Updated: Feb 22
It wasn't in it's usual spot in the calendar and the warm skies of May were replaced by the chill of October, but the Grand Steeple meeting didn't disappoint. 2 days of fantastic racing at the home of French Jumps racing. Having watched all of the racing several times over, here are a few thoughts on what I learnt from this weekends action.
Paul’s Saga / L’Autonomie
On the face of it, a 40/1 SP for the winner of the French Champion Hurdle would make a lot of people question the form. However, the price offered for Paul’s Saga was based more on her recent Chase form and not her ability over hurdles. Having won twice in Graded company over hurdles at Auteuil last autumn, she was well worth her place in the line up. David Cottin is the rising force in the French training ranks and he confirmed this by getting Paul’s Saga spot on for this race, in spite of her pulling up just 2 weeks previously over fences at Compiegne.
She was a deserved winner on Saturday, who got the perfect ride from Kevin Nabet, exploiting the favourites tendency to jump out to her right and pouncing on the run-in as L’autonomie began to tire. Paul’s Saga is an admirable race mare, she has class, stamina and the turn of foot required for this type of test. Connections are rumoured to be thinking of a run in the Stayers hurdle at Cheltenham next year. That is probably a step too far, but I can understand their thought process to role the dice before she inevitably heads off to a new career as a broodmare.
As for L’autonomie, there really aren’t any excuses. She had the run of the race, seemed to be travelling comfortably, off what was a steady pace that didn’t really turn the race into the stamina test it perhaps seemed on paper. If he had the ride again, Angelo Zuliani would possibly have waited longer before kicking for home, rather than kicking her clear from the back of the 3rd last. However, I am confident that if the race was run again, Paul’s Saga would still uphold the form over this trip. A drop back to a shorter trip is surely the next step for L’autonomie.
Docteur De Ballon
This was an incredible training feat by Louisa Carberry. The horse had made just 1 start since June 2019, when he fell at Compiegne on 29th September, in fact he had fallen on 2 of his last 3 starts. The talent is obviously there, but the horse is clearly fragile, having had 2 breaks of over 12 months in his career. At 8-years old, he is getting on in years by French racing standards, but there was no fluke about this. He produced the best sectional timings of the weekend on the final circuit, in spite of running over the longest trip. Having given weight to some very talented 5-year-olds, he stayed on best and deserved to win. Huge congratulations to everyone connected with the horse.
The best ride this weekend was definitely that given by Nathalie Desoutter on Grandgador in the 4-year-old Adrien Besnouin Chase at Auteuil on Sunday. Having made most of the running, she displayed such a calm head, not panicking when the horse was headed and holding it together in the back straight, saving energy before kicking for home from the 2nd last. Nathalie is an exceptional rider, who doesn’t get the opportunities that she deserves. She is superb value for her claim and demonstrated her ability on Sunday to maximum effect.
“The Golden Highway”
It seems unusual to say that there is a huge track bias in National Hunt racing, but this weekend, that’s exactly what we had at Auteuil on the hurdles track. The Jockeys either knew this or they didn’t, but the obvious bias was to stay wide, down the outside rail in both straights. The better ground in the home straight in particular, was right up against the stands side rail and as such we can upgrade the performances of several horses who carried on up the middle of the track. Hurrick Des Obeaux, My Maj and Astadame are all horses I have added to my tracker, as they have run massive races against the track bias.
It will be interesting to see if any effort is made to even this out at the next Auteuil meeting to try to make the run-in a fairer test.
This year can’t end soon enough, for obvious reasons. However, at least we have 2021 to look forward to, how could it be any worse? One race I am now looking forward to most is the 2021 renewal of the Grand Steeple. Whether the race is run in its usual slot in May or later in October is anyones guess, but it already looks a strong renewal if the right horses make it back to the starting line. French National Hunt racing is so different to the UK and Irish scene. Horses are trained for it from a much younger age and as such, Chasers tend to peak around 5-6 years of age, compared to 8-9 in the UK. On Sunday, both Figuero and Feu Follet ran huge races to fill the places in the Grand Steeple. At 5 years old, there is clearly more to come and next year should see them at the peak of their powers, it will be no surprise to see them both go very close in the 2021 renewal.