Grand Prix D’Automne
Who needs the Breeders Cup when you have a race like this? The long anticipated clash between the best staying hurdlers in the UK and France is set for Saturday afternoon at 2:50pm. Full credit needs to be given to Philip Hobbs and The Englands and Heywood’s partnership for rolling the dice with Thyme Hill and coming to Paris. There is no doubt that Prize money is the main incentive, with €350k in the pot, but it would still have been an easier option to stay at home and follow the tried and trusted route of Newbury and Ascot with their champion stayer. This race is being billed as a match between the big heavyweights and on ratings it is, but 7 runners will go to post and there is more to it than a match bet between L’autonomie and Thyme Hill. Before we come to those 2, we should also look at the other runners in the line up.
EL GRINGO. He looks to have the most to find. He has run creditably well for a considerable period of time, maintaining a good level of form and placing on many occasions in Graded and Listed company. However, even on his best form he probably has 20lbs to find on these terms and the best of his recent form has come over fences, so it is hard to see how he will feature in an event this deep. He finished 4th in a Listed hurdle here at the start of October, beaten 8 lengths by the improving Grand Art. If he repeats that effort, he will be lucky to finish in the first 5.
ZUREKIN. What a fabulous horse he has been for his connections. Since being claimed from Guillaume Macaire he has been a real flag bearer for James Finch and the Sophie Leech team in France. A winner of €193k of prize money, he is worth his place in this lineup and has consistently run to his mark of 69.5, including when 3rd in the G2 Prix La Barka here in the Spring. He ran perfectly well on his first start over fences at Lyon last month and arrives here in good form. I don’t think there can be any doubt that his connections are “rolling the dice” at this level and he will need to improve significantly to get his head in front, but he is only a 5-year-old and even if he finds this a little too hot to handle, there is every reason to believe that there is further improvement in him and in years to come he could be capable of winning at this level.
FOLSOM PRISON. Yannick Fouin’s stable star, he has really made huge strides in 2021 and confirmed his improvement by chasing home L’autonomie in the Prix Carmarthen here last month. He meets her on 3-kilos worse terms than for that 4-length defeat, so he looks to have a lot to do if he is to reverse that form. However, the extra trip looks like it will really suit him (his dam was a dour stayer on the flat) and with the possibility of the extra 900-metres bringing out further improvement, he is a lively outsider.
At this point I think it is fair to say that we have covered the bigger priced runners. They are all worthy of their place at this level, but equally it will be quite a shock if one of them actually manages to put their head in front. Before we move on to look at the “Big 2”, there are 2 forgotten horses in this lineup who are worthy of closer attention.
PAUL’S SAGA. One of just 2 horses to have beaten L’autonomie, she is a proven winner over this course and distance, winning the Grande Course de Haies D’Auteuil here in October 2020, beating L’autonomie into 2nd despite having to give her 2-kilos. If she can repeat that performance, she would have a huge chance in this field, but that is a big “If”. Following her win in the French Champion Hurdle, her connections were swayed towards a tilt at the Stayers hurdle at Cheltenham. That plan didn’t work out and after she was beaten by Molly Ollys Wishes at Warwick in February, the idea was shelved. That change of routine probably threw her off track slightly but she did return to form when attempting to defend her crown in the Grande Course in May, finishing a very creditable 2nd, albeit beaten 30-lengths by L’autonomie. She has had just one start since May, when she finished a 5-length 3rd in the Prix Carmarthen last month and with the benefit of that run, she should at least reverse the form with Folsom Prison who finished 2nd. Kevin Nabet is one of the most intelligent riders of Auteuil that I have seen, a fact confirmed by the superb ride he gave Paul’s Saga to win here last October so if she is to find a way to reverse the form, he will be the man to guide her. However, she has significant improvement to find if she is to win.
GALOP MARIN. The winner of the last 3 renewals of this race and he has almost been forgotten in all the hype. The French handicapper has given him an official mark of 76, higher than Thyme Hill on 73.5, yet he is likely to be 4 times the price. Dominique Bressou trains him perfectly for this race every year and you can essentially ignore his spring form as he seems to only come alive in the autumn. In theory, he is well held by L’autonomie as she has beaten him on his last 5 starts, but it was a similar story going into last years renewal and he still found the improvement to reverse the form with both the leading French mares to defend his crown. He is closing in on €1.5m of prize money and after 48 career starts we know exactly what he is likely to do. At the age of 9, there may not be too many big days left in the tank, but to write him off entirely would be foolish and if there is to be an upset, he is almost certainly the one to cause it.
So thats the other 5, what about the Heavyweights? Well let’s start with the Home Champion.
L’AUTONOMIE. If this was a 2-horse race, she would win. It’s a controversial opinion, perhaps biased by my love of French racing, but she is the best hurdler in the world. If she met Honeysuckle on level weights over 2m4F, she would wipe the floor with her. Yes, I know she jumps to her right and has her quirks, but she has dominated French hurdling this year and has been flawless. An almost limitless reserve of energy and an enthusiasm that borders on unruly at times, she will bounce out and pull her way to the front, whether Angelo Zuliani wants to lead with her or not and I think the key to her improvement this year has been the fact that he has stopped trying to restrain her. The best horses don’t need to be told what to do, they just like to gallop and let their talent do the rest. This is a home fixture, she knows Auteuil as well as any horse and she will probably have the majority of this field crying enough by the time they reach the 3rd last. As she has matured, she has strengthened both physically and mentally and as much as I admire both Paul’s Saga and Galop Marin, the horse they beat in 2020 has improved significantly in 12 months and it will be a shock if L’autonomie doesn’t finish ahead of her 5 compatriots.
THYME HILL. He is the best staying hurdler on this side of the channel. It was such a shame that we didn’t get to see him at Cheltenham as the Stayers hurdle was run to suit him and he would have won it in my opinion. He confirmed that theory by winning at Aintree when he put Roksana in her place and he fully deserves to be favourite for this years Stayers hurdle at this stage. His connections have said that the decision to run here was influenced by the prize money on offer and given the difficulty of travelling to Paris, he isn’t coming for the Coffee and Croissants so he should be fully tuned up for his return. The soft ground shouldn’t be too much of a concern and he has always been a sound jumper, so the switch to Fixed brush hurdles should be fine. In theory, the race should pan out nicely for him as he is guaranteed a good pace to aim at and the stiff finish at Auteuil should play to his strengths. The key to this race will be the tactics, Tom O’Brien will need to have his wits about him in the early stages as L’autonomie has a habit of poaching a lead in the early stages and on ground that has registered as 4,5 Heavy, it could be very difficult to catch her if she gets too far ahead.
On form this is a match race, but on balance, this is all about tactics. I have to favour L’AUTONOMIE over THYME HILL at this stage. Ground, Trip, Course, Speed and Stamina are all in her favour and with the level she has achieved in 2021, she wins this. If forced to bet, she would be my pick but there is also a nagging thought in my head that GALOP MARIN is lurking in the background, having been waited with all season long, this is his big day in the sun. So I have decided to roll the dice with him in the equation and play the 3 of them in a combination exacta, with the hope that the old boy can at least run into the frame.