was forced to reconsider after shooting past 6 feet tall as a teenager.
He focused on the care and conditioning of racehorses instead. He worked in Ireland’s and England’s yards, as the training centers are called, first with steeplechase horses on the National Hunt circuit. In his 20s he came to Kentucky to work on thoroughbreds with Niall O’Callaghan and then David Carroll, fellow Irishmen who had flourished in U.S. racing.
Murphy said he fell hard for Louisville and even harder for a girl from Ohio named Julia Hawley. “I knew I wanted this to be my home,” he said.
But when he was offered a job with Nicky Henderson, a renowned National Hunt trainer in England, Murphy returned to Britain to work at Henderson’s training center near Lambourn, in Berkshire. But four years in Henderson’s stables went by faster than the money in his bank account was accumulating.
Murphy said he does not bet often but can recognize opportunity when it comes. In December 2011, he thought five horses he had been working with in Henderson’s stable were training extremely well. Each was scheduled to run in March at the Cheltenham Festival in Gloucestershire.
Trying not to let his fondness for the horses cloud his judgment, he played a five-horse “accumulator” through his online-betting account.
Then he forgot about it.
The odds at the time of the bet were long on each horse: Sprinter Sacre (10-1), Simonsig (14-1), Bobs Worth (10-1), Finian’s Rainbow (8-1) and Riverside Theatre (9-1). That all five would win was, well, nearly impossible — about “163,350-to-1,” said a spokesman for Paddy Power, an Irish bookmaking firm.
Building a foundation
When the Cheltenham Festival arrived, Murphy was especially focused on the prospects for Finian’s Rainbow. He had been with the horse throughout his jumping career and had ridden him every day.
Twice before, Murphy had gone to Cheltenham with Finian’s Rainbow. Twice, they had lost.
This time Finian’s Rainbow cleared all 12 jumps and won the 2-mile race. It was not until late into a night of celebrating that Murphy realized that Sprinter Sacre, Simonsig and Bobs Worth had also been winners.
There was still one race to go, involving a horse named Riverside Theatre. More than a year later, Murphy shivers when he sees the replay of Riverside Theatre starting slowly, looking hopelessly beat.
“He had jumped a couple of fences and I thought he’d probably pull up,” Murphy said.
Instead, Riverside Theatre lumbered along, working into contention by the final jump, and passing two rivals in a long and desperate stretch run to win by a head. Just like that, Murphy now had the money to quit his job and return to Kentucky.
He has a victory, a second- and a third-place finish in 10 starts. “I knew I had to show people what I could do first to attract clients,” Murphy said.
His days have not gotten any shorter, but he says he smiles more as he drives back and forth from the house he owns and the business he has started. This year he treated his brother in Ireland and some cousins from Boston to Kentucky Derby tickets.