Doumen's gift of horse sense

Sue Montgomery describes a French trainer's mastery amid the big freeze
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JUST 10 days after their fruitless trip to Kempton, the French jumping stars Algan and Val d'Alene return for Saturday's rescheduled King George VI Chase at Sandown. Should either add to Francois Doumen's great record in the race, it will be a superb feat of horsemastership.

Doumen is only too aware of the effect that the abortive journey from Chantilly will have had on his horses, but he is keen that his two musketeers should return. It may be that France's leading jumping trainer enjoys a Bonne Annee instead of his usual Joyeux Noel.

The seasonal conditions that forced the first blank Christmas racing programme for 33 years brought frustration to all. The preparation of an equine athlete differs from that of a human in that horses cannot adjust mentally to a change of schedule. They have no understanding of events in the future, but they are great reactors to previous experiences. Once the preparations for a journey to a racecourse begin they anticipate a race.

For Algan and Val d'Alene, breaking their routine for a prolonged period and returning home with expectations unfulfilled may have taken more out of them than had they run. And the abandonment of the King George, the big mid-season event on the British steeplechasing programme, may have longer-term effects on the high-class French pair, Doumen believes.

"The King George comes after the end of the French jumping season," he said, "and Algan and Val d'Alene were kept in training for an extra month with it as their specific target. By now they would normally be winding down for their winter break before building up again to the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Having to wait for Sandown will lose them two valuable weeks from their programme."

The stresses of travelling are often underestimated. A horse can lose two kilos in weight on each hour of a journey, even though he or she appears perfectly unruffled. It took Algan and Val d'Alene seven hours, by road and sea, to get from Lamorlaye to Kempton. "That was the fastest we've ever done it," Doumen added. "The problems with a journey like that include dehydration, weight loss, and tiredness. They're on their feet for a long time.

"They will also suffer from the change in surroundings - they tend to eat less than they would at home, and will be more susceptible to picking up a bug. Normally I would bring them over as close as possible to a race, but they had to come over early to Kempton because of the Christmas ferry schedules."

The two horses are different in physique and character. The eight-year- old Val d'Alene, more plebeian in looks than the tall, elegant seven-year- old Algan, has the more anxious personality, and lost more condition than his stablemate during the trip. Kempton has been a lucky course for Doumen (the superstitious Frenchman has even named his terrier after it). He has four victories in the past eight King Georges - with Nupsala, The Fellow (twice) and Algan last year - and in this year's Racing Post Chase with Val d'Alene. Sandown, with its undulating terrain and tricky array of fences, is a different, and much stiffer, test than the flat Sunbury track. Doumen said: "To have to recover from an arduous, unnecessary journey has hardly been the ideal preparation for either horse, and the unfamiliar fences will also be a disadvantage. But we will keep them ticking over this week, and if all remains well they will be there."

The abandonment of Wolverhampton's Flat double-header yesterday meant there has been no racing in Britain since 21December, and prospects for a resumption tomorrow are slim.

There will be inspections this morning at seven tracks, and Cheltenham have arranged for their good New Year's Day card to be run on Tuesday if necessary. The best prospect is a fibresand Flat meeting at Southwell.