French Holly

French Holly over the sticks

  • b g Sir Ivor – Sans Dot (Busted)
  • Races: 20, Wins: 10
  • Foaled: 26 Mar 1991
  • Breeder: M Sakurai
  • Trainer: Ferdy Murphy
  • Owner: Keith Flood

French Holly With 10 Wins out of 20 Races

French Holly, an American-bred son of Derby winner Sir Ivor, was sold for just US2,000 as a foal and cost Murphy 20,000 guineas as a four-year-old.

He burst onto the racecourse scene in 1996 by winning two bumpers at Uttoxeter and Newbury, before running 2nd to Noble thyne in the Doncaster Sales Grade 1 bumper at Punchestown. A sixth in the Festival bumper in 1997 and third at Punchestown followed, before a jumping career.

French Holly then ran up four wins over timber defeating Legendry Line, Foundry Lane, Grey Shot and Better Offer at Ayr, Haydock, Sandown and Huntingdon respectively.

French Holly – Next Stop Cheltenham

Next stop Cheltenham, and French Holly justified favouritism in great style by spreadeagling his field the opening Royal & SunAlliance Novices’ Hurdle. Martin Pipe’s Torboy took up the running after jumping the first but Cloone Bridge and French Holly were soon in close attendance. However the latter was was always travelling ominously well under Andrew Thornton and it was just a case of the jockey biding his time. He asked the question at the top of the hill and the response was immediate with only Torboy and Cloone Bridge able to keep tabs on Murphy’s 2-1 shot but that was short lived. The seven-year-old stretched clear in impressive fashion in the last three furlongs to romp home for a 14-length success.

Holly’s 1998/9 campaign started with disappointment as he was pulled up behind Mr Percy in the Davis Langdon & Everest Handicap Hurdle at Ascot. Ferdy Murphy later reported the gelding to have lost is action. A second to Dato Star at Newcastle in the Grade 2 Fighting Fifth followed before French Holly’s next victory.

The first 1998/9 vistory was a nine-length demolition of a good field including Master Beveled and Dato Star in the Pertemps Christmas Hurdle. This defeat of Master Beveled, with evens favourite Dato Star a disappointing third, was a marked improvement on French Holly’s two previous runs this season.

But Murphy said: “To me, he’s never been anything other than high class. He’s a big horse and you can’t get stuck into them too quickly. He’ll improve again for that.”

A formidable task in Ireland followed, as French Holly tackled Istabraq in the Irish Champion Hurdle. Istabraq was victorious by more than the one length margin suggested, although Frnch Holly had suffered a nightmare journey to Leopardstown.

French Holly next headed for Cheltenham and the Champion Hurdle in March, and ran a creditable 3rd to the magnificent Istabraq. After drifting in the betting from 4-1 out to 11-2, French Holly eventually went down by a total of six lengths to Istabraq, as he was headed by runner-up Theatreworld who beat him by two and a half lengths.

Afterwards, French Holly’s trainer, Ferdy Murphy, said: “Istabraq is extra special, but we’ve run a great race and I’m happy. Anything my lad did over hurdles was a bonus, and he’s won a Royal & SunAlliance Novices’ Hurdle, finished second in an Irish Champion and third here.

The next run came in the Martell Aintree Hurdle, finishing a respectable one length second again to Istabraq.

Ferdy Murphy next sent his gelding to France with the target of the French Champion Hurdle. He defeated Kimbi to score in his warm up race, the Prix Barka. However, he could only manage fourth place in Champion.

Ferdy Murphy blamed a combination of firm ground and a slow pace for French Holly’s defeat. But he was far from downcast that his Prix Barka winner could manage only fourth behind Vaporetto in Grande Course de Haies d’Auteuil, for which he was sent off 6-4 favourite.

And the trainer is already plotting a return visit in the autumn before launching his eight-year-old’s chasing career.

“The main thing is that he is 100%,” Murphy reflected on Sunday morning.

“He has come out of the race fantastically – he didn’t get dehydrated or anything.

“The ground got very fast and it was just a sprint yesterday – I think the French jockeys worked out how to beat him after the Barka. It is just one of those things. We didn’t get much luck last year when Paddy’s Return was fifth and we didn’t get much luck this year but we’ll be back to give it another go.

“French Holly picked up around 60 grand overall, when he would otherwise have been out in a field. And the experience will benefit his chasing career.”

French Holly made his debut over fences at Wetherby on 29th October in the Tadcaster Novices Chase. He made no mistake winning easily from Monsierur Darcy by 18 lengths.

Sadly, on November 5th 1999 the dream was to end. Tragedy struck as the star jumper was killed in a schooling accident, breaking his neck in a fall at Ferdy Murphy’s yard. It is a bitter blow for Murphy as his stable star had made a successful debut over fences only a week earlier and was widely expected to go right to the top as a chaser.

“It happened in schooling,” Murphy said. “Andrew Thornton was here riding him and the horse came down and snapped his neck and was killed instantly. Obviously everyone is devastated – the vet who has looked after him ever since he came here was here and she is absolutely gutted. He will be very hard to replace.”

French Holly will be sadly missed by everyone in racing, and will be remembered as a horse who never got the chance to show us how far he could have really gone.

Rest in Peace French Holly.


By Alastair Down, Racing Post

There are not enough good ones simply to shrug off the death of French Holly as being “one of those things”.

Jump racing is sustained on an everyday basis by the ordinary endeavours of unexceptional horses plying their trade from Exeter to Perth, Carlisle to Folkestone, most of them barely household names in their own households.

For the sport’s highpoints we wait for animals who bring with them a shiver of excitement and the promise of the extraordinary.

French Holly would be a loss simply for what he had achieved to date, yet for all his brilliance over hurdles, this great panzer of a novice had always looked like an animal who wouldn’t really come into his rightful inheritance until that enormous frame was being hurled over fences.

He was an exhilarating winner of the 1998 Royal & SunAlliance Novices’ Hurdle, bolting up by 14 lengths, and you could argue that last year only Istabraq was his superior – no mean tribute to chisel into any horse’s headstone.

Twice second to the champion in Ireland, that he finished ‘only’ third at Cheltenham was largely because he was ridden to win the race, whereas the eventual second Theatreworld never looked likely to finish better than runner-up.

Whenever Ferdy Murphy or Andy Thornton talked about French Holly’s achievements, it was always a question of “yes, but you just wait . . .”.

But now those years of patient anticipation have come to a stomach-churning halt by a snapped neck on a Middleham morning – a 1,000-1 chance cutting down a horse who was one in 10,000.

One more dead gelding does not carry much weight in the scales of calamity worldwide, but this is racing’s loss, our business, a parish matter. It is painful because it is close to home and we understand what it means.

Above all, we know all too well what it is that we will no longer have the chance to see. It’s a sad sunset that comes just half-way through the day.