Racing: French Holly stakes Champion claim

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GOOD looks and talent do not always go hand in hand, but there was a growing belief last night that French Holly, one of the finest physical specimens in training, has the racing ability to match his magnificent frame.

Ferdy Murphy's hurdler is still in his novice season, yet his victory at Wincanton yesterday was sufficiently impressive to see his Champion Hurdle odds cut to 16-1 from 20-1 by Corals.

French Holly's fourth success from as many outings this season was hardly a surprise, yet the manner of it promised much for both his immediate and long-term future. Many big horses are one-paced gallopers, but when Better Offer, a useful handicapper on the Flat, came with a challenge between the final two flights, French Holly needed little encouragement to quicken clear.

The only worry, in fact, came when Andrew Thornton, his jockey, dismounted as soon as they had crossed the line, but a short while later, French Holly received a clean bill of health.

``There's no problems whatsoever, he's fine,'' Ferdy Murphy reported. ``The vet's had a look at him and he's perfect. He just seemed to rap the last hurdle and jarred himself a bit, so Andrew dismounted when he pulled up.''

As for the race itself, Murphy was understandably delighted. ``He was very impressive, we couldn't have been more pleased with him,'' the trainer said. ``The ground was fast enough, but he handled it all right, and we're well chuffed with him. We won't be rushed into a decision about his race at the Festival, and basically it will depend on the ground.

``In the year that Collier Bay won the Champion Hurdle, it was good to firm on the Monday, and then by Tuesday afternoon it was soft, so we'll wait until nearer the time. Soft ground would inconvenience others in the Champion, but it will be up to Kieran [Flood, the gelding's owner].''

At times yesterday, French Holly's hurdling betrayed his inexperience, but the Murphy was not unduly worried. ``I ride him all the time and he jumps like a buck at home,'' he said. ``He's just inclined to kick one out in his races.''

The obvious alternative for French Holly at the Festival would be the Royal & SunAlliance Novice Hurdle, but in an open year, the temptation to run in the Champion could prove difficult to resist. If and when Murphy confirms that this will be French Holly's target, any 16-1 remaining would be well worth an interest.

Certainly, it would offer more value than the 7-2 now available against Istabraq, even allowing for the fact that Aidan O'Brien, his trainer, yesterday insisted that rumours about his hurdler's well-being were unfounded.

Istabraq has been beaten just once in 10 races over hurdles, but his success at last year's Festival came over two miles and five furlongs, and there must be significant doubt over his ability to beat the best hurdlers at the minimum trip.

There were whispers from Ireland too yesterday that Graphic Equaliser, favourite for the Tote Gold Trophy at Newbury tomorrow, had suffered a setback, but here too there were firm denials from his yard, while the British bookies saw no reason to adjust his odds. The sponsors reported a Trophy plunge on Tidjani, owned by J P McManus, for the Trophy and cut his price from 25-1 to 14-1. Coral trimmed Commanche Court, the second- favourite, from 6-1 to 5-1.

A trainer with rather less to celebrate at Huntingdon yesterday was Neville Callaghan, who was fined pounds 300 for ``violent and improper conduct'' after a verbal attack on the starter, Sean McDonald. Callaghan's runner in the Long Stanton Handicap Hurdle, Desert Mountain, was withdrawn at the start on veterinary advice, apparently after being kicked by another runner, a decision which did not please the trainer of the 6-4 favourite.

``The vet advised the starter that in his opinion, the horse should not run,'' Geoffrey Foster, the stewards' secretary said. ``The starter is obliged to take the vet's advice and he ordered the horse to be withdrawn. On returning to the enclosures, the starter received verbal abuse from Callaghan.'' The trainer left the course without comment.

Tomorrow's race meeting at Ayr hinges on an 8am inspection today following heavy rain.