Demise of Holly casts dark cloud

JUST AS punters and racegoers were rediscovering the exhilaration of National Hunt racing, there was a reminder yesterday of its dangers too, and how suddenly old friends can be snatched away. French Holly, one of the finest hurdlers of recent years, was killed in a schooling accident at his yard only a week after he had embarked on the chasing career which had promised to be his true vocation.

JUST AS punters and racegoers were rediscovering the exhilaration of National Hunt racing, there was a reminder yesterday of its dangers too, and how suddenly old friends can be snatched away. French Holly, one of the finest hurdlers of recent years, was killed in a schooling accident at his yard only a week after he had embarked on the chasing career which had promised to be his true vocation.

French Holly won the Royal & SunAlliance Hurdle at Cheltenham and the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton in 1998, and finished third to Istabraq in the Champion Hurdle last March. He earned £230,000 racing over timber, yet still looked every inch a chaser, and duly won by 18 lengths on his first start over fences eight days ago.

This prompted a quote of 16-1 for the Gold Cup, which would normally be a wild over-reaction for such an inexperienced horse. In French Holly's case, the price looked reasonable.

"It happened in schooling," Ferdy Murphy, French Holly's trainer, said. "Andrew Thornton was here riding him and the horse came down and snapped his neck and was killed instantly. Everyone is devastated. The vet who has looked after him since he came here was here, and she is gutted. He will be very hard to replace."

The death of French Holly may darken the mood when the solid jumping folk gather today, in Ireland as well as England. The race of the day is the inaugural running of the £100,000 James Nicholson Wine Merchant Champion Chase at Down Royal, in which Florida Pearl sets out on the long trek towards the Gold Cup in March. Perennial rival Dorans Pride is again among his opponents, while Strong Promise, runner-up in the 1998 Gold Cup, is the sole runner from Britain. Florida Pearl should win, but the price is unlikely to be generous.

Top event over jumps in Britain is the Badger Beer Chase, won 12 months ago by Teeton Mill, on the way to success in the Hennessy and King George. It would be too much to expect another chaser of equal potential to emerge today, but horses like Rash Remark, successful in a novice event two weeks ago, and Marlborough (2.15), who makes his first start for Nick Henderson, should pay their way. The latter has failed to compete on three of his last six starts, but due to misfortune rather than poor technique.

Master Beveled (3.15), an underrated hurdler given his earnings record, could have one more win in him, while Auetaler (2.00) and Lady Cricket (2.30) are likely to give Martin Pipe a double in the big races at Chepstow.

On the last day of the Flat season at Doncaster, the handicap for amateur lady riders will be the unlikely medium of one of the day's biggest punts, as Best Of All (1.25) becomes the last horse to be saddled by Jack Berry before he hands his Cockerham stable on to his son, Alan. Berry said yesterday that "I think she has got a big chance," and that should be as much of a hint as anyone needs.

FLOSSY (nap 3.35), with Tony Beech taking a very useful 5lb off his burden, looks a sound bet in the November Handicap. Badaayer (2.30) and Shahrur (next best 3.00) should also manage one last victory before the curtain comes down.

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