Racing: French Holly shines as Shot runs flat

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The Independent Online
THE Champion Hurdle aspirations of Grey Shot, the latest high- class Flat stayer to try his luck in the more arduous environment of the winter game, came to a halt, which may or may not be temporary, here yesterday. The bright sunshine warming the crowd may have reminded Grey Shot of his summer Cup campaigns, but the soggy ground underfoot was not to his taste as French Holly beat him 14 lengths in the Tolworth Hurdle.

Mind you, that may turn out to be no disgrace at all in arguably the hottest novice hurdle of the season so far. The winner's trainer Ferdy Murphy has never made any secret of the high regard in which he holds Kieran Flood's giant seven-year-old, now unbeaten in three outings over hurdles after a bumper career brimful of promise.

Grey Shot attempted to make all the running, as is his wont on the Flat, but he could never properly shake off his rival, and once Richard Dunwoody accepted that French Holly had gone beyond recall he was not hard on his partner.

According to the Jockey Club Cup winner's owner-breeder Jeff Smith, the jury is still out on any Cheltenham prospects. "We will probably give him another chance on better ground," he said. "When it's soft, he can't dominate, but on fast going, with his Flat-race speed, they wouldn't be able to go with him."

French Holly, a horse with the pedigree for the Derby but the physique of a Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, will also be nominated for the Champion Hurdle when entries close on Wednesday, but if Grey Shot ultimately lines up at the Festival he, as a lover of soft ground, will not.

An American-bred son of Sir Ivor, he grew to such an enormous gawky size as a yearling that a Flat-racing career was clearly not an option. He was acquired as a jumping prospect by Paddy Mullins, and sold on by him to Murphy as an unraced four-year-old.

"When I first saw him at Doncaster sales I didn't even take him out of his box because I thought he looked an absolute camel," said Middleham- based Murphy, "but when he was in the sales ring he moved fantastic, and I changed my mind.

"He is a horse with a lot of gears, but he's still very much a baby, still learning. We don't want to overdo him this year; we'll give him a week in the field and see how he is. He'll be entered in the Champion Hurdle and the novices' hurdles at Cheltenham, but he won't be running in anything unless there is ease in the ground."

French Holly's effort enabled Murphy and the jockey Andy Thornton, who joined forces to win the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot the Saturday before Christmas, to begin 1998 in the style they had ended 1997, with a Grade One victory.

There has been some disquiet among die-hard National Hunt devotees over the apparently increasing domination of Flat-bred horses (though it has been ever thus; the 1947 Champion Hurdle runner-up Le Paillon went on to win the Arc) among the ranks of hurdlers.

The last three winners of the Cheltenham crown, Make A Stand, Collier Bay and Alderbrook, were converts from the level, as is the Champion Hurdle favourite Istabraq, who is a half-brother to the 1984 Derby winner, Secreto.

But such feelings seem illogical, as surely the object of any race is to see which competitor can travel between the arbitrary points A to B in the shortest time, overcoming whatever obstacles happen to be in the way, and if a horse by Sadler's Wells (like Istabraq) can do it better than a horse by Strong Gale, so be it. It would make as much sense to get in a tizz about the ethnic origins of African athletes.

Him Of Praise was given a 25-1 quote for the Grand National after completing his fourth successive win of the campaign in the Anthony Mildmay Peter Cazalet Chase. Him Of Praise led three out to beat Call It A Day by a length and a half. Sherwood said: "We'll have to seriously think about [the National] now. He'll definitely have an entry and he could take in a race like the Eider Chase or Greenalls next."

Graphic Equaliser, the facile winner of the day's richest contest, the Ladbroke at Leopardstown, has next month's Tote Gold Trophy at Newbury pencilled in before a possible tilt at the Champion Hurdle.

The Arthur Moore-trained six-year-old, carrying the minimum 10st, was always travelling strongly and cruised to the front at the final flight before stretching away to beat Notcomplainingbut, by four and a half lengths. Lady Daisy was a close third and Sharpical, who might have taken second place but for an awkward jump at the last, the best of the five British raiders in fourth.