Monday Musings: A Weekend in France

It could only happen in France, writes Tony Stafford. There were 15 runners in the Grade 1 Grande Course de Haies d’Auteuil on Saturday and despite seven from Ireland, four Willie and one Emmet Mullins, a dual Cheltenham Stayers Hurdle winner (Flooring Porter) for Gavin Cromwell, and last month’s impressive Sandown Grade 2 chase winner Hewick from Shark Hanlon, the French turfistes bet as though only one horse mattered.

Until a few weeks ago there would have been a big two, but over recent meetings, Theleme, Saturday’s 6/4 favourite trained by Arnaud Chaille-Chaille, so good a trainer they named him twice, had taken control. Last year, Hermes Baie had easily won the then eight-runner renewal by seven lengths from Mullins’ first string of three, Klassical Dream, who was coming on from winning at Punchestown, a feat he repeated late last month.

In another replica, while just preferred in the market to his conqueror, Klassical Dream was again seven lengths adrift of Hermes Baie, as that six-year-old got within a couple of lengths of his contemporary Theleme, a well beaten fourth last time. Still, third will have done quite nicely for Joanne Coleman and family and Mr and Mrs Mark Smith, not only enjoying a weekend in the French capital but also glorying in West Ham United’s Europa Conference League exploits. The bubbles surely will have been flowing and blowing!

This season, apart from an aberration when Goa Lil, a 7yo trained by Tom George’s son Noel, but running in the colours of Nigel Twiston-Davies, was allowed too long a lead and supplied an 18/1 shock against the long odds-on Theleme - Nige’s horse pulled up on Saturday – it’s been one way traffic.

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The unusual thing I referred to at the start of the piece was the fact that in each of Theleme’s last dozen races over the past 20 months, Hermes Gaie has been among the opposition.  For their initial five encounters, Francois Nicolle’s charge had been on top, winning four of those races, but the tide has turned emphatically and Theleme is now unequivocally the master.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece about a one-time Willie Mullins horse, not to mention his initial trainer, Guillaume Macaire, and subsequent not insubstantial handlers, Paul Nicholls and Dan Skelton. He’s a discard from Sullivan Racing and hardly the type to make a living out of racing in France, the land of his birth, you would think.

But over the past 18 months, from her base in Westbury-on-Severn, Gloucestershire, Sophie Leech and her husband Christian have been loading up the horsebox for the eight-hour trip to the Paris tracks to campaign said Lucky One, with spectacular form and financial results for owner Ben Halsall.

Last month, the eight-year-old won more than 50k in a race over 2m5f at France’s principal jumps track, and afterwards the team reasoned he was unexposed at the extended 3m1f of the Grande Course, so the foolhardy – it seemed to others – plan was hatched.

A glimpse at his UK rating of 114 – probably unrealistic as his last ten runs (all of them in fact since being bought out of the Skelton yard) – have been in France. He was raised to an exchange equivalent of 129 (from 120) for the last win.

What is as equally remarkable as Lucky One’s achievements is the Leech race planning of his programme. He has taken up and raced in eight of his last ten entries.

Surely, though, he would struggle in such company? Well, no, in the event he ran on from the rear into sixth, admittedly behind Irish trio Klassical Dream, Hewick, and Emmet Mullins’s lightly-raced Feronily, all of those recent Grade 1 scorers. But, in turn, he was well clear of Haut En Couleurs, Willie’s 146-rated hurdler and 10lb higher chaser, in 8th place; 156-rated Flooring Porter (9th), with Willie’s remaining pair Asterion Forlonge (155 hurdles, 162 chase) 10th and Kilcruit (145 and 160 chase) 11th.

Christian Leech said they were all thrilled at the result and he and Sophie are looking forward to exploiting the opportunities in what they regard as their “home” programme book next season. In the meantime, they had another nice result at Compiegne last week when Alnadam, a 42/1 shot, picked up 7k for his fourth in a Listed hurdle.

Eight lengths behind in fifth was the Harry Fry trained Might I, a 3/1 shot. Rated 20lb above the Leech horse in the UK ratings, but conceding only 2lb, he was easily beaten off. Alnadam can look forward to some more trips under the Channel in the coming weeks and months.

If Willie Mullins was pained at having four unsuccessful darts at the big hurdle, the gloom would have intensified yesterday when the well-publicised plan to return with last year’s third Franco De Port for the Grand Steeple Chase de Paris proved in vain as he trailed home eighth of 18.

The master trainer had planned out his season minutely, with three previous trips across to Paris along with a date in the Cheltenham Cross Country when he ran third to Gordon Elliott’s smart pair Delta Work and Galvin, but to no avail.

