Racing: Cracks grow in Grand Fromage

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The Independent Online

The Hunters here in the Béarn region at the foot of the Pyrenees track down the chevreuil and mouflon mountain goats as well as sanglier (wild boar), but there is a different animal quarry for the increasing number of foreigners who hit town.

The trainers and bloodstock agents of Britain are on the trail of bargains at a time when French horseflesh has never been so popular in National Hunt racing. Just this weekend, the trainer Ferdy Murphy, Anthony Bromley of Highflyer Bloodstock and representatives of Martin Pipe have been sniffing around the Pau training centre for runners to take back over the Channel. "The market is at a peak," says Bromley, who himself has been responsible for the likes of Behrajan, Geos, Katarino and Azertyuiop.

Such has been the locus storm of investment that the standard of French racing itself has plummeted. The best and the most promising horses are going abroad as France has usurped Ireland as the premier supermarket.

"I felt that if you were spending goodish money, then one in three were working out from Ireland, but here it is two in three," Bromley says. "There is a robust market in Britain and Ireland and the price has shot up for a horse with proven form. We are taking out numbers now and it must make their older horse races worse. We are taking out the cream of the crop at a young age."

The French are upset to see their vanguard disappear, but also soothed by the funds pumping into their racing economy. "They come with such money that you have to sell," François Rohaut, one of Pau's leading trainers, says. "That is part of racing. This is a jumping horse and tomorrow he might be sick, he might be hurt, he could die.

"But the racing at Auteuil is not good any more. All the good horses have gone. Magnus [now with Martin Pipe] was the best hurdler in all of France. But it seems to me crazy they [the Britons] do not come back and race in France. The money at Auteuil is very good and the horses that have gone are the ones that win these races."

The serious business of Auteuil in Paris is yet to come and for now the focus is on Pau and its 26 racing days between December and February. From here the circus moves on through prosaic venues such as Paray-le-Monial, Lyon Villeurbanne and Seiches-sur-le-Loir before returning to the capital.

Pau's connection with this sport was established when Victorian aristocracy used to come to these parts for the curative properties, to take the air. They brought with them their silly little ways: the first golf course on the Continent and racing.

Today there are 600 horses permanently on site at the centre d'entrainement, rising to 900 during the competitive season. The modern Pau is distancing itself from a garrison history and now throwing its doors open to attract visitors. The racing apex is the Grand Prix de Pau, and yesterday's 115th running of the championship fell quite neatly to Double Car, who is owned by the race sponsor, the popular foie gras man Joseph Biraben. Everyone, the geese apart, applauded.

There were only 5,000 people at the Hippodrome du Pont-Long to witness nine races run over an amalgam of hedges, open ditches and complex bank obstacles, (the most notable of which is the Grand Fromage). Yet this was a substantial crowd in Continental terms.

The clashing of the seasons means there will always be a limit to how many animals from the Béarn area can run at Cheltenham, yet they still recognise the significance of events at their twin town.

There is expected to be a record number of French entries for this year's Festival and the exploits of François Doumen and Guillaume Macaire have pointed to both French efficiency and the desirability of purchasing their bloodstock.

All visitors from across La Manche, human and equine, will be welcomed at Prestbury Park. "It gives a little more credibility to Cheltenham as the world championships," Peter McNeile, the Cheltenham commercial manager, said yesterday. "It's been labelled the Olympics of jumps racing and you could struggle to call it that based on only British and Irish competitors."

It could well be that Pau will be represented though by Rohaut's Byblos, who will be a consideration for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle. That will also give the trainer a chance to catch up on two old friends, young horses he nurtured which have now become celebrities of the sport.

"First Gold is now doing what I always thought he would," Rohaut said. "Cyfor Malta was also a fantastic horse, but he was a bit crazy. He nearly killed two of my lads. He broke an arm and a leg." He almost certainly cost it as well.