By Nick Seddon
Olly Murphy is hopeful of some nice performances from his select team at this year’s Cheltenham Festival as the trainer searches for his first winner at the showpiece meeting.
The 31-year-old is in his fifth full season in the training ranks at his Warren Chase operation in Stratford-upon-Avon and, while he has a Grade One victory on his CV with Itchy Feet, success at the Festival has eluded him thus far.
Murphy has had several close calls however and notably trained the runner-up and the third in the opening Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle with Thomas Darby and Itchy Feet in 2019, a race in which he has two lively outsiders this time around in the form of Strong Leader and Chasing Fire, who both feature among the 14 declared runners for the Grade One contest.
Both six-year-olds are unbeaten in three starts over timber so far and while Murphy has admitted that he’s still very much learning about the pair, he is hopeful that both can produce good performances in the Festival curtain-raiser.
He said: “All of our runners are at a double-figure price currently, so we’ve no pressure going there but hopefully we’ve got a few little each-way chances.
“Hopefully both horses are on an upward curve and I certainly haven’t got to the bottom of them yet. I don’t really know where I stand with them to be honest but they’re two very nice horses.
“I’m still learning about both of them but I think Chasing Fire is very much a horse for today, while Strong Leader may be the type that carries on improving. They’re both in great heart and I’m looking forward to running the pair of them – hopefully both have each-way chances."
On Chasing Fire, Murphy said: “I don’t think going left-handed will be an issue for him, he certainly hasn’t stayed away from left-handed tracks for any reason – it’s just the way it’s worked out for him. He’s a very straightforward horse and I can’t see there being any issues on that front with him.
“I don’t know how good he is, and we don’t know whether he’s the type to finish fifth or six and make up into a nice one next year or whether he’s going to be able to be competitive on Tuesday, but he’s a very good work horse and I’ve always thought the world of him and nothing so far has come as a shock to me.
“I think a fast run race will suit him well and I thought he was an attractive horse going through the race at Sandown the last day (when winning in February), in a race which was a better than the contests he won at Market Rasen.
“He just took my eye at Sandown the last day, he jumped a hurdle down the back so and just locked on to the bridle and bad horses don’t do that. Everything looked flat out and he looked like he’d just joined in, all of a sudden you’re nearly there too soon, so I just think he wants to come off a strong pace and hopefully if he can follow a few into the straight he’ll pick up good and gallop to the line.
“Strong Leader is in good form and his jumping getting better and better. He’s not a bad jumper, he probably just didn’t have the best technique to start with and because of that he’s done nothing but improve. He’s far from the finished article, so he could be a nice horse for those two mile hurdles next year.
“He’s done nothing wrong though, he’s in good form and he could certainly go there and run well at a big price.”
Murphy has another runner on the opening day in the form of The Wolf, who is one of 23 declared runners for the Ultima Handicap Chase over three miles and a furlong.
Murphy said: “He’s a horse that everyone knows well and you can’t trust him by any stretch of the imagination but one of these days he’ll just turn up and win a nice handicap. I’m not saying that’s going to be at the Cheltenham Festival but if he didn’t happen to get into a rhythm it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he stayed on and finished in the four.
“He’s in form and he’s got a lot of ability. Blinkers seemed to have helped him and he ran well on his last start at Ascot (when fourth behind Cap Du Nord in the Swinley Handicap Chase in February).”
Taking his chance in the Grade One Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase on the second day of The Festival on Wednesday is Thunder Rock, who was an excellent third in the Grade One Virgin Bet Scilly Isles Novices' Chase at Sandown Park in January.
The seven-year-old will need to overturn the form with the Gordon Elliott-trained Gerri Colombe, who was five and a half lengths ahead of him that day, but his trainer is optimistic that the step up to three miles will play to his strengths.
He explained: “He’s a horse who’s puzzled me a little bit, as I never thought he’d be going three miles though it’s definitely the right thing to do. I think his jumping needs a staying trip but his body probably doesn’t.
“He works like he’s got plenty of gears, so we’ll drop him in and ride him to run well and hopefully he’ll come home strong and we’ll ride him to be placed. He’s in very good form and hasn’t done a lot wrong this year and his last couple of runs suggest that stepping up to three miles is the right thing to do.
“Gordon (Elliott)’s horse (Gerri Colombe) is obviously going to be very hard to beat and we’ve got about five or six lengths to find with him but jumps racing is all about the small margins. The Real Whacker is about 9-2 for that race and we’re 14-1 but I think we’d have beaten him if we’d have gotten into a better rhythm at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day. Maybe we’re a little bit overpriced as such.”
Completing Murphy’s team is the aforementioned Itchy Feet, who was a Grade One winner over fences as a novice. The nine year old had rather lost his way over fences, but a switch back to hurdles has certainly reinvigorated Itchy Feet, who backed up victory in a Pertemps qualifier at Huntingdon with a fine second in a Grade Two contest at Haydock Park in February.
Itchy Feet will take his chance in the Pertemps Network Final Handicap Hurdle on the Thursday of the meeting and Murphy revealed that he has been thrilled with the recent form of his charge.
He said: “The only thing that makes me nervous about him is the hustle and bustle of a big field and whether he’ll like all of that early on. He’s in really good heart though and seems to be revived now since going back over hurdles, so I’m looking forward to running him.
“The syndicate that owns him took a big punt when they got him (The Sherington Partnership) and they’ve been rewarded with two very good runs, so he’s been a star and he’s a horse for all of those nice hurdle races moving forward.
“I haven’t really changed anything with him to be honest. He isn’t a horse who takes a pile of work but I just think a flight of hurdles has really revitalised him and I’m just looking forward to carrying on with him and seeing where he goes over hurdles.
“His run at Haydock was an excellent one last time (when second in the Grade Two Betfred Rendlesham Hurdle in February) and they got racing an awful long way out that day.
“That was through no fault of Sean (Bowen)’s, they just got going a long way out and it softened him up a bit in the straight and it kind of just benefitted a closer that day. I just think that had we not have gotten racing as far out as we did, he may have held on. It was a good run though and he’s backed up a good run with another, which is great.”
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