There were three UK connections faring rather better. Lord Daresbury, who in his days as Peter Greenall rode many good hunter chasers under the guidance of a master trainer of an earlier era, the irrepressible Arthur Stephenson, four decades ago. His lordship is the principal owner of the big race favourite Gex, who was backed down to a very short 9/5 before the off.

Most of the way it seemed inevitable that he would win but he was pestered out of it on the run-in by a determined Johnny Charron on Rosario Baron, trained by Daniela Mele. Fourth were two familiar names, Nick Littmoden and Jack Quinlan, trainer and rider of Imperil, who collected £71k.

The seven-year-old was bought originally from France as a juvenile and I was at Fakenham on New Year’s Day in 2020 when the son of No Risk At All made his Littmoden debut and cantered away with the 2nd division of the novice hurdle, beating a 40/1 shot trained by the late Shaun Keightley.

I was there to see Waterproof win the first division of that race for Keightley in the colours of Raymond Tooth. Jack Quinlan, pretty much the only jump jockey of any seniority in most of the past decade to be based in racing’s HQ, had done all the schooling on Waterproof and ridden him in his previous starts, but was unavailable for Fakenham when he could also have ridden Imperil.

My connection with Jack’s father Noel goes back a long way and probably as far as with Littmoden. In his days around 25 years ago – Nick first took out a licence in 1994 – he trained on the track at Dunstall Park, Wolverhampton. In response to my asking whether he had anything for sale privately, he came up with two hard-working handicappers which were passed on to Kuwaiti brothers who raced on a small private track.

When, after a season, they reported back that between them they had won 15 races (one seven and the other eight), unwisely I passed on the “good news” to their previous trainer and Nick refused to sell them any more! At least, the boys offered me a trip to the wedding of one of them that winter which I was happy to accept.

Sometime after, Nick moved to Newmarket and trained from Julie Cecil’s Southgate Stables in the Hamilton Road after she retired. That’s now the base for Amy Murphy, Jack Quinlan’s principal employer, when her stable was much more jumping oriented. The best days were when Kalashnikov was winning the Betfair Hurdle and other nice races.

Amy herself has done well with mostly Flat runners in France and she is still toying with the idea of making the move to that country permanent to take advantage of the far better prizemoney on a day-to-day basis. A hurdles win there for now 10-year-old Kalashnikov at Auteuil in March brought a win prize of £23k and he was then sixth in another hurdle at Compiegne over 2m3f, won by Rosario Baron, who stepped up 10f and over to fences for yesterday’s triumph

Littmoden, unlike Amy, did go the whole hog; switching with wife Emma in early 2021 to a base at Moulins-les-Metz in Alliers, Central France, 377 km from Paris and just north-west of Lyon. With so many of France’s many racetracks within a few hours’ drive, that has proved an ideal location.

In 25 years’ training over jumps, his best single season’s prizemoney haul in the UK was £29K, although when he had the journalist/professional gambler Nigel Shields as the main owner in the yard, he was adept, with Nigel’s shrewd reading of the programme and form book, at getting many more wins, 80 being the peak in 2002.

In 2021 upon his move, the first season brought 14 wins from 78 runs and yielded €218k; last year 13/168 brought €268k and this year so far eight wins from 51 have added €259k so he is on course for a another much-increased tally. With almost £800k for his owners over just more than two years, this has been a transfer to savour. He operates from two yards, one based at Moulins racecourse housing around 15 horses – no new experience for him! – and the remainder are located nearby at a farm with an 800-metre gallop.

Yesterday’s fourth in the undoubted biggest race of the year over fences in France was one sort of pinnacle but when his career record as a foreign trainer in the country is remembered after he finally retires, Imperil’s success under Jack last month in the race that is known as the French Grand National, but is actually the Prix du President de la Republique, will stand tallest. Jack was along for that ride too, as Imperil beat 16 others in the race over just short of 3m.

While Littmoden was checking his France Galop account to see whether he had beaten last year’s tally, Willie Mullins finally got on the winner’s podium. His filly Gala Marceau, in the Kenny Alexander Honeysuckle colours, picked up her second Grade 1 win, having previously been the beneficiary of stablemate Lossiemouth’s traffic problems at the Dublin Racing Festival in February at Leopardstown.

Otherwise, she had been seeing Lossiemouth’s back end in a second place in the Triumph Hurdle and third at Punchestown, but she bolted up yesterday in the 4yo championship, Grande Course de Haies de Printemps (Spring), slaughtering the much-acclaimed domestic champion Losange Bleu by seven lengths.

Then again, you might say champion of what? Mullins had bought all the potential juvenile stars over the past 18 months and most of them, including Lossiemouth, are still on the upgrade. No doubt Willie and Howard Kirk will have had their notebooks out over the past few weeks, shopping for next season’s stars. And probably still trying to remember where they had heard the name Lucky One!

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