French pick up prizes as Gold aim is finalised

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The Independent Online

It has not been a happy Christmas for British racing, it has been a joyeux Noel. The King George success of First Gold on Tuesday was followed yesterday by a 1-2 for French-trained horses in a Grade One hurdle at Chepstow, an hour or so before the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton was won by the French-bred Geos.

It has not been a happy Christmas for British racing, it has been a joyeux Noel. The King George success of First Gold on Tuesday was followed yesterday by a 1-2 for French-trained horses in a Grade One hurdle at Chepstow, an hour or so before the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton was won by the French-bred Geos.

On an afternoon when François Doumen also confirmed that First Gold, the 2-1 ante-post favourite, will run in the Gold Cup at Cheltenham in March, it was left to little Jocks Cross to buck the trend with a dogged victory in the Welsh National.

Geos, admittedly, is trained in Lambourn and ridden by an Irishman, but it was the stout French genes in his resolute frame which kept him going all the way to the line, even when Ashley Park, the firm favourite at 6-5, led by a length with 50 yards to run.

Fourth in last year's Champion Hurdle on his second start over timber, Ashley Park was behind only Istabraq in the ante-post market for this season's Cheltenham championship before yesterday's race. He finished lame, however, and Mark Pitman, his trainer, said last night that he will miss the remainder of the season. His entire career now appears to be in the balance.

The news cast a cloud over what had been a marvellous finish, but Geos, who is now a serious championship candidate himself, still deserves great credit for his perseverance, particularly after a slowly-run contest which did not suit him.

Mick Fitzgerald rode a beautifully-judged race on Geos, keeping his mount close to the lead but not in front, but still appeared to have lost the initiative following brilliant jumps by Ashley Park at the last two flights. Had Ashley Park been race-fit - yesterday was his seasonal debut - then even Geos's rousing final surge up the stands' rail would probably not have been enough.

Geos is now a 12-1 chance for the Champion Hurdle with Victor Chandler, while Coral offer just 8-1 (from 16-1). "We're going to have a go at the Champion, we've got to now,'' Nick Henderson, Geos's trainer said.

"The race wasn't run to suit us, he needs a real test. Mick said that he had to let the other horse go ahead to give him something to chase and catch, he loves to have something to aim at. Handicaps are a bit out now, so we will look at one of the trials and go for it. At least the race at Cheltenham will be run to suit him,'' Henderson added.

Resilience was the key for Jocks Cross too, who had finished a long way behind Moral Support in the Rehearsal Chase at Chepstow earlier this month, but reversed the form over the extra five furlongs of the Welsh National.

In doing so, he foiled a significant gamble on the eventual 2-1 favourite, Moral Support, who lived with Jocks Cross until the third-last fence but was then swiftly overwhelmed by Venetia Williams's runner.

The remainder of the card at the Welsh track belonged to the French, and in particular Guillaume Macaire, who completed a double with his two runners, Jair Du Cochet and Imperial De Thaix.

Both were impressive, but it was the performance of Jair Du Cochet, who beat Doumen's Bilboa in the Finale Junior Hurdle with six decent British opponents many lengths behind, which stood out.

Despite his youth, Jair Du Cochet hurdled brilliantly, and galloped clear between the final two flights. Doumen, however, who won last season's Triumph Hurdle with the filly Snow Drop, was confident afterwards that Bilboa, another filly, is capable of reversing the form at the Festival.

Ladbrokes, perhaps significantly, seem to agree, and Bilboa is still their Triumph favourite at 10-1, with Jair Du Cochet a 14-1 chance.

Doumen also confirmed yesterday that First Gold, the King George VI Chase winner, will be prepared for the Gold Cup, a race for which three of his potential opponents go on trial in Ireland today.

Nick Dundee, Native Upmanship and Rince Ri are among the runners for the Ericsson Chase at Leopardstown, and the winner will clearly be a serious proposition at Cheltenham in March.

Few trainers, however, will go to the west country with as much confidence as Doumen, who also has Baracouda, Europe's finest novice hurdler by at least a stone, in his yard. In fact, it is distinctly possible that the French may have more winners than the Irish at this season's Festival. It promises to be an unusual and fascinating new year.

ERICSSON CHASE (3m, Leopardstown 2.40 today): Tote odds: 11-8 Native Upmanship, 9-4 Nick Dundee, 100-30 Rince Ri, 12-1 Dorans Pride; 14-1 Micko's Dream, 20-1 Rathbawn Prince

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