Go Dante snatched the Betfair Imperial Cup Handicap Hurdle on the nod for Olly Murphy and Sean Bowen.

The eight-year-old was the 5-1 joint-favourite for the contest and was patiently ridden by Bowen in a field of 15 rivals.

The bay did not always jump with fluency and did not look the obvious winner as they turned for home, with plenty of horses ahead of him and two hurdles left to jump.

He was gaining ground constantly, however, and began to close in on Dan Skelton’s Faivoir at the head of affairs.

The two horses drew level as the post neared and a photo finish was required to split them, with Go Dante coming out on top by a nose.

Murphy said: “Horse and jockey were both very good there and my best friend (jockey) Harry Skelton has finished second, so it’s a good job I didn’t get a lift down with him.

“It was a great horse race and Faivoir is a tough horse and has won a County Hurdle.

“Go Dante has progressed well and we always thought he was going to be really good and he’s come here today off a mark still in the 120s. I’m not saying I would have been disappointed if he didn’t win, but I thought he was better than his mark just yet to prove it.

“He’s won a good pot today and these are the races you want to win aren’t they.”

Go Dante holds entries in both the County Hurdle and Martin Pipe at the Cheltenham Festival, but Murphy will resist the temptation to head to Prestbury Park, instead thinking of one more run elsewhere before a possible chasing campaign next term.

He continued: “The first thing I said to Barbara (Hester, owner) is we won’t be running next week and the only reason I left him in was in case he bolted up.

“He’s a horse who has not underachieved, but he’s had a lot of problems and it’s a big well done to my team at home. He’s been a tough horse to train and he broke his pelvis in a nasty schooling incident. He’s been through the mill this lad.

“I think he will improve for a fence (next year) and I imagine he’ll have one more run over hurdles this year. Where that will be I don’t know, but I would imagine we might have a look at something at Aintree or Punchestown, or maybe the Scottish Champion Hurdle – something like that if it is soft.

“He’s had a very good year and hopefully he will be a very nice chaser next year.”

Thunder Rock provided Sean Bowen with his biggest success since returning from injury in the Listed bet365 Premier Chase at Kelso.

Bowen – who has seen his lead at the top of the jockeys’ championship eroded and then passed by Harry Cobden – has struggled for winners since his return to action but victory on one of Olly Murphy’s stable stars will have done him the world of good.

Given a patient ride, Thunder Rock grew in confidence as the race progressed, as Minella Drama, Aye Right and Elvis Mail tried to stretch things.

Grand National fancy Monbeg Genius struggled to get on terms and when Thunder Rock went cruising on by as they turned into the straight, it was clear he had no more to give.

Thunder Rock found plenty in the home straight and the heavily-backed 9-4 favourite came home seven lengths clear of Minella Drama, booking himself a ticket to Aintree and a step back up in class.

Bowen said: “He proved he stays three miles. They went quick and every time I gave him a squeeze he picked up.

“I was confident where I was and Olly gave me a lot of confidence going out to ride him. I’d been riding a lot more seconds than winners since I came back and I was getting a bit frustrated. It always helps having a good boss like that.”

Murphy said: “I really enjoyed that. I went to Cheltenham in December when I felt like I’d set him up for a big handicap but he may as well have pulled up and it’s been an upward curve since then.

“He ran well the last day at Musselburgh on the wrong track when he was wheel-spinning for two and a half miles but it did his confidence good.

“I said to Sean not to get in a battle with him and ride him with confidence because he was the classiest horse in the race and to make that tell and he did just that.

“It’s been hard for Sean, he’s riding through pain and we’ve had a quiet couple of weeks ourselves so this will do him the world of good.”

He added: “I think we’ll go to Aintree with him for the Bowl now, it’s a Grade One so he’ll need to step up again but a small field suits him and he’ll be back over 150 in a handicap again.”

Sean Bowen is looking to make up for lost time when he makes his return from a lengthy absence at Huntingdon on Thursday.

