After the drubbing by the Irish at last March's Festival, English hopes of a Grade I victory in one of the big four championship races were raised today after Thomas Darby overcame two previous winners of the Stayers Hurdle to win Newbury's Long Distance Hurdle (formerly the Gerry Feilden) under Sean Bowen.
Olly Murphy, whose Warwickshire yard is providing a steady stream of winners almost to rival the mighty Skelton yard, was delighted to see this somewhat enigmatic performer achieve his first win since the Grade III Holloways Hurdle at Ascot in January 2020.
Thomas Darby is a Whateley horse, and trainers selected by the Whateleys can expect to receive quality merchandise. Over 200 winners have graced the British Jumps scene since the turn of the millennium.
In relative terms, Murphy is a newcomer. This is his fifth year as a trainer since he launched on the scene - John Jenkins style - with a flurry of summer jumping winners in 2017. Since then, both quantity and quality have increased and his yard is one bucking the trend of diminishing returns from UK racing. This year's total win & place earnings of £443,000 put him in 6th position ahead of established luminaries of the sport like Jonjo O'Neill, Philip Hobbs and Alan King, to name but three.
The much touted Paisley Park, trained up the road at Ogbourne St George outside Marlborough, is the apple of Emma Lavelle's eye, but he may be past his peak, whilst 2020 winner Lisnager Oscar, trained in west Wales by Rebecca Curtis, has more to find to put him back in contention.
It's still the best part of four months until March however, and there are many more toip fliught staying races to come before then. Thomas Darby is headed next to the Long Walk at Ascot, and I suspect the others may reappear there too. A different course, a different direction does not guarantee the same result.
Meantime, there are others yet to play their card, including Nicky Henderson's Buzz, winner this autumn of a memorable double in the Cesarewitch and last week's Coral Hurdle at Ascot.
But if I were Murphy, I'd just be dead chuffed to have a leading contender for the major honours. There are more big races in Thomas Darby, irrespective of what occurred at Newbury today.