Breeders in Ireland and Britain have been telling us for so long that only they can produce top-class steeplechasers that many people have accepted it as fact. Now, thanks to Francois Doumen's profitable sorties to our big races, and the successes of British-trained French-breds such as Nakir and Sabin Du Loir, attitudes are changing. Many leading trainers are boarding flights to France with a shopping list which runs to more than the duty-frees.
One of the first to realise the potential of French bloodstock was Sue Bramall. "I've got 35 horses in all," she said yesterday, "and about a dozen of those are French. I find that they're very tough and game. They might not show much potential to start with, but they've got an awful lot of strength and as time goes on they get better and better."
Bramall first visited a French sale on the recommendation of her vet. "I bought two," she said, "and I liked them so much that on my next trip I went visiting trainers all over northern France. I saw about 30 horses and bought half a dozen, and one of them was Antonin."
Antonin turned out to be one of the finest advertisements for French-bred horses to date. It was not just the prize-money he accumulated in winning the Ladbroke Gold Cup, Racing Post Chase and the Ritz Club Chase at the Cheltenham Festival, but the strength and determination he showed throughout his run of success.
In two outings this season, Antonin has failed to trouble the judge, but he is a horse who finds form as the days get longer. This weekend should see his first outing since a poor run at Cheltenham in November, possibly in the Mildmay/Cazalet Memorial Chase at Sandown, and while his ante-post price for the Gold Cup has drifted in his absence, a strong performance would re-establish him as a serious Cheltenham contender.
"He ran badly last time because of a secondary lung infection which wouldn't allow him to use his lung capacity," Bramall said. "He's recovered now, and he never actually stopped work at home, so it wasn't too bad getting him back again.
"I'm not too happy about diving straight into a race like that, and I entered him in a hurdle at Haydock too, but I notice they've put a ballot on him which means he'll be the last one into the race. He usually needs a run, which is why I'd have preferred to go for something smaller, but these highly-rated horses can never get a run anywhere."
Antonin's season is effectively just beginning, and may now stretch well beyond the Festival. "We could go for the Irish National," Bramall says, "and we might even go over to France in the summer." And if a French-bred could bring some francs back to Britain, even the squires might raise a smile.