Interview - Francois Doumen: Gallic colossus primed for his next invasion; Francois Doumen has won the King George VI Chase four times in the last 14 years and still likes nothing better than lifting Britain's big jumps prizes.
ALMOST 14 years on from his first foray across the Channel, Francois Doumen retains a distinct liking for his British raids.
In 1987, a relatively unknown jumper called Nupsala was sent to Kempton Park for the King George VI Chase on Boxing Day and toppled the legendary Desert Orchid.
That gave the debonair Doumen his first taste of victory in Britain, where his raids are
always feared by rival trainers.
Since Nupsala, the Frenchman has picked up three other King Georges with The Fellow, in 1991 and the following year, and Algan, winner in 1994.
Doumen also saddled The
Fellow to win the 1994 Cheltenham Gold Cup and, most recently, Snow Drop won last season's
Triumph Hurdle. Many other British races have been added to the tally of the man who,
uniquely, lands top-class jumping events on both sides of the
Doumen first came to Britain for a special reason. "The ground is so boggy at Auteuil at the end of the season. My friend Oliver Sherwood said it would very likely be better at Kempton, which would suit Nupsala."
Travelling between his new training centre at Bouce in
Normandy and his satellite stable at Chantilly, Doumen is preparing his latest invasion party. In the van will be the awesome First Gold, second favourite to give him a fifth King George VI Chase.
Owned by the Marquesa de Moratalla, First Gold hacked up from Al Capone in the Prix La Haye Jousselin at Auteuil. As a five-year-old, he won the Grand Steeple-Chase de Paris.
Also in the team is the highly rated Bilboa, a recent easy
winner at Enghien. She goes for the Summit Juvenile Hurdle at Lingfield on Saturday, before
trying to emulate Snow Drop by winning the Triumph.
Doumen has been a great
ambassador for France and has been honoured by becoming the first Frenchman to train for a member of the Royal family. He has won four jump races for the Queen Mother in the last four months.
A distinguished friend led to the association. "It was due to an introduction from Sir Peter
O'Sullevan, whom I met through the Marquesa de Moratalla. She insisted on having a half-bred, so I bought her Fire Ball, who has won three races. The Queen Mother also has Bleu a l'Ame and Prima Notte. She giggles a bit at that last name.
"Normally, I make contact through Sir Michael Oswald and when we win he asks me to
contact her directly. She asks me many questions, is very
up-to-date and gets very excited by every win."
There is racing blood on both sides of the Doumen pedigree. His father Jean was a talented trainer, whose cousin, Edgar, was champion jockey in Rome before the First World War.
His mother's family came from the Alsace region of France. "The grandfather on my dam's side was called Georges Spitz, and he started the French veterinary school in Rio de Janeiro after the First World War," he explains.
Doumen is used to travelling and was born on the move. "The Germans invaded France in 1940 and the family was on the way to the Loire valley when I appeared at Chatellerault," he says.
An accomplished amateur with more than 100 winners, Doumen went to South Africa in the early 1970s, where he met his wife Elizabeth. He returned to France in 1975 and helped his father at Maisons-Laffitte before starting on his own with a dozen horses at Chantilly.
In the late eighties, Doumen met the Monte Carlo-based
financier Ronald Reeves, who sent him Double Bed to train.
"I will never forget the end of 1987. Nupsala won the King George and Double Bed landed the Grade 1 Hialeah Turf Cup a few days later. An unbelievable week!"
Doumen then hit a seam of gold with his `Three Musketeers'. "The Fellow, Ucello and Ubu won more than nine million francs and it was a special experience to train them," he recalls.
"The Fellow is still enjoying his retirement. He will be in the
parade before the King George. I have promised to bring Algan over from France to join him."
In 1991, the Doumens bought the Haras d'Ecouves at La Haute Ratrie in Normandy.
"We started breeding in 1993 and one of our first foals was Jim And Tonic. There are 15 mares at the stud and a total of 45 horses. The running of the stud is the
responsibility of Elizabeth.
"She's very dedicated and does all the foalings all by herself.
Elizabeth is also very proud of her vegetable garden."
Parsnips, virtually unknown in France, take their place alongside the turkey at the Doumen
household. "The problem is that we can never celebrate Christmas at home as we are travelling to
England, so we have a family
dinner around the 20th."
Thierry Doumen now rides nearly all his father's horses,
having turned professional three years ago.
"I am proud of Thierry, but I do worry about him. I was terribly anxious before Ciel de Brion's fall in the 1998 Grand National
because the ground was appalling and I was afraid that something bad would happen.
"Thierry has come on a lot and is now a very competent
professional. He has improved quickly because of his experience in England."
Doumen was introduced to owner John Martin by Reeves, but things have soured over the past months after a year in which the Martin colours were carried to great success by Jim And Tonic, Snow Drop and Boca Boca among others.
In July, it was announced that Martin would be running down his operation in France. There have since been two dispersal sales. A total of 31 horses were
involved and they amassed nearly Ff12,000,00 (pounds 1,152,738).
Doumen says: "It is something which happens to a lot of trainers. Owners who are too successful at the beginning demand too much at the end and I was not supple enough to accept his demands. But we have resolved that
situation and John still has Jim And Tonic with me.
"You never know what can
happen. If he [Martin] wants to win a race at Cheltenham, he might come back to me."
Jim And Tonic, nicknamed `Cocktail' by the Chinese, appears to be the go-between between trainer and owner. "I talk to the horse and the horse repeats it to John," says Doumen.
`Cocktail' will shortly be
heading east for Hong Kong, but team Doumen is primed and ready to plunder different
prizes. Some of the top honours
in British jumping are on the
Francois Doumen on the Chantilly gallops with (left) First Gold, ridden by son Thierry, and Jim And Tonic alongside the trainer's wife Elizabeth
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|Publication:||The Racing Post (London, England)|
|Date:||Dec 6, 2000|
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