Nicholls’ Nineohtwooneoh was the first winner of the belated campaign, scoring emphatically on his fencing debut in the Sign Solutions Nottingham Novices’ Handicap Chase.
But it was Murphy who went on to enjoy the most memorable return to action – with the victory of Hunters Call in the feature, on his first start for more than 900 days, the headline act in the Warwickshire trainer’s 136-1 haul.
There was also a double on the nine-race card for Ben Pauling, courtesy of handicap hurdlers Tel’Art and Sebastian Beach.
Eleven-time champion Nicholls made the perfect start – thanks to 2-1 favourite Nineohtwooneoh and jockey Harry Cobden – following the interruption of the National Hunt fixture list which began back in March during the shutdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Yet by race eight, Murphy was the one who had made by far the most powerful signal of intent for the season ahead.
“I said on the way here that if I had a winner I’d be delighted,” he said, as he reflected on his feat.
“The limelight is going to be on me today, but it should be on Southwell – they’ve had owners here and they’ve done a great job of the ground.
“It’s been an unbelievable day – four runners, four winners. It couldn’t be better.”
Murphy’s winning spree began with odds-on favourite Enemy Coast Ahead’s hard-fought win in division one of the signsolutions.org Offering Retail Solutions Novices’ Hurdle.
Half an hour later, Sangha River doubled up at 6-4 in division two as the impressive near 10-length victor on only his third appearance under rules at the age of seven.
But the success of another fragile yet very talented performer was doubtless most rewarding of all for Murphy when Hunters Call produced a classy turn of foot under Richard Johnson to take the signsolutions.org Handicap Hurdle by almost five lengths at 13-2.
It was the former Ascot Grade Three winner’s first race since that day back in December 2017.
Murphy said: “He gave me my biggest career win at the time.
“It must be a day where I run my horses that are hard to train, because he’s had two and a half years off the track.
“The form of his Ascot run has worked out very, very well. He’s a 10-year-old now, and it’s just a case of bringing him back – he’s had two separate injuries.
“We’ve hopefully helped Richard Johnson on his way to being champion jockey again. It’s a magic day – it couldn’t have gone any better.”
For good measure, Johnson swiftly counted his second winner for the yard when 3-1 favourite St Gallen got the job done as well, by three-quarters of a length, in the In Memory Of Gary Parr Handicap Hurdle.
Nicholls had previously led the way when Nineohtwooneoh, in the famous colours of JP McManus, managed to keep clear of the loose Oxwich Bay after his main market rival departed on the first circuit.
Cobden steered Nineohtwooneoh home 10 lengths clear of outsider Torquay, and was soon voicing his delight at his successful return.
“It’s good to be back and good to get going with a winner,” he said.
“He got better and better as he got going – he had a bit of a look at the last, but he’s one that will go forward.”
Nicholls’ assistant Harry Derham was relieved to be back too for the first NH fixture in Britain for more than 100 days.
He said of the lockdown experience: “It has been tricky – but it’s been the same for everyone.
“Next week it will start to get really busy, because all the winter horses are starting to come back in. We’re really looking forward to that.”
Isaac Wonder sprang a minor surprise as the 12-1 winner of race two, the Follow @Signsolutions16 On Twitter Handicap Chase, for jockey Brendan Powell and trainer Michael Scudamore.
The five-year-old proved well treated in the 0-135 handicap, and showed the benefit of his tune-up on the Flat when third at Goodwood last month.
Isaac Wonder held off the renewed challenge of front-running favourite and top-weight Azzuri by three-quarters of a length.
Powell said: “They’ve gone a good gallop, and I knew he was fit because he ran well on the Flat the other day.
“I rode him a few weeks ago, and he’s come on – he was in good spirits.
“He’s no longer got a four-year-old’s allowance, and I thought he had a few pounds to find, but he’s found it from somewhere.”
The victory was a poignant one for Powell, a good friend of jockey colleagues Liam Treadwell and James Banks – whose deaths have shocked the racing community this year.
A minute’s silence was held before racing in memory of Grand National winner Treadwell.
Powell said: “It has been tough – it’s been a tough few months for everyone.
“I was close with both James and Liam, and it’s been hard. The main thing is to keep your head right and try and stay busy.”
Owners also returned to Britain on Wednesday, with Southwell hosting the first fixture over fences since the sport was suspended in mid-March due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Flat racing resumed a month ago, with all meetings staged behind closed doors and heavy restrictions introduced to reduce the number of people on track and to minimise interactions.
As such owners have not been able to attend race meetings – but a trial held at Southwell was the first step to reintroducing them to racecourses ahead of the Investec Oaks and Derby fixture at Epsom on Saturday.
A maximum of two owners per runner were permitted on course, where they then had access to a secluded enclosure with basic hospitality and Tote betting facilities.
Owners were not able to access the parade ring or winners’ enclosure, but a viewing area and well-positioned screens ensured they were able to follow their runners and a railed-off section allowed them to debrief with their trainer at a two-metre distance.
“Owners have been able to talk to trainers and jockeys at a distance, there is that level of contact,” said Sam Cone, PR and communications manager for Arena Racing Company, who own the racecourse.
“It’s all run smoothly and they have that area where they can sit, have some food and watch the race. Presentations are held down at the winning post so they aren’t missing out on that, everyone’s been very good with distancing and sticking to the guidance.
“It’s very different, but this is one of the courses where it’s easier to accommodate it because it’s so spacious. We’re at Uttoxeter on Monday which will be different again, so it’ll change from track to track, but it’s a step in the right direction to get owners back on courses.”
One owner was taken ill during the afternoon and treated by an ambulance, later being moved off-site for treatment.
“An owner was taken ill and we opened the turnstiles to let an ambulance through so they could receive treatment,” said Mark Clayton, executive director of the racecourse.Get your free Racing TV fleece - the latest in our range of high-class Racing TV merchandise! Click here for more details.
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