Cheltenham’s December Gold Cup: Thunder Rock’s owner Max McNeill hopeful of big-race success | Racing News

Owner Max McNeill feels Virgin Bet December Gold Cup favourite Thunder Rock may still have the required improvement up his sleeve to progress out of handicaps.

Olly Murphy’s seven-year-old spent most of last season competing in graded novice chases, just coming up short against the likes of Gerri Colombe and The Real Whacker.

However, the form of his last two races looks especially strong, as he signed off last season finishing second to subsequent Coral Gold Cup winner Datsalrightgino at Ayr before reappearing at Carlisle and beating Mahler Mission, second in the Newbury showpiece.

“His last two runs could not have worked out any better really,” said McNeill.

“I was really disappointed at Ayr last season, we thought he probably should have won but the winner has gone on and won the Coral Gold Cup.

“Then at Carlisle this season, beating Mahler Mission, who was second in the Coral, and we beat him easily, with the Topham winner (Bill Baxter) behind as well – the form has really been franked.

“This is a race we targeted straight after Carlisle with Olly. We are hoping we are a Graded horse, but this will tell us where we are; will he stay in these good handicaps or can he make the step up to graded level.”

Adrian Heskin and Thunder Rock clear away from the field to win at Ascot
Thunder Rock on his way to victory at Ascot last November

Assessing the opposition, McNeill acknowledges the main threat could come from a camp he knows well, champion trainer Paul Nicholls.

“Looking at the race, there are six or seven you’d think can win. I was speaking to Paul Nicholls on Wednesday and he said he hoped I wouldn’t be too disappointed when he beats us on Saturday!” said McNeill.

“He really likes Monmiral, but we beat him quite nicely at Sandown I thought, and we were closing on him fast in the Dipper before that when The Real Whacker won, and we didn’t jump well that day.

“Paul is confident he’s got him right after a long break and Harry (Cobden) has chosen him but his other runner, Il Ridoto, has a chance, too. It’s going to be a tight race and it’s great to be involved.

Monmiral ridden by Harry Cobden in action the Paddy Power Novices' Chase at Cheltenham
Monmiral in action over fences at Cheltenham earlier this year

“We’re sort of thinking we’ll get one chance to win a big handicap off 146 and, for once, we think he’s well handicapped. We think he’s a good horse and the dream is still alive that he can run in a Grade One here or there, and who’s to say he can’t have a crack at the Ryanair if he runs well in this?

“This time last year, we were in the Graded novice chases and he wasn’t a million miles behind Gerri Colombe and look what he’s rated now. I’m not saying ours is Gerri Colombe by any stretch, but I do think he’s handicapped to a level where he should be really competitive on Saturday.”

McNeill, who sponsors a contest at the Cheltenham Festival in March through his Ultima brand, has famously never won a race at the big meeting, and admits he would forego that for another year if it meant he was successful on Saturday.

He said: “I know this isn’t March, but if somebody said to me you can win a December Gold Cup but not have a winner at the Festival, I’d sign it now!”

A total of 12 were declared on Thursday, with JP McManus responsible for top-weight Fakir D’oudairies and Emmett Mullins’ So Scottish.

Fugitif, Grandeur D’Ame and Frero Banbou are also among the field, of which four are out of the handicap.

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