Olly Murphy hopes Thunder Rock can vindicate the financial punt his joint owners Max McNeil and Ian Dale took to secure his services by delivering the pair an early Christmas present on his return to Cheltenham on Saturday (December 16th) in the Virgin Bet December Gold Cup.
The progressive seven-year-old, who was recommended to Murphy by Cheltenham Festival-winning rider Derek O’Connor, will face arguably his sternest test to date over fences in the £130,000 Premier Handicap chase for which he is general 5-1 chance to strike gold in.
And while the Shirocco gelding would now have a queue of potential suitors to snap him up the Wilmcote handler admits it was a very different scenario upon his arrival to his yard following his purchase at the 2020 Goffs UK Summer mixed sale.
Murphy said: “Derek O’ Connor put him on my radar. He told me he had been well beaten first time out, but he said he was worth looking at. We went in and picked him up off one bid.
“I couldn’t get him sold for ages and Max and Ian were the lucky people that ended up buying him. He is by Shirocco, which wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea.
“Max came for a wander round one day to see his horses and I said that lad there you should buy him. He went had a look at him and then later on he rang me back and said, ‘I will take him’. That was the long and the short of it.
“He is a horse most people would like to own and hopefully he has not done progressing just yet.
“The people that support you want to repay. Max has been very supportive of me and has trusted my ability since I started out.
“It is nice to repay them on big days like this at Cheltenham and winning races like the December Gold Cup are important.”
Thunder Rock will arrive at Cheltenham on the back of making a triumphant return to action in the Listed Colin Parker Memorial Intermediate Chase at Carlisle on November 5th.
With that effort being franked by runner-up Mahler Mission filling the same spot in the Coral Gold Cup at Newbury recently Murphy believes that Thunder Rock will have plenty going for him
Murphy said: “It was a good performance at Carlisle and Sean (Bowen) got on well with him. Getting that little bit more experience over fences before we tackle a handicap like this was important.
“I actually thought he ran very well over course and distance last season in the Dipper. He handles the track fine, and I don’t think there is going to be a massive field looking at the entries.
“His last run was franked in the Coral Gold Cup by Mahler Mission, who he beat at Carlisle finishing second, and by the winner of that Newbury race, Datsalrightgino, who beat him up at Ayr on his final start last season.
“We looked at the Peterborough Chase, which is sadly now off, and if he was going to win a race like that then he must have a very good chance of winning a handicap off a mark of 146 for a lot of money.”
Although Thunder Rock failed to win in any of his four starts at graded race level last campaign following two victories in novice handicap chase contests Murphy feels those efforts in defeat have not been lost on him.
He added: “I threw him in at the deep end a few times last season and turning in at Sandown in the Scilly Isles I thought he would win.
“The way he jumped and travelled and how he came around the outside of them I thought he was going to take off. He ran very well when you look back at what Gerri Colombe has done since.
“He then went to Cheltenham and I didn’t feel like he stayed three miles in the Brown Advisory and at Ayr in the Grade Two things didn’t quite go to plan and he might have been a slightly unlucky loser that day. He missed the last and the winner winged the last and went up his inside and beat him.
“I think the early part of the race is important to him as he needs to get into a rhythm. If he gets in a rhythm he tends to come home strongly.
“He has got plenty of experience over fences now, all be it in smaller fields, but hopefully that will stand him in good stead having his first run in an open handicap over fences.”
Having pitched Thunder Rock in at Pattern race level last season Murphy hopes that at some point this campaign he will be able to step him back up to that level, but he insists he is not looking beyond his next assignment just yet.
Murphy added: “He is a horse that we have had to manage throughout his career and my vets do a good job with him. He is very tough and durable, and he is an easy horse to train now we know his body.
“I hope he has a future at graded race level. Saturday will tell us an awful lot more. At the start of the season, I wasn’t sure if we would be going back over hurdles or whether we would stay over fences.
“He jumped well at Carlisle and hopefully he will be big enough and robust enough to carry on as a chaser.
“If he isn’t then he can come back over hurdles, but Saturday is very much at the front of our minds before we think of anything else.”