If Somerset sometimes seems barely large enough to accommodate both Martin Pipe and Paul Nicholls, then it is hardly surprising if a frisson of claustrophobia can be detected between the two leading jumps trainers in France. Arnaud Chaille-Chaille and Guillaume Macaire both train their horses on La Palmyre racecourse, between a zoo and a nudist colony, at the top of the Gironde estuary.
They use the same rudimentary facilities, and the same exhaustive methods. If Macaire has so far remained invulnerable at the top of the table, then his younger neighbour is steadily narrowing the gap: fourth in 2003 and 2004, second last year. Now Chaille-Chaille intends to reduce that to mere parochial detail by sending five of his best horses to the Cheltenham Festival - a challenge that bewitched Macaire, but for the time being seems to have defeated him.
Yesterday, as a grey morning struggled to divide beach, ocean and sky, Macaire gazed across the track as Chaille-Chaille introduced his Cheltenham team to a coachload of journalists. Macaire is a vivid, demonstrative man and you could nearly hear him growling. Chaille-Chaille is another type of Gaul altogether. At 41, he is slim, elegant and understated. Muttering languidly, he leaves most of the talking to Hervé Barjot, racing manager to Sean Mulryan. The Irish property tycoon has become his most important patron and the impetus behind the present adventure. "To Sean Mulryan, Cheltenham is the Olympics," Barjot said. "He loves racing in France and Ireland, but for him Cheltenham is really the place."
On the face of it, these corrugated stables would seem an incongruous place to find a Festival winner. At this time of year the sprawling resort of Royan has a shuttered, abandoned air. The racecourse itself holds only half a dozen meetings during August. They might as well roll up the pavements until the spring. But the town that was designated "a research laboratory for urbanism" after the bombardment of 1945 has also refined a system of training racehorses that demands to be taken very earnestly indeed.
In Britain, jumpers are schooled over obstacles as sparingly as possible. For trainers, it is akin to polishing Sèvres: it has to be done occasionally, but very warily. Here, they start the horses young and they never let them stop. Yesterday they could be seen absorbing a shattering routine of swinging canters in heavy sand, interspersed with jumps, clockwise and anticlockwise. They then retired to repeat the process dizzily round a tight ring, barely a furlong round, with three jumps in each circuit. Altogether they left the ground at least three dozen times - handled with conspicuous expertise by their riders - and they will do this twice a week.
"I see horses in training in England and Ireland, and that's the huge difference here," Barjot said. "That's the first thing everyone noticed when Ambobo won at Cheltenham last season, the way he jumped - Barry Geraghty was amazed. He got off and said that he gained two lengths at every hurdle. And in this deep surface they get very strong, very fit."
After that successful reconnaissance in January, Ambobo had to miss the Festival with an injury and only recently returned to the track. He acquitted himself with sufficient credit to earn a crack at the Ladbrokes World Hurdle, but the cornerstone of the raiding party this time will be Zaiyad in one of the novice hurdles - probably the Royal & SunAlliance, for which he is 12-1 with Coral.
Mid Dancer, unbeaten in nine starts, would merit interest at 20-1 with the same firm if happening to find soft ground in the Irish Independent Arkle Chase, while Sunspot is considered an eligible contender for the Champion Hurdle itself but has suffered an awkward preparation. "He was beaten for the first time in November, but lost a shoe and finished the race on three legs," Barjot said. "He was sore and did well to finish third in a Grade One. I'm sure he'd have won otherwise."
Coral offer 66-1 against Sunspot, but cut Oh Calin from 40-1 to 33-1 for the JCB Triumph Hurdle after Barjot endorsed this experienced little pony as well qualified for the demands of the race. "I am quite surprised that our horses are being offered at such big prices," he admitted. "The main question would be the track, which is why it was disappointing when the January meeting was abandoned. Zaiyad was due to run there and I think maybe he is our best chance."
Emphatically, this is an outfit that commands respect. Barjot has an acute eye for a horse and Mulryan is gaining immediate dividends. He has 20 jumpers here, another 10 in Ireland, and plans to export some to Britain. Cyrlight is considered the most exciting steeplechaser in France and, while only recently back in training, he may go to Punchestown in April to lay down his marker for the King George VI Chase and then Cheltenham next year.
On the Flat, too, Barjot has found Mulryan a Group One winner from just 15 in training. Linda's Lad, a colt by Sadler's Wells, with André Fabre, won the Criterium de Saint-Cloud last autumn and will be trained for the Derby.
NB: Leah's Pride
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