Thunder Rock ready for Cheltenham Festival challenge

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The Olly Murphy-trained seven-year-old made a fine start to the season, winning his first two chasing appearances by a combined 13 lengths. But his progress was halted by the pre-Christmas cold snap, meaning he missed an intended engagement at Ascot and was rerouted to the Dipper Novices' Chase at Cheltenham on New Year's Day. On that occasion he was a staying-on third behind The Real Whacker having jumped without his usual zest and it was a similar tale at Sandown in the Scilly Isles, when he filled the same bronze medal position behind Gerri Colombe. Owned by the McNeill Family and Ian Dale, Thunder Rock has just over five lengths to find with Gordon Elliott's general 7-4 favourite for the Festival's three-mile novice chase, but Murphy is hoping the slower pace of the extended trip can allow him to jump with more fluency and therefore close the gap on some of his old rivals. "He will run in the three-miler," said Murphy. "He's in good form and we're looking forward to stepping up in trip. He'll be ridden cold and hopefully will be able to come home strong. "He would have an each-way chance, but would have a bit to find with Gordon's horse (Gerri Colombe). "He doesn't work like he wants three miles, but probably jumps like he does, so hopefully this will just slow the emphasis on speed in the race and hopefully it won't put as much pressure on his jumping. "On his run with The Real Whacker (in the Dipper), he looks a big price at double figures when The Real Whacker is 5-1. I felt we should have finished in front of him the last time we met, so we're looking forward to having another go and he's an each-way chance."

Murphy is in the process of putting the finishing touches to his Cheltenham squad's preparations and has a couple of aces up his sleeve for the Festival opener, where his duo Chasing Fire and Strong Leader are swimming under the radar. Both are said to be in good form ahead of their Prestbury Park assignment in the Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle - a race in which the Warren Chase handler saw Thomas Darby and Itchy Feet finish second and third respectively at big prices in 2019. "I'm looking forward to running the pair of them, Chasing Fire and Strong Leader," continued Murphy. "They are both unbeaten but both now have to step up in grade and hopefully they go there with each-way chances and, with a bit of luck on their side, can run well. They are both in good form, but you would be hopeful more than confident." The aforementioned Itchy Feet has been with Murphy since the beginning and, now nine, has bounced back to his best returned to hurdles of late. A winner at Huntingdon on his penultimate outing, before finishing a close second in the Rendlesham at Haydock, he is a best-priced 25-1 for the Pertemps Handicap Hurdle Final on day three of the Festival. "I'm a little bit worried about how well he will handle a big field, but he's still handicapped to run well on the best of his chase form and has been in good form," explained Murphy. "Going back over hurdles has certainly helped him. He's just been a lot more comfortable and shows he retains plenty of ability and we will look forward to having a go at the Pertemps with him."

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