By Paul Clarke
As stories of great misfortune go, the one relating to the Irish-bred winner of the 1923 Aintree Grand National takes some beating. Sergeant Murphy was the last 13-year-old to triumph in the marathon steeplechase and one of only two horses of that age to do so but it’s the extraordinarily eerie link with his big race riders which really bookmarks his lengthy career.
Sergeant Murphy ran in the Liverpool showpiece seven times and was still racing as he neared his 17th birthday when disaster struck in a handicap chase at Bogside and he had to be put to sleep after sustaining a broken leg.
But the grimmest story regarding Sergeant Murphy involves no fewer than three jockeys who partnered him in the Grand National – Captain Geoffrey Harbord ‘Tuppy’ Bennet, Willie Smith and Charlie Hawkins – each of whom died because of injuries suffered in falls during races. It represents one of the most macabre co-incidences in the long history of the event.
The horse was bred in Ireland by GL Walker and was born in 1910. He ended up in the ownership of Stephen ‘Laddie’ Sanford, an American undergraduate at Cambridge. The original intention was to use him for hunting, but he proved much more capable than that and had the jumping ability and soundness required to enjoy a longer than normal racing life which included those seven runs in the Grand National.
Races which were intended as a substitute for the National were staged at Gatwick between 1916 and 1918 when Aintree was being used by the War Office during the First World War. Sergeant Murphy, which was trained at Newmarket by George Blackwell, ran in the last of these events known as the War Steeplechase and failed to get into contention when ridden by Spink Walkington.
Walkington was again in the saddle when Sergeant Murphy didn’t finish in 1919 as the action returned to Aintree. Smith took over the riding duties the following year when a fourth-place finish was secured and victory went to Troytown, a horse with strong Meath connections after which Navan’s Troytown Chase, is named.
After missing the 1921 renewal Sergeant Murphy finished fourth again in 1922, despite falling at the Canal Turn and being remounted by new partner Hawkins. He did achieve a significant victory that year by winning the Scottish Grand National at Bogside when amateur Captain Bennet, who was a veterinary surgeon by profession, did the steering.
Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own