The French Revolution: Great invasion that began with Nupsala victory.
A NEW factor is stirring if not actually shaking British jumps racing and giving rise to concern that the sport may be undergoing a change of emphasis.
That at least is the theory. And it appears to be supported by the facts that there have been six French-trained winners in Britain already this season and that two of them were the first such horses not to be trained by Francois Doumen since 1991.
But this growing foreign legion is, as far as the public is concerned, merely the most noticeable aspect of a tale which is founded on ever-increasing success for French-bred horses trained in Britain.
A glance at Pattern-race results in jump racing over a decade provides a telling set of statistics.
During the 1990-91 season in Britain and Ireland, six French-bred horses won ten Graded jump races, one at the top level. In the current campaign, ten French-bred individuals have won ten Graded races already, four of them Grade 1s.
Products of France have been improving their scores at the elite levels of the sport year on year, reaching a high of 25 Grade 1, 2 and 3 victories during 1999-2000.
The catalyst for this most recent French revolution was the 1987 King George VI Chase winner Nupsala, whose defeat of Desert Orchid in the Kempton showpiece was significant on two counts. First, Doumen's charge was the first French-trained winner in Britain since L'Empereur, who had won a minor event in September 1963 en route to an unsuccessful tilt at the 1964 Grand National.
Second, he alerted some of the shrewder observers on these shores to the worth and potential of French jumpers. The next French-bred Grade 1 winner in Britain was the Martin Pipe-trained Rolling Ball, who took the 1991 Sun Alliance Chase.
Since Nupsala signposted the way, the fact that French jumpers are as good, if not better, than those produced and trained in Britain and Ireland has become patently apparent.
Most of the French-breds are cherrypicked imports, but last month there was a reminder
of what French trainers could do, with victories not only for Doumen, courtesy of Ben Ewar and Baracouda at Ascot, and First Gold and Facts Not Fiction at Kempton, but for Guillaume Macaire with Jair du Cochet and Imperial de Thaix at Chepstow.
Doumen was the first-and, up to now-only French trainer of the modern era to realise the potential of raiding Britain over Christmas, a time when the French jump season is taking its mid-winter break, and following up with tilts at other top prizes.
One very good reason why his compatriots have tended not to follow suit is the excellent levels of prize-money in France.
For example, Jair du Cochet and the Doumen-trained Bilboa picked up a total of pounds 24,000 in prize-money when they finished first and second in the Grade 1 Welsh Finale Junior Hurdle at Chepstow. Previously, they had filled the first two places, in reverse order, in a Grade 3 juvenile hurdle at Enghien for a total of pounds 43,000.
The French connection with Britain goes back much further than this modern phenomenon, however.
During the 1950s, successful Gallic assaults on the top hurdle prizes were commonplace: Abrupto, Blue Song, Hoggar, Clair Soleil and Kwannin took easy pickings in the infant Triumph Hurdle five years out of six and Prince Hindou, Phyrrus and subsequent Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe winner Le Paillon were placed in the Champion Hurdle.
But even though French-trained challengers in Britain more or less dried up until the Doumen era, the debt the sport owes to French horses is arguably unpayable.
Pipe and the others who have exploited their ability on the track were not the first. In the immediate post-war era Peter Cazalet regularly raided France for quality young stock and one of his recruits, Manicou, became the first horse to run in the Queen Mother's blue-and-buff colours.
In winning the 1950 King George, Manicou consolidated his owner's interest in her newly adopted pastime, and that patronage was one of the single most important factors in jump racing's growth in popularity. And the Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle rolls of honour would certainly be all the poorer without names such as Fortina, Mont Tremblant, Mandarin and Sir Ken.
In breeding terms, the Irish were quick to realise the potential of French-breds as stallions. Vulgan, winner of a division of the Gloucester Hurdle at Cheltenham, set the trend and others were given the opportunity. Horses like Fortina, Escart, Bargello, Boreen, Le Bavard, Buckskin, Over The River, Phardante, and Roselier (to name but a few) have carried the (Fr) suffix highly successfully in the jump sphere.
Again in breeding terms, there was another significant aspect to Nupsala, and to the Doumen-trained horses who followed him to victory in Britain-The Fellow, Algan, Val d'Alene, Djeddah and now First Gold. They are not full thoroughbreds, but members of the Selle Francais strain of non-thoroughbreds who have been selectively and specifically bred for jump racing for a century.
THE breeders of these horses produce them with a fierce and understandable pride under advantageous conditions. Out in the countryside, particularly in the departements of the west, south-west and centre, every farmer has a broodmare of some sort and every little town a racetrack. Parisien racegoers may be just punters, but in rural France the love of horses is ingrained.
There are 170 jump racing tracks in France, the acme being Auteuil. Selle Francais horses are rigorously tested from an early age, starting with a regime of three-year-old Flat races restricted to AQPS (autre que pur sang) animals-literally, horses other than thoroughbreds. They swiftly progress to hurdles and fences at an age when many of their British and Irish counterparts are still-allegedly-maturing in a field.
Far from this being deleterious, there is growing evidence to suggest that horses who are tested at an early age tend to be better and sounder than those who join in late.
Over the years, French jump breeders have been well served by their National Stud system, which is subsidised, through the government, by pari-mutuel betting. A regional National Stud serves every area, providing stallions according to local demand.
The now-deceased Shafoun, for example, sire of not only First Gold but also of the ill-fated Gloria Victis, stood at the Haras National at Lamballe in Brittany, at a fee of Ff1,250 (pounds 120.19) (Oct 1).
That memorable day at Chepstow over Christmas was a tour de force for Selle Francais horses, who, like cars, have a registration letter for the year of their birth.
As well as three-year-old Jair du Cochet and four-year-old Imperial de Thaix, five-year-old Harvis (trained by Venetia Wiliams) and six-year-old Gun'n Roses (Pipe) were also successful.
But it is not only the Selle Francais horses who are crossing the Channel. The invasion is two-pronged; French-bred thoroughbreds at the sharp end of the sport include Baracouda, Cyfor Malta, Geos, Lady Cricket and Mister Banjo.
As the production of jumpers in Britain continues to fail to progress, and becomes increasingly dependent on a haphazard numbers game in Ireland, the opportunity for the French to swoop is ripe-just as the Americans did on the Flat during the late 1960s and 1970s.
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|Publication:||The Racing Post (London, England)|
|Date:||Jan 5, 2001|
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