Parkton woman has winning touch with steeplechase horses

If Alicia Murphy ever left her job training horses and advertised for a replacement, the ad would read something like this:

"Wanted: A physically strong individual willing to be put in harm's way seven days a week when galloping and jumping thoroughbreds. Must be able to work long days and endure weather extremes. Ability to administer medicine, assess and treat injuries is essential. An encyclopedic knowledge of horses, jockeys and steeplechase courses is a must. Good communication skills needed to speak with affluent horse owners, jockeys from around the world and hired stable hands.

Pay is moderate. Job satisfaction is immeasurable."

Murphy is up every day by 5 a.m. and in the saddle by 7. Her office is a big barn on a Hunt Valley farm off Falls Road where she boards and trains horses.

Right now, the Parkton resident is training five: one, named Jungle Chief, is hers and the other four have owners who pay Murphy to exercise them and get them ready for steeplechase races by jumping hurdles or timber fences. She's training them for the upcoming Grand National Steeplechase and Maryland Hunt Cup races, slated for April 21 and April 28.

On April 14, one of the horses Murphy trains, Grinding Speed, owned by Roland Park resident Michael Wharton and ridden by Irish jockey Mark Beecher, came in second in the John D. Schapiro Memorial Race at My Lady's Manor Steeplechase races.

Murphy has trained another winning horse, Private Attack, for the past 10 years. Last year, he won both the Hunt Cup and Grand National.

In 2010, Murphy was named the leading trainer at the Maryland Steeplechase Association's Maryland Governor's Cup awards. Private Attack won the George Brown Bowl for the timber horse with the best performance at Maryland's spring steeplechase races in both 2010 and 2011.

"It's my job to care for the total welfare of a horse and to keep its owner informed," the 57-year-old Murphy says. "Some owners have strong ideas about what their horse can or should do. The role of the trainer is to try to honor the owner's wishes, but ultimately run the horse the way the horse is meant to be run."

On this cool April day, just prior to the My Lady's Manor race, Murphy and Beecher are off on a 7 a.m. ride.

She is on Grinding Speed and Beecher rides Private Attack, a horse Murphy trains for Sportsmans Hall, a partnership named after the Upperco farm owned by the Julie and Dan Colhoun family.

"Private Attack has heart and he loves to run," she says. "The faster he goes, the happier he is."

Dan Colhoun III originally got the horse as a polo prospect but called Murphy to train him after he saw the horse nimbly jump out of a fenced area.

"What this horse has done is remarkable," Colhoun says. "He's got pure natural ability and Alicia deserves the credit for making him one of the top timber horses in the country."

Murphy and Beecher gallop across rolling hills still covered in early morning dew and return to the barn with clouds of steam rising off both horses.

As soon as the horses are hosed down, dried off, draped in soft blankets and put back in stalls, Murphy gets two more ready for some exercise.

This time, she is an observer as Beecher rides Jungle Chief. Jason Roberts, who has just arrived after galloping horses at Pimlico, takes On The Corner, also called Doug, for a ride. The two gallop for a while, then jump over several hurdles.

"Alicia is very good at figuring out what a horse does best," says Lucy Howard, Doug's owner. "When she first started training him, he was very sour, but she's been patient with him."

Two days later, Doug finished third in the Stoneybrook Steeplechase race in North Carolina on April 7. "Doug did exactly what we hoped," Howard says. "The idea was for him to get some good experience and come back feeling good about himself. I have to give all the credit to Alicia. She's done a fabulous job."

But a trainer's job is filled with highs and lows and Murphy had both at the April 7 Elkridge-Harford Point-to-Point races in Monkton.

Private Attack, ridden by Beecher, was leading the pack of seven horses in the first race when he failed to jump over a wooden fence and fell. Neither horse nor rider was injured and Murphy expects Beecher to ride Private Attack in the upcoming Grand National and Hunt Cup races.

Murphy ended the day Elkridge-Harford Point-to-Point a winner when Airolo, the second horse she trains for Michael Wharton, won the last race of the day.

"Alicia lets a horse be a horse," Wharton says. "She tries to preserve the spirit and drive they naturally have. She's also a wizard at figuring out what's wrong when a horse is off."

In her blood

Alicia Stump grew up in a riding family. Her parents, Louise and Humpy, both rode and fox-hunted and the family had horses on their farm off Dover Road in Reisterstown.

Alicia rode with the Green Spring Hounds Pony Club and fox-hunted with the Green Spring Valley Hounds.

After graduating from Garrison Forest School, she got a degree in American literature from Middlebury College in Vermont. But she soon realized she didn't want her mind in a book. She wanted her body on a horse. She got a job galloping horses at Pimlico.

Her family's fascination with horses was tested in 1977 when her younger brother, Jimmy Stump, was killed at a Delaware Park steeplechase race.

"There was talk about giving up horses after Jimmy died, but our family's connection to horses was pretty strong," she said.

Murphy said she was seriously injured only once about 15 years ago when she fell off a horse that was spooked by a deer. The horse kicked her hard enough to sever a kidney. Doctors were able to reattach it and she was soon back in the saddle.

She says she never intended to be a trainer. She was living in Parkton with her husband and three children when she heard a friend was looking for a trainer.

"I figured I could train one horse," she said. "So I found a place to board him and work with him. He was my only project."

That horse, named Joe's O.K., went on to be named Maryland Timber Horse of the Year in 1990.

"I actually get numb at races and feel a little detached," she says. "Many times I don't find out if my training's been right until the horse actually races. I'm not right all the time, but it's nice when I am."

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