Best Mate's appearance at Kempton is now part of the staple fare of Christmas, but a man named Guillaume Macaire is preparing one hell of a stuffing for Britain's finest steeplechaser on Boxing Day.
Where once the French trainer feared the dual Gold Cup winner, now he has nothing more than a healthy respect for a champion he views as eminently fallible. Where once he looked on Best Mate as the "king'', now Macaire puffs out his ample frame in pride, taking credit for what he calls "regicide''. Indeed, he does not have a Macaire in the world.
And who can blame him after a six-year-old in his care, who he modestly reveals he bought for "a handful of peanuts'', beat "the unbeatable''. That was at Huntingdon three weeks ago in the Peterborough Chase where the list of doubters lining up to dismiss Jair Du Cochet were almost as long as the cosy eight lengths that he beat Best Mate.
Henrietta Knight, Best Mate's trainer, said yesterday that her charge was "60 per cent likely" to go to Kempton. She had blamed the rain-softened ground for defeat at Huntingdon, but even this moot point forced Macaire to protect his corner yesterday.
''Tell me, has not Best Mate won on that ground before?'' he asks. "Was it not more of a case of that horse not finding his rhythm and mine being on top form.'' Punters seem to agree, as Best Mate drifts out to a shaky 7-4 favouritism.
Another nod in Jair Du Cochet's direction came with the money that Graham Wylie, the Roman Abramovich of National Hunt, has tried to tempt Macaire's owners with. It was a bid believed to top the half-a-million mark. "He is not for sale now,'' said Macaire. "But he may well be after Kempton.''
The price would rise even further with triumph, of course, as would Macaire's stock, which already has him established as France's premier jumps trainer. Macaire's principal training premises - in an isolated part of western France - suggests that here is a 46-year-old trainer going places.
La Palmyre racecourse, a holiday track near Pau, hosts Macaire's 80-strong string - from the two-year-olds he schools two years earlier than British trainers, to the stable stars such as Jair Du Cochet working around the open track. It is an impressive sight, capped by the fine figure of Jair Du Cochet, a young horse in age only as he has experience to burn over the obstacles
Such precocity is nothing new to Macaire who teaches his charges to jump almost as soon as they can walk. This is one of the reasons he sticks with Jacques Ricou, a 23-year-old jockey, who has been somewhat unfairly labelled as "Jacques Cousteau'' by an unforgiving British racing public.
This criticism reached its nadir with Jair Du Cochet's display at Cheltenham in March. Ricou held up his mount for longer than was both necessarily and wise, and Richard Johnson on One Knight was able to steal a break. There will be another Knight - Henrietta - hoping to capitalise on any more "Cousteau'' blunders this time.
Macaire, however, has shown a commendable faith in his young jockey, standing by his man with enough conviction to make Tammy Wynette blush. "A horse is like a woman,'' Macaire said yesterday, embarking on one of his trademark metaphors that light up his broken English. "You need to press the right buttons.
"I sometimes think the English jockeys are too much of 'the master'. My horses have been better schooled and know what they are doing more than the English horses. Jacques understands this, but in truth, I don't really care if the jockeys are English or French. The winning post is the only language that matters.''
Macaire stopped short of overtly criticising the British champion jockey, Tony McCoy, but did say: "He is a soldier and not a horseman.'' It is the latter Macaire obviously holds in most affection, but will not simply be blinded by silky hands. Organising work yesterday, he barked out orders as the well-drilled lots went about their business, and even Ricou did not escape Macaire's wrath.
Nor did English trainers escape his refreshing openness. Macaire is very proud of the many exports that have been sold to the land he knows as "racing's mother country''.
Azertyuiop was one of his, as was Janus Du Cochet, who shares the same sire as his King George hope. Macaire was desperate to sell Jair and Janus as a pair. "I told Martin Pipe,'' Macaire said, "that he should not split them up and he should buy them together because otherwise he would pick the wrong one. He did.''
Embarrassingly for his fellow horsemen across the Channel, Jair Du Cochet failed a veterinary test with both Pipe and Nicky Henderson, which raises the question what are the vets testing for? Obviously not potential.
At Kempton on Boxing Day, the red faces may deepen still further.Reuse content