Chantilly grace has free rein

French bay watch at Ascot showpiece as Helissio's extraordinary qualities go on parade; Sue Montgomery visits the home of a champion groomed for glorious deeds
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Forget Virenque and Vasseur. France's best athlete is not half- way up an Alp on a bicycle, but alive and very well and soaking up adulation in the infinitely more relaxing ambience of a wooded glade near Chantilly. The clue to his identity is in the location; the elegant Picardy town may be famous for cream and lace, but is more so for thoroughbred horses. And a four-year-old bay colt called Helissio is surely the creme de la creme.

If we knew in advance the special blend of physique and temperament that produces a champion, then the bi-weekly trek to the lottery counter in Woolworths would be a thing of the past, but we generally recognise it only after the event. And when you are in the presence of a horse who has proved himself out of the ordinary, it is sometimes difficult to be objective about his character.

But even if you did not know that Helissio was Europe's champion, you would surely pick him out of a herd. Having watched him go about his business shortly after dawn last Tuesday, I can vouchsafe that this muscular Frenchman has that certain je ne sais quoi. With some horses, it is a cockiness, a strut to their walk; with others, you can read what is almost an arrogance in their gaze, that glint that horsemen call the look of eagles.

Helissio has nothing so fierce. It would be tempting to fall into the anthropomorphic trap and say the arresting serenity held by his large, lustrous eyes comes from self-awareness, but his trainer Elie Lellouche, a horseman in his blood, has no such reservations. "He is le seigneur," he says, "and he knows it."

Those on this side of the channel will have the chance to judge for themselves at Ascot on Saturday. Helissio is as well-travelled as any sportsman of today, having competed in Japan last autumn and spent most of the winter in Dubai, but will come to Britain for the first time for the three-cornered 12-furlong heavyweight fight with Singspiel and Pilsudski in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes.

Helissio's home is considerably further down the scale of French elegance than the local tourist draw, the stunning 19th-century chateau. At the end of Rue Charles Pratt in Lamorlaye, a couple of kilometres down the hill from Chantilly proper, two utilitarian concrete-faced barrack blocks of barns house Lellouche's 120 blue-blooded charges. At six in the morning the stable star is just another horse on the start-of-the-day production line, enduring his lad Alain Goldsztejen's pre-exercise attentions with as much forbearance as any thin-skinned, ticklish thoroughbred, and taking his turn to pick his way round and over the mounds of soiled straw being hoiked out of boxes into the passageways.

The one deference to his status is the application of protective navy blue bandages to his valuable legs, deftly wound on and secured with sticky tape by Lellouche's brother Sylvain. The tall colt's walk, as Goldsztejen casually tags him on the end of the string, is the balanced, loose-limbed one of a West Indian fast bowler, with a tremendous impression of power in his hindquarters.

In races, his rivals have felt the heat of that power unleashed. Helissio hardly had to draw on it as his machine-like stride took him clear of his galloping companions on the Coye-la-Foret training grounds, with Goldsztejen hardly having moved a muscle. The horse who chased him vainly, Surgeon, will start favourite for a Group Two race at Maisons-Laffitte today.

Before Tuesday's workout, Helissio had seemed a little tense as he walked round on a tree-lined sand track waiting for the sun to burn off the morning mist that lay horse-high on the grass, producing a setting of stunning beauty but, for several anxious minutes, of little practical use. Afterwards, as the colt was stripped of his saddle and led round in the dappled shade, he was as relaxed as a beach donkey. Lellouche speaks no English, but there was no mistaking his satisfaction in any language. "Bon," he said, "Professionel." The final fine- tuning will take place tomorrow on Chantilly's best turf, the Les Aigles gallop.

When Helissio won last year's Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, making all the running to beat Pilsudski by five lengths with staggering ease, some began to mention him in the same breath as one of the French-trained giants of the Turf, Sea Bird. A decisive victory at Ascot would not only take Helissio a step closer to that immortality and add a valuable brownie point to his stallion portfolio, but also settle a score or two.

After the Arc, you see, he was beaten into third place in the Japan Cup, by Singspiel. Then he ducked the Dubai World Cup - won by Singspiel, who had previously been beaten fair and square by Pilsudski, his stablemate, in the Breeders Cup Turf - at the last minute. Saturday will be the first time all three will clash in the same race.

To add spice to the contest, Helissio - bidding to become the first French- trained winner of Ascot's summer showpiece since the superb mare Pawneese 21 years ago - will have a new jockey. Olivier Peslier, whose whirring Arc victory salute, standing in the stirrups, was one of last year's abiding memories, could not commit to the Spanish-owned son of Fairy King for the rest of the season because of a retainer elsewhere, so the experienced French-based Texan Cash Asmussen takes over. Ironically, Peslier may be free on Saturday to take the mount on Singspiel.

If anyone knows how to beat Helissio, it is Peslier, but he will have his work cut out. Asmussen said: "It is his cruising speed that does the damage. Anything that tries to go with him, he just burns them out. And he can quicken again if anything comes at him."

The re-match - with the likes of Swain, Shantou and Predappio thrown in for good measure - promises everything, but Lellouche, who has previously scored Group One Ascot victories with Bigstone and Shake The Yoke, has few doubts about the outcome. "He beat us last year," he said, "but we were only three then. Now we are four. Now we are a real horse."