Racing: Holly hurdles for kicks but trainer keeps his feet on the ground

Ferdy Murphy will not hesitate to save his Champion Hurdle hope for rainier days. Richard Edmondson reports

AS the sun beats down and the early periscopes of daffodils appear in our gardens, Johnny Public seems quite happy with life. For racing purists, however, there are still clouds around.

Dry weather up until Cheltenham next month may well mean that some of the better younger horses in these islands are removed from the Festival with their future careers in mind. This would be most hurtful in the case of French Holly, almost certainly the largest tyro hurdler in the land, and without doubt the most promising.

The seven-year-old gelding has a list of engagements that would embarrass even Elizabeth Taylor, but it could well be that none of them will be fulfilled if the track at Prestbury Park is not substantially visited by rain. "If it's good to firm it might be that he would not run at all," Ferdy Murphy, the gelding's trainer, said. "It would be heartbreaking to miss it, but we've waited this long with him and he'll be even better next year.

"I don't mind running horses on flat tracks, but when you're travelling downhill at speed that's when you do a lot of damage."

The destruction in French Holly's races this season has been wreaked by the horse himself. He is now unbeaten in four races over hurdles, and his last three victories have been at the expense of horses who went on to score 11 victories between them. In racing, we call that form.

A notable feature of this sequence, in particular in Huntingdon's Sidney Banks Memorial Novices' Hurdle last Thursday, is French Holly's development of a new hurdling technique. In rugby, they would call it bursting through a crash tackle.

It is said some horse show no respect for their hurdles. French Holly goes one step on and actually abuses them. "When he's out in front like that he doesn't bother shortening up at a hurdle, he just goes and kicks them out of the way and goes straight through," Murphy said.

"He's so big he gets away with it. A smaller horse might hurt himself. Next time now we hope he will pick up."

It was initially feared that this Meadowlark Lemon of a horse had damaged himself when crashing his 18 hands through the woodwork last week, but he has quickly disproved that idea with his work on the gallops at Wynbury Stables near Leyburn in North Yorkshire. "We schooled him on Tuesday and he jumped absolutely fantastic," Murphy said. "We gave him a four-furlong breeze after that and he's 110 per cent sound.

"I'm absolutely over the moon with the horse now. He didn't have a race, he's eaten everything up since he came back and he couldn't be better."

French Holly's attitude to timber may have something to do with the fact that he should not be running over them at all. His breeding, if not his shape, is all Flat and his sire is the 1968 Derby winner Sir Ivor. The son may not possess his father's configuration, but he has certainly inherited some of the family speed.

"I was quite chuffed with the way he quickened up at Huntingdon," Murphy said. "Andrew [Thornton, the jockey] had to get serious with him and he just lowered his weight in the saddle and squeezed the horse. Andrew said it was very impressive because the reaction was immediate."

The world, it seems, is now a fruits de mer for French Holly. "If we get the ground and run in the Champion [Hurdle], and run well in it, we've got the option of running in that again next year," Murphy said.

"If we go for the 2m 5f race [the Royal SunAlliance Novices' Hurdle] we've got the option of the staying races next year. I would say we would stay another year hurdling to get a little more experience into him."

That is warming news for Britain's chasers. For the nation's turfistes a similar sensation will be felt more immediately if black shapes start being stuck on the television weather maps.

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