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January 22, 2010

Free Rein With: Bobby Murphy

Bobby Murphy (right) earned nothing but praise for co-designing the ASG Software Solutions/USHJA International Hunter Derby Finals from plenty of tough critics, including George Morris. Photo by Julie Moses.

Most people would be happy to retire with a résumé resembling Bobby Murphy’s, but this 26-year-old hasn’t even begun to accomplish his vision for the sport. Already a highly-regarded course designer, R-rated jumper judge and general behind-the-scenes go-to-guy, the Lexington, Ky., native’s true passion lies in applying his marketing background toward ensuring the longevity of the sport.

While earning his B.A. in business management and marketing at the University of Kentucky, Murphy took a break from his studies to spend a season on the major European circuit, rounding out his formal education with a course-designing apprenticeship under Leopoldo Palacios in Spruce Meadows (Alta.). Since then, he’s focused on developing an ambitious multi-faceted plan to bring the sport into the limelight, ranging from incorporating marketing elements into course charts to developing curriculum for grade school students to improve equine awareness in Kentucky schools.

This year, the fifth-generation horseman will spend his third winter designing courses at the Winter Equestrian Festival (Fla.), but he’s been tagging along to competitions with his father, veteran horseman and show manager Robert Murphy, since before he could walk. While his sister Melissa found her niche in the saddle, Bobby grew comfortable behind the scenes following around the likes of Hugh Kincannon, Robert’s business partner at Kentucky Horse Shows LLC, and Richard Jeffrey, eight-time USEF Course Designer of the Year.

“People like Hugh and my dad have really given me such a great understanding of how the system works, and how to do a good job running a show,” he said. “And Richard is a perfectionist, and that can really grow into you. Being surrounded by that at such a young age got me going in the right direction.”

Last season alone the precocious course designer helped build tracks at the $100,000 ASG Software Solutions/USHJA International Hunter Derby Finals (Ky.), the $25,000 The Chronicle of the Horse/USHJA International Hunter Derby (Ill.), the Midwestern Young Jumper Finals (Ky.), the $50,000 ASG Software Solutions/USHJA International Hunter Derby (Fla.) and the Syracuse Invitational Sporthorse Tournament (N.Y.).

This year he looks forward to designing the course at The Chronicle of the Horse/USHJA International Derby Finals again, and to assisting Richard Jeffery and Conrad Homfeld at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games (Ky.). He’ll also be busy during the WEG helping his father, who will serve as the Field of Play Manager, manage traffic and logistical issues.

Name: Robert Murphy           
Home Base:
Lexington, Ky.                      
Age:
26

Where are you most often found at a horse show?
Ringside. Depending on what class is running, if I designed the course I try to watch as much as I can, definitely the professional hunter divisions and the level 5 and above jumpers.

What’s the best part of your job?
Getting to work with great people. In this industry you really develop unique, tight-knit relationships with people. You’re spending holidays together. 

Do you remember the first course you designed?
It was nerve-wracking. I was 15, and the course designer didn’t show up, so I stepped up. That was a B-rated show, and I did my first A-rated show a year later. I had those courses on a computer that crashed, but I have most of the courses I have designed.

What advice do you have for anyone who’s about to ride one of your courses?
Spend the extra 30 seconds looking at the course chart. You’ll start to see that the course chart is providing you with a lot more information. For example, on my jumper charts I’m going to include statistics that will say how many clear rounds there were and what percentage of the starters were clear—that sort of thing.

What was the most important lesson that you learned the hard way?
Don’t use a skinny plank in a hunter derby. [At the $15,000 ASG Software Solutions USHJA International Hunter Derby on May 9 in Lexington, Ky., only 8 of the 26 competitors jumped around Bobby’s classic round clean, due in large part to a dastardly skinny white plank.] We’d used those planks in derbies before, and it didn’t come down. I think the way it was set off a turn changed the way the horses were jumping it. Still, you won’t see me use a skinny plank in a hunter derby for the rest of my life.

What’s the most frequent item on your credit card statements?
Fresh Market.

What would you tell yourself if you could go back and give yourself one piece of advice when you were starting out?
Nobody complains if it’s too easy.

What’s your favorite competition venue?
The Kentucky Horse Park is my second home, but in the U.S. I also really love Lake Placid. It’s my vacation horse show of the year. Plus I sponsor the pony jumpers, so I get to give the award away with [chairman] Dick Feldman. Outside the U.S., I really love Cannes in France. 

What word or phrase do you overuse?
You can’t publish it.

What would you do if you couldn’t do what you do now?
I don’t know any other way. I’m intrigued when I talk to people in the real world. But I do like astronomy—maybe I’d be an astronaut.

What three things are in your fridge at all times?
Diet Sunkist, dried fruit from Fresh Market and cheese and crackers.

What’s your favorite thing to do on a day off?
Sleep in in the morning. I like to spend time with friends, and I like to go wake boarding and tubing.

If you could take a turn on any horse, which would it be?
I’m a big fan of Up Chiqui. I got to watch him go as a younger horse. I’m friends with [owners] Alex Boone and [William] Dobbs. Watching Kent ride the jump-off of the year [$50,000 Hagyard Equine Medical Institute Grand Prix CSI-W] was one of the most exciting things I’ve ever seen. He took off from the last fence about 20 feet away and cleared it. I really got goosebumps watching that.

What was the last book you read?
Life of Pi
by Yann Martel.

What one item of clothing could you not do without?
My Gucci shoes. I wear them in the hunter ring, and people call me Bobby Gucci. My aunt took me to New York when I was younger and got me to buy some Gucci shoes. At the time I didn’t want them, and now I collect them.

What is your drink of choice?
Diet Sunkist. I’m not a big drinker, but when I do drink it’s usually [Bombay] Sapphire and tonic with a couple of limes.

Do you have any superstitions?
I have loads, and I get them all from my dad. For example, he’s never wearing two of the same colored socks, and if he goes in one door of a building, he has to come out the same one. Mine are mostly spur of the moment, like signs. If I see something that relates to what I’m doing, and I get a feeling about it, I’ll change my decision quickly.

Who or what is the love of your life?
The horse.

What electronic device could you not live without?
My Blackberry. That’s how I get through to the emails.

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