Racing: Holly backers praying for rain

JUST because there is rain trickling down your window, there is no guarantee that something similar is happening at Cheltenham, but the home of jumps racing takes such a grip on punters' minds at this time of the year that it was no surprise yesterday to see ante-post money for French Holly, one of the more interesting contenders for the Champion Hurdle in just 13 days' time.

At any rate, Coral claim that punters wanted to back Ferdy Murphy's runner, although it may just be that their weather forecaster predicted rain for the next week or so and the bookmaker thought it wise to take evasive action. Whatever the reason, French Holly is now a 14-1 chance for the Champion, even though his participation depends not just on whether there is any natural watering of the course between now and the Festival, but probably on how much.

French Holly is an imposing specimen, and his trainer is convinced that his hurdles career is simply an appetiser before he moves on to the main course over fences. Murphy admits that it is a little frustrating to give the elements such a crucial role in the Festival decision making, although "having said that, you could give me three or four like him and I'd put up with that hardship any time."

Murphy insists that French Holly's Cheltenham target - the gelding is also engaged in both the Supreme and Royal & SunAlliance Novice Hurdles - must wait. "We're no further along," he says. "We said that if it came up heavy, he'd go for the Champion, and it's forecast for heavy rain over the next week. If he got soft ground, he'd have a serious chance, and since his last race he's been fantastic, we couldn't be more happy with him."

Meanwhile, at Portman Square yesterday, the Jockey Club concluded its deliberations on matters arising out of the Top Cees libel trial and decided not to re-open the case, following the award of pounds 195,000 in damages to Jack Ramsden, Lynda Ramsden and Kieren Fallon at the High Court last week.

The Club emphasised, however, that a new procedure to be introduced from the start of the Flat turf season will make it easier to re-open inquiries under Rule 151, which governs non-triers, and that offenders will risk stiffer penalties. The Club also said that it would continue to send private letters - described in the High Court as "yellow cards" - to individuals holding a licence to either train or ride.

"We considered fully whether these letters should be made public," Malcolm Wallace, the Club's director of regulation, said. "Having taken legal advice, we decided not to make the letters public, because to do so would be unfair when the person concerned has not been found in breach of any rule. These letters are intended to prevent breaches of the rules and are a part of an educational process aimed at maintaining and improving standards."

In a separate development, the Club's senior veterinarian disclosed that pre-race dope testing of runners is likely to be introduced as soon as technology allows. "There are some very strong arguments for testing runners before rather than after they race," Peter Webbon, the Club's chief veterinary advisor, said. "My personal view is that it is inevitable, when rather than if."

Webbon also revealed a change of emphasis for the Club's veterinary force in the field, with vets becoming much more concerned in future with the welfare of horses. "In the past, integrity was the top thing, but the view now is that racing welfare is at least as important, if not more so," Webbon said.

The conditional jockey Paul Midgley received a 10-day ban for reckless riding after his actions put a rival jockey on the floor at Catterick yesterday. In the bumper race, Midgley's mount Noshinannikin veered badly left, squeezing up Mazzelmo against the far rail. Mazzelmo's rider Seamus Durack clung desperately to his mount but fell to the ground 10 yards before Mazzelmo got to the line.

After an inquiry the stewards found that Midgley guilty of reckless riding. His ban runs from 12 to 14, 16 to 20, 21 and 23 March inclusive. Noshinannikin was placed last.

l The top chaser Dublin Flyer has been retired.

l Rain has put today's meeting at Chepstow in doubt. There is a 7.30 inspection.

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