Bowen held a significant advantage over Harry Cobden before he suffered a nasty fall from Gordon Elliott’s Farren Glory in the Grade One Formby Novices’ Hurdle at Aintree on Boxing Day.

A problem with a knee has kept him on the sidelines since, and Cobden has whittled away at his advantage to such an extent that before racing on Wednesday the gap had been reduced to just four.

Bowen returns on Olly Murphy’s Roccovango in the Mulberry Developments Novices’ Handicap Hurdle.

“It’s been a long six weeks out of the saddle, and I really can’t wait to get back riding on Thursday,” said Coral ambassador Bowen.

“I don’t tend to watch much racing when I’m out of action, but I do watch James (brother) and support him, and I’ll always check the results to see how Olly’s horses have got on. It is always tough seeing the horses you’d have been on go out there and win, because even though you’re happy they’ve won, you always want to be the jockey to win on them.

“Harry has been riding right at the top of his game recently, and Paul’s (Nicholls) horses are also in great form, so I really need to get back riding winners if I want to be champion jockey, which make no mistake, I do!

“I’d much rather still have a comfortable lead, but the fact Harry is now breathing down my neck at the top of the championship has given me that extra bit of fire in my belly to want to get back out there and ride as many winners as I possibly can.

“It’s very much going to be a numbers game for me for the rest of the season, so wherever I think I have the best chance of riding a few winners is where I’ll be heading, regardless of the high-profile action that might be taking place elsewhere.”

He added of Roccovango: “He’s not a horse we know much about as he’ll be having his first start for Olly on Thursday, but he’d look potentially well-handicapped on some of his form in Ireland, so he goes there with a chance.

“I’d say we’ll have to go some to beat Harry Derham’s horse Nordic Tiger though, as he looks particularly well-in at the weights.”

Title-chasing rider Sean Bowen has been cleared to make his comeback from injury at Huntingdon on Thursday.

Bowen, out of action since a fall at Aintree on Boxing Day, has seen his long-established lead at the top of the jump jockeys’ standings chipped away at in recent weeks by Harry Cobden.

Before racing on Tuesday Cobden had reduced the lead to just five, and that during a time when his main backer Paul Nicholls is habitually quiet. His runners have clicked back into gear recently, though, and he provided Cobden with a four-timer at Musselburgh on Sunday.

Bowen has one ride at Huntingdon, on Olly Murphy’s new recruit Roccovango in the Mulberry Developments Novices’ Handicap Hurdle.

“It was great to jock Sean back up on a horse this morning,” said Murphy.

“He’s riding out tomorrow, his rehab has gone well and he told me he was on the Equicizer yesterday, did some exercises and all was good.

“We’re looking forward to having him back. He’s a huge part of our team and is someone all the young lads look up to as well.

“He’s a big part of the furniture at Warren Chase and we’ll be doing all we can to get back behind him, along with many other people, to make him champion jockey.

“He was flying up to Christmas, he’d been riding extremely well all year but unfortunately the life of a jump jockey means injuries are a part of it and he had a bad fall at Aintree on Boxing Day and missed six weeks.

“Harry Cobden has clawed back a lot of his lead, he is riding extremely well as well and he’s ultra-talented. We wish the two of them the best of luck, but obviously our loyalty is to Sean.

“It will be good for jump racing if the two of them stay injury-free until the end of the season and have a good tussle.”

Asked to sum up Roccovango’s chance, Murphy said: “He’s a new recruit who had some nice novice form. I’d like to think he’s got a nice each-way chance.

“Harry Derham’s horse (Nordic Tiger) will be hard to beat escaping a penalty for winning last week, but I’d like to think my lad could be competitive and it would be magic if we can give Sean a winner on his first ride back.”

Stable stalwart Thomas Darby spearheads Olly Murphy’s bumper squad of horses on Saturday afternoon, with the trainer poised to saddle key runners across the country.

