10/20/2002 11:00PM

Murphy's first victory long time coming

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SAN MATEO, Calif. - Trainer Susan Murphy has greeted many horses in the winner's circle, but when Little Bird won at Bay Meadows on Thursday, she provided Murphy with her first victory as a trainer.

Murphy, the daughter of the late Chuck Murphy, got her assistant's license in 1979. She trained horses for her father while he ran Rancho Paraiso in Walnut Creek, Calif., and later Rancho Delta Paraiso near Stockton, Calif., with the horses always racing under her father's name.

Murphy, 46, said that after Little Bird won, her thoughts were with her father, who died in June.

"There were a few mixed emotions that went along with it, but I was real excited," said Murphy.

Murphy's horses have been running well this meet. She had a pair of seconds from her first three starters at the meet. Later Thursday, Murphy saddled Brookside Drive, who finished third.

Murphy remembers as a kid accompanying her father to the barns in the morning. Chuck Murphy trained for owners such as Kjell Qvale and Reynard Johnson, Susan Murphy said. He also built Rancho Del Charro in Pleasanton, Calif., and, later, Rancho Paraiso.

"While I was going to high school, I'd help care for the stallions and prepare yearlings for sales," she said.

"I'd go to the races all the time and enjoyed that much more."

When she got her assistant's license, Murphy took over her father's second string of horses, which was based in Pleasanton. Eventually, Murphy began training all her father's horses at the track, and he devoted more and more time to running the ranch.

"It worked real well," she said.

With her father's death, Murphy has begun running Rancho Delta Paraiso, which is located between Stockton and Tracy. She moved the horses she trains from Golden Gate and Bay Meadows to Pleasanton, saving at least one hour on her commute to work.

"I do all my own training," she said. "I go to the barn every morning. I don't have too many. When I get done in Pleasanton, I go to the ranch."

Talk about a long layoff

Epic Honor's fourth-place finish in a six-furlong optional claiming sprint Saturday wasn't bad - considering it was his first start in 3 1/2 years.

Epic Honor, a 6-year-old, hadn't raced since the spring of 1999, when he fractured a knee while finishing fifth in the Illinois Derby.

Epic Honor opened his 1999 campaign with a victory in the Grade 3 Golden Gate Derby and followed up with a win in the $100,000 Golden State Mile. He was third in the Grade 2 Gallery Furniture.com Stakes (once again called the Spiral Stakes) at Turfway and fourth in the Grade 2 Lexington at Keeneland, which was won by Charismatic, who went on to take the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

Epic Honor stood at stud at Blooming Hills for three years. His first crop is now yearlings.

"This horse never got heavy like many stallions, so we decided to give him a chance," said his trainer, Jeff Bonde. "His owners are sportsmen.

"I've been in this business 30 years, and I've never heard of a horse coming back after 3 1/2 years. I guess this is one for 'Ripley's Believe It or Not.' "

Bonde said Epic Honor will run better going two turns.

"I thought about just bringing him into a route race off works alone, but I talked to a lot of trainers and jockeys and decided [Saturday's sprint] was better," he said. "He's a better router than sprinter, and I liked the way he finished. He came out of the race good. Look out next time."

* Natural Wonder, who began his career at Ferndale, heads a field of nine in Wednesday's Bay Meadows' feature, a 1 1/16-mile, $40,000 starter allowance turf race for nonwinners of two races. Natural Wonder finished second in both of his starts on turf.