It's not likely many will remember the name Harold “Spud” Murphy. Those who do will probably associate it with his horse Brother Leo, who won the Manitoba Derby in 1963, but this week's trip back in time centers around the first horse Spud ever owned, Joe Geary.
A stocky, popular Irishman, Spud was born in Lowell, Massachusetts and made his way to Calgary in 1912. Horses were his life and it was no more complicated than that.
He won the “Prairie Triple Crown” in the summer of 1963 with Brother Leo. This “Triple Crown” consisted of the Alberta Derby, the Manitoba Derby, and the prestigious Canadian Derby. Spud was the first owner/trainer/breeder to capture three Derbys in Western Canada in a single season.
A likeable little man, Spud was a racetrack gypsy from a bygone era and a long-time regular on the prairie circuit. He was a bachelor who lived at old Victoria Park racetrack in Calgary for years. His home was a converted tack room which had all that he needed -- a phone, a stove and a fridge. He was famous for his tack room stews, which he served in his makeshift apartment, better known as “Murphy’s Turf Club”.
Spud purchased Joe Geary in 1937 and for reasons we may never know, he developed a true affection for Joe. Perhaps it was the fact the in those post-depression days, the lifelong bachelor found Joe to be a great deal more than a horse.
Spud campaigned on the old Western Prairie Circuit with Joe, who by many accounts was a “nice old crippled horse.” While not overly successful, Spud and Joe always made enough to keep their heads above water, which back then was a huge accomplishment.
Joe’s first race, which took place three years before Murphy came on the scene, left no hint of the trusty campaigner that he would become for Spud. He ran last in a field of 11, finishing 19 lengths behind the winner. On that day he was ridden by none other than the "Ice Man", the great George Woolf. Joe Geary's first win would come on April 9, 1934 under Johnny "Red" Pollard, Seabiscuit’s regular rider.
In 1937 Joe Geary collected six wins, a second, a third and $2,060 in purse money from 14 starts for Spud. He made only one start in each of 1938 and 1939. With the exception of 1937 -- his best year by far -- Joe’s stats were pretty ordinary.
Old Joe broke down in the fourth race at Polo Park on June 26, 1939, at the age of eight. All things considered, he was not that old, but he was a huge horse, and in terms of longevity his size worked against him. After being eased in the race, Spud knew that his long-time companion was pretty much done.
A fellow horseman offered Spud $100 for Joe, but he couldn’t bring himself to sell his faithful friend, whose future was likely to be part of a chuck wagon team.
The tale goes that Spud borrowed $20 from Lou Davies, chart caller and program producer on the prairie tracks, to have the vet put Joe down. Old Joe’s racing career and suffering came to a merciful end at our own Whittier Park.
Spud was said to have led his trusty friend into the infield, where the vet did what had to be done, while Spud looked the other way. Spud buried his friend at the head of the stretch between the inner rail and the tree that graced the infield at Whittier Park.
Brother Leo, named for Spud's twin brother, changed Spud's life financially, but it was with his old and trusted friend, Joe Geary, that he formed a special "man and his horse" bond. Their relationship strengthened as they weathered the tough days that followed the depression.
In July 1967, Harold "Spud" Murphy died where he worked and lived for most of his life, at Victoria Park racetrack, as he prepared to saddle a horse for the featured handicap race of the evening.
He was only 63 when old Joe called his name.
To place your horse's need for you to let him leave his failing body, above your need to keep him with you - that - is the greatest and purest love.
-- Cynthia Garrett