It is said that owners begin to look like their dogs. Where François Doumen and his horse Baracouda are concerned, the comparison is not physical: one is handsome, urbane, attractive, and knows it; the other is angular, plain, agricultural, and doesn't care a jot. But mentally, perhaps there is an empathy. Although Doumen, who knows the great hurdler better than anyone, does not doubt Baracouda's bravery, there is no gainsaying that the gelding is unstraightforward, verging on tricky.
The horse's record is virtually blemish-free, 18 victories and never worse than second in 23 runs over hurdles. He has won the stayers' crown, run today for the 33rd time under its new World Hurdle banner, twice. But he can be a jockeys' nightmare, an athlete of infinite talent, but one whose abilities must be deployed at the last possible moment, leaving massive potential for embarrassment. With a target to aim at, he is as wholeheartedly competitive as any, but once in front, he considers he has done enough, and often evinces a heart-stopping tendency to flounce.
Doumen's now-retired son Thierry knew Baracouda backwards; Tony McCoy, who has replaced him in the saddle this season, is still on a learning curve. Last time out, at Windsor in December, it very nearly took a downward slant as, in an extraordinarily tactical race, he was so nearly outmanoeuvred, eventually coaxing his mount home to beat two of today's rivals, Crystal d'Ainay and Rule Supreme, by three-quarters of a length and a short-head.
The body language between trainer and jockey in the unsaddling enclosure afterwards was a caution to behold.
Doumen takes every slight to his brilliant charge fairly personally, and that day gave the impression that the 10-year-old had won despite, rather than because of, the man on top. "The horse has great confidence in himself," he said yesterday. "I know my horse, and I am sure he is just as strong as ever, maybe even better. I was impressed by the way he approached the last hurdle last time out, pulling double. He gets excited and wants to experience that burst of speed, he is so keen to go. I am very pleased this race now has a day to itself at Cheltenham, so the winner can get his due praise. I am so proud of mine that the more praise he gets the better."
Baracouda's strength is revelling in his power, travelling on the bridle behind a fast pace. All went more or less to plan 12 months ago; he was defeated simply by a better horse on the day in Iris's Gift in his bid for a unique third victory. Every rider out there will be well aware that trailblazing will set the contest up for the French crack, but a race of this calibre is unlikely to be run at an "after-you" dawdle either.
The best tactic for those in the stands in search of reward may be to seek each-way value. Every drop of rain that falls will aid the cause of Inglis Drever, but he is another one with apparent quirks and preference is for the battling, progressive, thorough stayer Korelo (3.15, each-way).
One of the first four-day Festival's innovations is the Daily Telegraph Trophy, which does not yet have Grade 1 status but is the de facto two-and-a-half mile championship. At his best, Native Upmanship would have gained his due reward over the intermediate distance, but the 12-year-old is now past his sell-by date.
The horse who has stepped into his shoes in Ireland is Rathgar Beau, who comes to the fray at the top of his game physically and mentally, with two easy romps over the trip since the turn of the year. By contrast Our Vic (2.35) has not been sighted since November, when he took a muscle-crunching fall here when poised to win a valuable handicap under a huge weight. He seemed not to get home in the Royal & SunAlliance Chase last year, but this distance should suit ideally and he may be the genuine top-grade horse in the field.
The Martin Pipe stable can hit the mark again in the closing three-mile handicap with the well-treated Ravenswood (5.20), whose sole outing since running fourth in the same race last year was a ring-rusty but highly encouraging fifth place at Haydock last month. And Nicky Henderson can continue his Festival comeback with Sleep Bal (2.00, nap), whose elegant action was turned into that of a square-wheeled bike in the mud at Fontwell last time out.
Nap: Broken Knights
NB: Copsale Lad