Racing: A festival adorned by Holly

Sue Montgomery finds the trainer of a late starter ready for the Cheltenham party
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EVERY year the great jump racing festival at Cheltenham provides a stage for young horses who could be, in the parlance of the game, anything. And be assured that, in this context, anything does not include terms like slow or useless in its remit. Anything is reserved for a beast who is already something and might be more.

A gelding called French Holly is one of those to bear the burden of hope this time round. And it would seem, so far, that all the good fairies were present at his birth. The bay seven-year-old combines the massive physique of a front-row forward with the lightfooted grace of a dancer. He has, according to his trainer Ferdy Murphy, an exemplary temperament and attitude. His innate talent is such that he is unbeaten, and hardly extended, in his four races over hurdles.

But equally as importantly, the pattern of his life has meant that he has ended up in an environment where he has been given the time that he has needed to realise his enormous potential.

Cheltenham was not actually on the agenda when French Holly first saw the light of day in Kentucky. His sire, Sir Ivor, had won a derby and his grand-dam, Juliette Marny, an Oaks. But as a yearling he was already so enormous and backward-looking that his Japanese breeder was glad to get rid of him for a paltry $2,000 (pounds 1,250).

He crossed the Atlantic to grow up in Ireland, was broken in at Paddy Mullins' yard and sent as an unraced four-year-old to the Doncaster Sales, where Murphy bought him for 20,000gns.

It was not, however, love at first sight. "I'd heard he was worth seeing but, to be honest, in his box I thought he looked like a camel and a pretty scruffy one at that," he said. "But once he was walking round outside I was thrilled. It was his balance and the way he used himself. I knew this was a proper athlete."

Murphy, who was born in Wexford but who is now based at West Witton near the head waters of The Ure up on the Yorkshire Moors, has mixed with good horses before and knows the drill. The best - and he says she is still the best - was the phenomenal Anaglog's Daughter, winner of the 1980 Arkle Trophy at Cheltenham and arguably one of the top three jumping mares to come out of Ireland in the post-war era. Her owner, Bill Durkan, held the licence, but it was Murphy who did the work.

In his first two seasons French Holly was restricted to five runs in bumpers, races designed to give young prospective hurdlers and chasers racecourse experience without the physical and mental stress of jumps, and won two. And the softly, softly approach with the big horse - he stands a good 17.2 hands - has been rewarded.

"Right from the start he gave me a tremendous feeling of power and athleticism," said Murphy, 49, formerly a jockey. "Light on his feet and never clumsy. But if we'd pushed him early we would have lost him.

"You wouldn't necessarily pick him out when you see him with the rest working on level ground. But when you see him gallop on the high moor you realise just how effortless it all is to him. Put him on a hill and you can see his massive chest and girth. People have said he is still unfurnished, and in a way he is. But that impression is exaggerated by his power in front. It makes him look as if he's got nothing behind the saddle. And funnily enough, Anaglog's Daughter was the same. She was about half the size he is, a tiny, narrow little thing, but she had that great depth to her."

The Cheltenham target for French Holly, who will be ridden by one of the finds of the season, Andrew Thornton, has yet to be decided. He would seem a banker against his fellow novices in the Royal & SunAlliance Hurdle, but if the ground continues to ease, Murphy and the owner, Kieran Flood, may find the Champion Hurdle itself, nine days hence, may be too tempting a target to miss in an open year.

Precedents have been set in that department recently; three of the last winners of hurdling's holy grail, Royal Gait, Alderbrook and Make A Stand, took the title as novices, and inexperienced horses often jump better in hotter company. But the exciting, even awesome thing about this horse is that whatever he does over hurdles may be only the tip of the iceberg. His true destiny surely lies over fences.

It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that Wynbury Stables may prove to house a pair of champions. French Holly will be accompanied to Cheltenham by his stablemate Paddy's Return, the winner of the Triumph Hurdle two years ago and now a worthy favourite for the Stayers' Hurdle. It may pay to follow Murphy's lore.