David Nicholson's entry in Horses In Training runs to two pages, while Ferdy Murphy's does not even stretch to one, but in racing, as in so many things, size is deceptive. The likes of Nicholson and Martin Pipe command great armies of horses, yet neither could claim to train one of the two most promising young hurdlers in Britain. And nor, for that matter, could Murphy - because fortunately for him, he trains both of them.
A smallish trainer with one good horse is common enough, but one who has two is clearly doing something right. French Holly and Paddy's Return are the horses in question, and in the case of the latter at least, Murphy is in no doubt that he is preparing a potential champion. Already a short- priced favourite for the Stayers' Hurdle at the Festival, Paddy's Return will line up for his pre-Cheltenham prep race at Haydock tomorrow, and his trainer has few worries as to the likely outcome.
"The race won't tell me much, because I already think that he's the best three-miler around," Murphy says. "It will help all the other trainers much more than it will help me. We worked him on Wednesday and he is absolutely on fire."
If that means that Paddy's Return has improved since his last race, the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot just before Christmas, then the only point of debate tomorrow will be the winning distance. And this, remember, is a horse of just six years of age, whose record already includes third place in last year's Stayers' Hurdle, and victory in the Triumph Hurdle 12 months before.
Triumph winners are not supposed to do this sort of thing. More often than not, the experience of winning the fiercest race of the Festival is one from which they never quite recover, so it is a further testament to Murphy's ability that Paddy's Return is still thriving. "The thing with both of these horses," he says, "is that their owners have given them plenty of time. When Paddy's Return won the Triumph, a lot of people expected us to go on to Punchestown, which looked like a formality. But I find it's not Cheltenham that does the damage, it's where you go afterwards, and if you go on to Liverpool or Punchestown it can tear a hole in them. So we just chucked him in a field and let him forget about it."
French Holly, meanwhile, has long been a favourite of his trainer, but even Murphy was surprised by the ease with which he galloped away from Grey Shot - who was touted beforehand as a serious contender for the Champion Hurdle - in the Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown. French Holly himself is entered for the Champion, but the Royal SunAlliance Novices' Hurdle, over two miles and five furlongs, is a more likely engagement "unless the ground comes up like a bog". His intended prep-race is the Agfa Hurdle, again at Sandown, on 7 February.
At seven, French Holly is a year older than his stable-mate, but the most encouraging thought of all is that both may be ever better when the time comes to go chasing. French Holly in particular is a majestic animal and apparently a born steeplechaser, but Paddy's Return too, Murphy insists, "will be absolutely superb over fences. He's very, very brave and fences will really suit him".
No one would want to tempt fate, but it seems that the Champion will be far more open a contest this year than many of the supporting hurdle events. It is 9-2 the field in the latest betting, but the overall shape of the race will be much clearer in 72 hours' time, after a weekend of trials which begins with what should, on all known form, be a hack canter for Marello in the Morebattle Hurdle at Kelso this afternoon.
Cool Dawn has been the best-backed horse in the Gold Cup market in recent weeks and he too will be out this afternoon. Robert Alner's chaser will need to concede weight to his three rivals at Ascot without breaking into too much of a sweat if his championship ambitions are to survive the test, and there will be vital Cheltenham form in the making too in the PML Lightning Novices' Chase. Many of the most obvious contenders for the Arkle Challenge Trophy are in the field, and Queen Of Spades could be the one to improve her Festival cv.Reuse content