The 11-year-old is part of the furniture at Murphy’s Warren Chase base and was one of the horses who helped put the trainer on the map when finishing second in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle in 2019.

Since then the seven-time winner has been a regular on the big days and counts victory in Newbury’s Long Distance Hurdle as one of his greatest accolades.

He will now seek another major prize in the rearranged Unibet Veterans’ Handicap Chase at Warwick, returning to the scene of his comfortable course-and-distance success in November.

“He’s in good form and obviously he’s off a lofty mark now but he has course-and-distance form round Warwick and seems in good order,” said Murphy.

“He was second in a Supreme behind Klassical Dream and has had success at a high level throughout his career.

“He has been a very good horse, just probably 7lb short of being a proper Grade One horse. But we’ve had some very good days. He’s won a Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury and he’s run well on many occasions at the highest level so to win a nice handicap like this would be great.

“Harry Skelton rides him and if he gets into a good rhythm I don’t see why he wouldn’t have a good each-way chance in a valuable race.”

Sporting the same silks of owner Diana Whateley is Chasing Fire who has always threatened to be a quality operator and is upped in class at Wetherby for a shot at the Grade Two William Hill Towton Novices’ Chase.

“He definitely runs at Wetherby and is in good form,” continued Murphy.

“He’s a horse that hasn’t achieved what I think he should have achieved yet, but it is still really early days for him.

“It will be a competitive race, but we’re looking forward to it and Brian Hughes rides him.”

Meanwhile, Thunder Rock could be tasked with a stiff-looking recovery mission if taking his chance in Kempton’s Coral Silviniaco Conti Chase.

The eight-year-old fluffed his lines when sent off favourite for Cheltenham’s December Gold Cup prior to Christmas and with Murphy toying with the idea of reverting to hurdles, is keen to give his charge another chance to prove himself over fences back in a small-field contest.

“We’re short of options and running him back in a handicap is probably not the right thing to do with him at the moment,” explained Murphy.

“We would rather run in a smaller-field Graded race if possible, but options are far and few between.

“He’s in good form, he just got a terrible fright at Cheltenham last time. If he runs it will be very much a confidence boosting run.

“Unfortunately I think he’s rather well-handicapped but we’re not able to put that to good use just yet. He’ll have a run back over fences whether that is Saturday or not and see how we go, and if it doesn’t work out we’ll go back over hurdles.”

Booster Bob could have an exciting future having stayed on strongly in testing ground to claim the Betfair Claremont Novices’ Hurdle at Sandown.

Sent off the 5-6 favourite for the Listed event, Olly Murphy’s five-year-old had previously relished testing conditions when claiming a Uttoxeter novice event by 18-lengths.

However, even he struggled to get into a rhythm in the deep ground at the Esher track and relied on his class to overhaul Helnwein once strenuously ridden after the last by Sean Bowen.

“I was never happy,” said Murphy. “I don’t think he jumped great for him and he loves that ground, but they went very steady and turned it into a sprint which wouldn’t have suited.

“He’s got a lot of ability and I don’t think he did a lot right today. I don’t think the hood suits him now, he wants that off.

“They went very steady and when you go steady in a tactical race, sat last of three isn’t the best place to be. He was very free as a bumper horse and he’s come a long way in a short period of time.”

Despite seeing Booster Bob as both a horse for further and fences, it is Haydock’s Sky Bet Supreme Trial Rossington Main Novices’ Hurdle (January 20) up next. However, a trip to the Cheltenham Festival appears off the cards for this season.

“Do I think he is a horse for the Supreme? No is the answer,” added Murphy.

“I think he’s an out and out chaser and he will probably go to Haydock now for the Supreme trial at the end of January – bad ground, two miles. He’s crying out for two and a half, but he can race with the choke out and I would be just worried about going two-and-a-half just yet.

“I wont blow his mind now this season. If there was a bit of slow ground at Aintree or something like that, then maybe. But going round Cheltenham in a 16-runner Grade One isn’t for this lad at the moment.”

