The tricolore flew high here yesterday as François Doumen rolled his Cheltenham and Aintree trials into one race. The Chantilly-based trainer notched a one-two in the Racing Post Chase, as Innox, bound for the Grand National, beat L'Ami, whose target is the Gold Cup.
And while delighted to plunder nearly £80,000 in prize-money, the Frenchman's greater satisfaction came in thinking of the more prestigious pots ahead. "Of course you run your horses to win, if possible," he said, "but getting a race into them was the important thing. And they will now be in top condition for the big ones."
Doumen's conditioning programmes have been thwarted by bad weather on both sides of the Channel, but if Innox and L'Ami came to yesterday's fray underprepared, the question is begged as to what they will do when fully fit. Some punters have already taken the hint; the last-named is now as short as 10-1 for the Gold Cup. "The training gallops at home have been frozen," his trainersaid, "and I have been longing to get a comeback into these two horses. For L'Ami, this was his last chance before Cheltenham. I had hoped to run him at Newbury two weeks ago, but that was frozen as well."
The stablemates benefited from very different rides yesterday. Innox, the tough marathon handicapper, was kept in the van throughout by Tony McCoy, and reacted favourably to the punching ride, gaining lengths each time he put in a power-packed, accurate leap. He led for most of the final circuit, taken on by Ballycassidy over the railway fences, but was back in front by the third-last, the Pond. The classier L'Ami, with young Arnaud Duchêne in the saddle, was handled more conservatively, taken wide and produced late from off the pace.
Carrying top weight, and giving 7lb to Innox, his was a fine effort to go down, staying on well, by two and a half lengths. Half a length behind, two more stable companions, the Paul Nicholls pair My Will and Ladalko, the 11-2 favourite, were split by three-quarters of a length, with Ballycassidy just behind.
Innox, owned by J P McManus, is one of Doumen's favourites. "A lovely chap," he said, "such a nice horse to deal with. He had back trouble early in his career, but Tony said his jumping was so strong today, he gave a hard race to the others." The 10-year-old will go straight to Aintree, where he finished seventh in the National last year. "That was very good, for his first try over the fences," Doumen added. "He seems to run well fresh."
Doumen's good day started when his Triumph Hurdle contender Kasbah Bliss took the Grade Two juvenile hurdle. It was a good afternoon for Duchêne, too; the four-year-old was his first winner of the year and he earned plaudits from his boss for his performance on L'Ami. "I thought it was impeccable," Doumen said. "He made sure he was not blinded by taking him on the outside, gave him a clean race and was not hard with the whip."
The other Gold Cup pointer came in Ireland, where Forget The Past gave 4lb and an eight-length beating to the Grand National candidate Garvivonnian in a Grade Two contest at Fairyhouse. The Michael O'Brien-trained eight-year-old was cut from being one of the rank outsiders for the chasing crown to as low as 16-1.
In the novice ranks, Napolitain looked a different horse to the one who was gifted a Grade One contest earlier this month. Then, Paul Nicholls' five-year-old was running out of puff when the horse in front all but ground to a halt at the final obstacle, but this time he stripped fit as a flea and jumped like one too as Christian Williams took the race to his rivals from the first stride.
Only Gallant Approach, the odds-on favourite, could match his attitude and joined issue on the sweep to the back straight for the final time. A blunder at the first of the railway fences tested McCoy's stickability, but the big chestnut was soon back on an even keel and upsides his smaller bay rival, again apparently galloping the easier.
But Napolitain, now in the frame for the Royal & SunAlliance Chase, is as game as he is talented and, responding to Williams' urgings, stuck out his white-blazed face and eyeballed the challenger, daring him to pass. By the last fence he was in command again, cleared it as cleanly as he had the other 16, and outstayed Gallant Approach up the hill for a five-length win.
BETS OF THE DAY
Gunship (Fontwell 4.40) improved for the step up in trip last time and goes on the ground.
Drop in trip and company might get a tune from Schumann (Fontwell 2.10).