It was, inappropriately for France, a black forest as François Doumen guided us through the racing jungle of Chantilly before daybreak yesterday. It would have been the Blair Witch Project without him. The French trainer led the way as we crossed the various sandy pistes, just before thumping hooves came out of the morning gloom. Soon it was his horses, the ones that will cause darkness and fear themselves in England this coming month.
At Cheltenham, Ascot and then, most notably, Kempton on Boxing Day, Doumen is expecting to send out upwards of a dozen of his Continental forces. The scent of a £100,000 bonus for the Feltham Novices' Chase, Christmas Hurdle and King George VI Chase is particularly intoxicating and Innox, Bilboa and the mighty First Gold respectively are, like the trainer himself yesterday morning, on the trails.
Some thought First Gold appeared diminished goods after his defeat over hurdles at Newbury on Saturday, but it was hard to reconcile that belief as he thundered, like all Doumen's horses in fluorescent orange socks, out of the Chantilly darkness.
"When he does a comeback after a long absence he just seems to be a little bit out of motivation and he doesn't excel himself," Doumen said. "And hurdles are not his real game. Every year on his comeback he is a little soft in his mind.
"I'm happy about his comeback and that's it. I'm not going to write a novel about it."
Last weekend, it is now clear, was not the mission. "If we wanted to kill the horse and win we could have accelerated all alone in front and maybe he would have won," Doumen added. "But he would have had a hard race and when you are talking about a Cheltenham Gold Cup that is not the way you behave." Before Prestbury Park, though, there will be the defence of a King George which First Gold collected in near mocking fashion at Kempton last December.
"I'd say he has gone a little bit stronger," the trainer said. "He used to be a bit of a brute, pulling and Thierry [Doumen's son and jockey] had a hard time to doze him. With another year he has calmed down and is a little bit more on the cool side, which is a blessing.
"All the criteria of Kempton seem to be very suitable for First Gold. It's difficult not to be confident when you remember last year's race. You can't think negatively."
The King George is indubitably Doumen's preserve. He has won it five times from 11 runners and will not rest until he has pulled away from Fulke Walwyn as the most successful trainer in the history of the championship contest. "If it's not this year or next year it will have to be the following year but there will have to be another time," he said.
We first noticed François on Boxing Day of 1987 when he and Nupsala presumed to spoil a Christmas tradition by denying Desert Orchid a middle leg of what would have been five consecutive King Georges.
Doumen enjoyed the originality of the challenge, but, he tells you, more than that he enjoyed the 50-1. It was, for the English, one in the eye, which is, after all, what Doumen's countrymen have been doing to us since Norman times. "I was very confident in Nupsala because he was one of the best three horses in France," the trainer said, "but when I arrived in England you were surprised there was any jump racing [at all] in France."
François is the sort of Gallic figure who could make Englishmen cross. Charm comes as easily to him as expiration, and when greyness hit his coiffure it did not age him, rather accentuate his natural good looks.
On Saturday at Newbury as he casually flicked away criticism of First Gold's defeat he wore a fawn Hackett jacket turned up at the collar and tan loafers with buckles, not traditional gear for traditional 61-year-olds. He looked good, but then he could do so in dustbin liners. Used ones.
Even more infuriatingly, he was in the French junior ski team and also reached a high level as a polo player during his seven-year sojourn in South Africa. You really could slap him.
Yesterday on the gallops he sported a trilby, three-quarter length wax coat and tartan waistcoat. We were on Les Lions, the natural sand track which starts at the notable landmark of Chantilly's château under the gaze of the stone kings of the jungle which give it its name. Adjoining the château are Les Grands Ecuries, the byzantine stable block built on the orders of the Prince de Condé, who believed that he would be reincarnated as a horse. The trouble is he cannot now tell us which one he is.
François himself is a man who appreciates his creature comforts. If someone in economy class starts telling you that he is François Doumen, you are in conversation with an impostor.
Doumen likes to tell you he was born by the side of the road near Angoulême as his mother Renée fled the German invasion, but the odds are it was on a verge outside a five-star hotel.
From 1956 to 1970 he was a jockey, with over 100 winners on the Flat and one over jumps. Then he was a trainer, from 1977 at Maisons-Laffitte then on to Lamorlaye, and now at the Vimy stables in Chantilly once run by Alec Head, who trained the winner of the 1956 Derby, Lavandin.
Well connected and aristocratic owners came quickly as François proved he was more than a pretty boy. He has collected close friends among his colleagues less quickly and is considered a loner by his confrères in France.
Yet he works the press cleverly, and can be disturbed only when it comes to the matter of his jockey son. TD, as the 21-year-old is known, is a personable fellow, but that does not stop him being feeble in a finish. Just don't mention it to papa.
"To have my son riding all these wins in England and in France is a big bonus. He is such a passionate kid," Doumen père says.
"We have to be very cool about the criticism from you guys from England. Obviously we are a beautiful target for criticism because we are different and we come from France. For you, if it's not English it might not be the best. It's explainable that you do that."
Thierry himself tells us over espresso that First Gold is beginning to surpass himself. "The horse feels really good," he said, "morally and physically I have never known him so good."
In the Au Bois St Denis bar, Doumen Snr reveals a rather quaint notion of the land he plunders. "France is not like England, where every backyard in the countryside has a pony in it and the middle classes have horses. In France the people are not brought up with horses.
"There is a lot of buzz on the race tracks in England. The public has got more knowledge about racing and horses. The Anglo Saxons are known as good and heavy punters, but they also go for the pleasure of seeing proper racing."
Then it is back finally to Vimy, past the chickens and geese, past a pile of broomsticks in a corner stacked up like a coven's car park.
It is light now and François seems almost disappointed that the discussion about his great glories is at an end. "The King George has become a lucky race for me," he says. "Kempton has been so kind. I just have a good feeling when I am at Kempton."Reuse content