Thunder Rock is being prepared for the Virgin Bet December Gold Cup Handicap Chase next month, with Olly Murphy keen to have a crack at Cheltenham’s valuable pre-Christmas feature.

The seven-year-old won his first two outings over the larger obstacles before running with credit in some high-class events last term and impressed on his return to action at Carlisle with a victory over Mahler Mission in the Listed Colin Parker Memorial Chase.

The runner-up is disputing favouritism for Saturday’s Coral Gold Cup at Newbury, with Murphy targeting handicap riches of his own at Cheltenham on December 16.

There is a prize-fund of £130,000 up for grabs in the showpiece event of Prestbury Park’s December Meeting and the Warren Chase handler is keen to take his chance while Thunder Rock is currently rated 146 over fences.

“He’s in good form and he’s being trained for the December Gold Cup at Cheltenham,” said Murphy.

“That’s the plan of action and it’s his turn to try to win at Cheltenham and we’re going to have a go at a really good handicap. He’s come out of Carlisle really well and he’s going to be trained for that race.

“It wasn’t a humungous entry so we’re going to have a go and it’s unbelievable prize-money. He actually ran really well over course and distance there in January in the Dipper, he’s in good form, we’ll go there fresh and we’re looking forward to running him.”

Murphy is also taking plenty of encouragement from the return to form of Strong Leader, who bounced back from disappointing in the Welsh Champion Hurdle to finish a gallant second to the improving Blueking D’Oroux in Ascot’s Coral Hurdle.

It was the first time the Grade One runner-up had competed over further than two miles and the trainer believes there will be more to come over intermediate and staying distances as the season progresses.

Murphy continued: “I would imagine you will see him over further in time and he probably didn’t jump as well as he can. Whether that has cost him the race or didn’t cost him the race, I don’t know but it certainly didn’t help his cause.

“I’m not sure where we will go yet and I haven’t spoken to his owners, but there are handicap options over Christmas, there’s the Relkeel Hurdle (Cheltenham, January 1) and there’s a two-and-a-half-mile Graded race at Lingfield over Winter Millions weekend in January.

“Those types of races will be on the cards and don’t be surprised if you see him over three miles before the end of the season. But I think we will see him improve an awful lot and we haven’t seen the finished article yet.

“He’s definitely a horse who wants a trip and two miles is far too sharp for him. I’m looking forward to making a plan for him and it will definitely be over middle distances or even further.”

Olly Murphy had a double on the card at Market Rasen as Itchy Feet returned to winning ways in the Pertemps Network Handicap Hurdle.

The nine-year-old is a seasoned campaigner for the yard, with his seven victories including the Grade One Scilly Isles Chase in 2020.

He started out last term over fences but reverted to hurdling to qualify for Pertemps Final at Cheltenham, where he finished 11th of 23 after coming home second at Grade Two level in the Rendlesham at Haydock.

Pulled up on his seasonal reappearance at Newton Abbot last month, this time the gelding started at 7-2 and ran a pleasing race to come home three and a half-lengths ahead of Giovanni Change with Dan Skelton’s Le Milos back in third.

“It was nice to get Itchy Feet’s head back in front,” said Murphy.

“At the age he is now, it’s nice to see him be as resolute as he still is, he’s a credit to everyone at home.

“It’s nice to win a good pot with him, they’re hard to win with when they’re at that end of the handicap and it was great to see him win again.”

Murphy’s second winner on the card was The Same, a debutant over fences who made success look easy in the Pertemps Network Novices’ Handicap Chase when jumping well and winning by nine and a half lengths as the 7-4 favourite.

“He was good, he jumped really well. He’s a horse who will appreciate a big track and three miles in time,” Murphy said.

“He was lightly raced over hurdles and he appreciated a fence, hopefully he’s going to be a nice staying chaser for his owners.

“With the size of him he was crying out for a fence, I thought he jumped immaculately for a novice. Hopefully that’ll stand him in good stead when he goes up in grade.”

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