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FRANCE'S RECLUSIVE GENIUS; John Randall charts the career of Francois Mathet, the perennial champion born 100 years ago today REWIND FRANCOIS MATHET.

Byline: John Randall

TODAY is the centenary of the birth of Francois Mathet, who was France's greatest trainer and dominated racing in that country for three decades.

The perennial champion won the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe four times, with Tantieme (twice), Sassafras and Akiyda; the Prix du Jockey-Club six times; and the Grand Prix de Paris nine times.

He also trained Reliance and Tanerko, Derby winners Phil Drake and Relko, King George hero Match, dual Classic-winning fillies Bella Paola and La Sega, champion two-year-olds Texana and Blushing Groom, and top sprinter Amber Rama. He also nurtured the career of Yves Saint-Martin.

Francois Mathet was born on May 21, 1908, and followed his father's example by becoming a cavalry officer in the French army. The young soldier scored his first victory as a trainer (and first as a rider) with his own filly Invicta in a cross-country steeplechase at Provins in 1930. He soon became champion amateur rider over jumps.

He started to train professionally at Maisons-Laffitte in 1944 and got his big break in late 1946 when Francois Dupre, a leading owner-breeder, sent him his horses; he moved to Chantilly soon afterwards.

The big-race winners for the Mathet-Dupre partnership included Tantieme, Tanerko, Texana, Bella Paola, Match, La Sega, Relko, Reliance and Danseur. Tantieme, the first and greatest champion he ever trained, won the Arc in 1950 and 1951, and catapulted him to the front rank of his profession.

He scored the first of his five English Classic victories with Phil Drake in the 1955 Derby, and Suzy Volterra's colt followed up in the Grand Prix de Paris, at the time France's premier three-year-old race.

Mathet's two most remarkable fillies, Texana and Bella Paola, were contemporaries but very different.

The dazzlingly precocious Texana was unbeaten in 11 races as a two-year-old in 1957 including the inaugural Prix de l'Abbaye (Mathet trained the first three), and in 1958 Bella Paola easily landed the 1,000 Guineas, Oaks, Prix Vermeille and Champion Stakes. In that same year, stablemate Tanerko won his second Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud.

Mathet had the best colt and filly in Europe in 1962: four-year-old Match won the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud, King George and Washington DC International, while La Sega took both fillies' Classics at home.

They were ridden by France's greatest jockey Yves Saint-Martin, who had been apprenticed to Mathet and rode most of the stable's best horses from the early 1960s.

They included Relko, who won an unorthodox Triple Crown in 1963, taking the 2,000 Guineas and St Leger equivalents in France and the Derby at Epsom by six lengths. He was the champion of Europe as a four-year-old, winning the Prix Ganay, Coronation Cup and Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud.

In 1965 Reliance became Mathet's first Prix du Jockey-Club winner and proved himself a great horse in his only defeat, when second to Sea-Bird in the Arc. The trainer's other stars in the 1960s included Solitude, Dicta Drake, Mirna, Texana's sister Texanita, Silver Shark, Zeddaan, Bella Paola's daughter Pola Bella, and Saraca, who all won more than one race later designated Group 1.

In the mid-1960s Mathet was the first trainer in Europe with a string of 200 horses, having become the Aga Khan's main handler, and he was routinely the leading trainer in France in both money earned and races won.

He later trained for Baron Guy de Rothschild, Nelson Bunker Hunt and Stavros Niarchos as well.

HIS two champions in 1970 were both owned by Arpad Plesch: Sassafras, who won the Prix du Jockey-Club and ended Nijinsky's unbeaten record in the Arc, and Amber Rama, the best sprinter he ever trained.

Mathet was not renowned for his speedy or precocious horses, but Blushing Groom won France's four top juvenile races for him in 1976. His other multiple Group 1 winners during that decade were Rheffic, Kalamoun, Exceller and Top Ville.

Mathet was outspoken in his opposition to doping, which he alleged was routinely practised by his Chantilly colleagues. Ironically, two of his biggest winners, Relko (1963 Derby) and Vayrann (1981 Champion Stakes), produced positive post-race tests, though neither was disqualified.

He won his fourth Arc with the filly Akiyda in 1982. He died on January 12, 1983, aged 74.

Francois Mathet was reserved, even reclusive, by nature. Peter O'Sullevan wrote in Calling The Horses: "His patience with horses was in direct contrast to his intolerance of people . . . He had a horror of owners who wished to visit their horses, never received the local press, and was generally as gregarious as a Trappist monk. Further, although he patronized a London tailor and shoemaker, he was said to dislike the English."

Largely self-taught, Mathet won a total of about 3,200 races, a European record at the time. Only Andre Fabre rivals him for the title 'France's greatest trainer'.

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Francois Mathet (right), pictured with Yves Saint-Martin, dominated French racing for 30 years
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:May 21, 2008
Words:819
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