With the National Hunt season underway, Northern Echo Racing Correspondent Colin Woods talks to West Witton trainer Ferdy Murphy about his highly-rated crop of horses who are already making a name for themselves.

NINE winners during the past three weeks speak volumes for the quality of firepower currently housed at Ferdy Murphy's in-form West Witton stables.

"Normally it takes a bit longer for our horses to come to hand, but we're a couple of weeks ahead of ourselves this year and things are going great," reported Murphy, supervising a morning schooling session at his panoramic Wensleydale stables.

Once upon a time the genial Irishman used the gallops on nearby Middleham High Moor for exercising the 90 or so horses he has in training, but things have changed radically during the past three years and judging by results, much for the better.

"We never go off the farm now, we've plenty of space and it simply became a nightmare on the roads. We'd sometimes have a car guarding the front of the string, plus a car behind, however it was still too dangerous for both horse and rider," explained Murphy.

What Murphy says is a not-so-subtle reminder that too many car drivers have scant respect for anything that stands in their way, a comment sadly including even the beautiful, yet delicate fine-boned thoroughbred.

No matter though, since he responded to that devil in disguise by building a five-furlong uphill all-weather gallop adjacent to his boxes, together with a flat two-furlong oval-shaped canter, specifically for either hurdling or steeplechase schooling as required.

"A yard of our size is built around its jockeys and we have three of the best young riders in the country with Keith Mercer, Tom Dreaper, plus Patrick 'P J' McDonald.

All were in action on the day I visited, during which the up-and-coming trio were joined by top northern jockey, Brian Harding, to partner no less than 54 individual horses through their respective paces.

Watching these intensive schooling sessions provides valuable clues to the constant year-by-year success, because under Murphy's watchful eye each horse goes round the canter ten times, jumping two obstacles per circuit.

They then all stop, turn around and do exactly the same piece of work in the opposite direction, thus having to lead on the other foreleg and in doing so become fully accustomed to cornering both right and left-handed.

"They jump 40 obstacles and canter five miles when doing this particular exercise. The idea is quite straightforward, we want jumping to be second nature for our horses so the jockeys don't have to worry so much when we take them to the races.

"Neither do we rip the backsides out of our young stock by trying to win bumpers (National Hunt Flat Races). It's easy to burn out immature individuals and very few bumper winners are still going at ten years of age when many chasers are still in their prime," said the meticulous trainer.

As for his big guns over the next few months, Murphy is already dreaming of more glory with this year's Scottish Grand National hero, Joes Edge, a sensational tip he generously passed onto the column when napped to win the springtime Ayr marathon at bookie-bashing odds of 25-1.

"It was a fantastic day when Joes Edge won at Ayr and it helped our jockey, Keith (Mercer), really believe in himself. He stuck to his guns and beat Ruby Walsh by a short-head in a real tight finish. It said it all when Ruby, the best in the business, shook Keith's hand immediately after the race," he said.

"Horses also need to believe in themselves when moving into the top grade and thanks to that win, JOES EDGE also now has confidence in himself. Next stop will probably be the Hennessy at Newbury.

"As for the future, he's possibly more of a National type than one for the Cheltenham Gold Cup, but we'll see what happens.

"We've got four very smart young hurdlers who have all won in recent weeks, High Day, L'Antartique, King Of Confusion, and New Alco.

"L'ANTARTIQUE is definitely the best of the quartet. We can't get him off the bridle here at home, nor could his rivals on his first start for us at Haydock. He's only five and will really improve for a step up to 2m4f.

"Like L'Antartique, HIGH DAY came over from Ireland, however we gave him a year off due to a shoulder problem. That's all cured and he looks Cheltenham material after scoring so easily at Hexham.

"KING OF CONFUSION is a big horse and a chaser in the making. Meanwhile, he's won twice over hurdles at Kelso and couldn't have done it more easily under patient rides from Tom Dreaper.

"NEW ALCO is one of our French imports and although we were thrilled with his recent hurdles Aintree victory, the chances are he'll be a better chaser than hurdler."

Murphy is no stranger to success with horses over the smaller obstacles, Cheltenham Festival winners French Holly and Paddy's Return immediately come to mind, nonetheless it's in the staying chasing division for which he's best known these days.

"GRANIT d'ESTRUVAL won the 2004 Irish National for us at Fairyhouse and then held every chance when failing at the last just five days later in the Scottish equivalent. We're so proud of his achievements and the plan is to try and win the Welsh National with him.

"Another National type is HAUTE DE GAMME, who finished second in this year's Topham Trophy at Aintree. He ran brilliantly on his return over hurdles at Wetherby and I'm really looking forward to running him back over the National fences in the Becher Chase."

DEVONDALE, TRIBAL VENTURE, UNDERWRITER, and WORLD VISION are just four others to mention in a team worth its weight in gold sitting snugly amidst a mixture of wooded and open countryside fit for a king.

But spectacular scenery doesn't win races and Murphy knows better than most that playing the long game is best for the horses in his care and their owners. The no rush, no pressure policy, is borne out by the sound of laughter from the riders returning to base camp.

"Listen to that," said Murphy as we came within earshot of the merry mirth emerging from the pack. "You'll never get anywhere without happy horses and happy staff."

A wise parting shot from a man truly at home with his horses.

Get more racing online at www.racing-north.co.uk.