Corine Barande-Barbe: The French flyer out to wreck Frankel's farewell
The eccentric trainer has enjoyed a magic carpet ride with her horse Cirrus Des Aigles. Now, she tells Chris McGrath, they are ready to take on the best
Others may yet see Corine Barande-Barbe as the agent of mundane, prosaic disillusion. After all, she sends Cirrus Des Aigles over to Ascot on Saturday in the sacrilegious hope of bringing down Frankel himself, even as he completes a flawless career. In reality, however, success would satisfy a yearning no less romantic than the one that has united so many behind Frankel as a champion without precedent.
A son of the world's top stallion, Galileo, Frankel is trained for a Saudi prince by one of the all-time masters, Sir Henry Cecil. The last credible threat to his immaculate record is a six-year-old gelding of mendicant origins, one of barely two dozen horses housed in his quaint old yard in Chantilly. The dam of Cirrus Des Aigles was given away to his breeder, a groundsman on the local gallops; his late sire, whose own pedigree was so undistinguished that he cost just Ir£3,000 as a yearling, otherwise produced only a handful of winners over jumps.
Yet Cirrus Des Aigles returns to Ascot not only as the defending champion, having won the inaugural Qipco Champion Stakes last year, but also as winner of a huge prize in Dubai in March. Moreover he has won his four latest starts in soft ground – something Frankel now samples for a first time – by a minimum of eight lengths.
"I think that's the magic of racing," Barande-Barbe says. "Nobody can be sure of having the best horse – even if they buy the most expensive yearling, even if they put together the two best horses in the world. You don't know what will come. Humble, or king-bred, you don't know until they run together. When the gates open, everything begins. If it was that simple, only the rich would ever win. Maybe in a bigger stable they would never even have tried this horse."
On this soft autumn morning, her own yard provides an intimate, pastoral milieu, strewn with leaves from the fringes of the great Chantilly forest. It is the season of mushrooms; in the summer, you can find wild strawberries alongside the gallops instead. The Ronsard roses, climbing outside the elegant stable office, are over. Here, at least, Barande-Barbe would have something in common with Cecil, the famous rose gardener of Warren Place. But then no gentleman could fail to be engaged by her screwball charm, her curls and lilting English. At 54, Barande-Barbe remains in the full bloom of her coquetry. "He's preparing a striptease," she announces, as Cirrus Des Aigles cranes out of his stall and grabs her coat in his teeth.
She had no background whatsoever in the sport. Raised in Paris by two psychoanalysts, she fell in love with horses during childhood visits to the countryside. "I thought: 'My parents know everything about people, so I will take care of animals'," she says. "But then I found out to have a job in showjumping, you must be very rich, or a genius. I was neither, so I went into racing instead."
Her former husband, Patrick Barbe, is a successful bloodstock agent and as early as 1980 they came up with a Group One juvenile in Deep Roots. In 1991, she was granted a licence to train and took over a stable that had previously been in the Head family. (Freddie's uncle was here at one stage. "A great character," Barande-Barbe says. "He would look for a gas leak by matchlight.")
Within four years, she had saddled Carling to win the French Oaks. This filly, like Cirrus Des Aigles, had unpromising antecedents. "They called her Cinderella," Barande-Barbe recalls. "She ended up on the front page of Figaro. So you see I only deal in fairy tales."
Cirrus Des Aigles, admittedly, started out as something of an ugly duckling, at least in terms of temperament. But his trainer detected the source of his discomfort, and quickly had him gelded. "And when he discovered competition, he found out what it was he wanted to do," she says. "He always goes forward, to life and problems. The better the field, the better he is. He's my best friend. There's nobody I can trust like him."
People, it seems, are not always so dependable. After her darling finished second at Longchamp in May, a shadow fell across the enchanted garden. Cirrus Des Aigles had failed a dope test. "When I heard, I hoped it was a lab error because it's not comfortable at all, the idea that someone could want to hurt the horse or hate our story," she says. "The dose was so massive they said it must have been [administered] in the hours before the test, and that can only have been in Longchamp. If it had been [earlier] it would have been a toxic dose."
Closed-circuit footage suggested alarming ease of access to the racecourse stables. "Everywhere else in the world, even the owner won't see the horse until he enters the parade ring," she protests. Shocked and despondent as she was, at the time, an instinctively benign outlook abides. Told that the going at Ascot is soft, she seeks a translation. "Ah, souple?" she says. "I am soft too."
Sure enough, she decorously rejects the obvious contrast between her campaigning of Cirrus Des Aigles – who has raced in Japan and Hong Kong, as well as England and Dubai – with the highly conservative approach of Frankel's connections, in retiring him without once risking a race overseas.
"We go to his place, because he didn't come to ours," she says. "But I won't judge. I wouldn't criticise something that has gone so well. Things are not the same for them. My horse is gelded, he's six years old. Frankel is a great breeding prospect. On top of that, I know that Sir Henry has not been on top form."
But nor does she dissemble, when invited to assess her chances against the two living legends. "I know he's better than me, the trainer," she says. "But the horse, we don't know. Frankel is an 'extraterrestre'. But he has never met a horse like Cirrus. And there is only one way to know, which is to run together. Everyone thinks it's impossible. But if you don't know it's impossible, you have to do it. Nothing is impossible. Anyway with this horse we have been dreaming from the beginning. It's like we have a flying carpet. We all get on, and he puts out his wings. Maybe one day we'll go to Mars. Maybe that's where we are going on Saturday."
Chris McGrath's Nap
Pastoral Jet (5.30 Kempton) Finally confirmed the impression that he is better than this kind of rating over course and distance last month.
Cat O'Mountain (6.00 Kempton) Yet another Godolphin youngster with a top pedigree and stylish maiden win to his name, and impossible for the handicapper to anticipate his progress.
One to watch
Zeyran (Sir Henry Cecil) Has required patience but promised to make up for lost time when last off the bridle on her debut at Nottingham yesterday, fading into third on tiring ground.
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