Racing: My Will can be a French wonder

Nicholls' adored novice is a staying chaser in the making as the tender ones seek a triumph
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The traditional straight fight between English-bred and Irish-bred horses in the jump-racing arena has widened into a three-cornered affair. The impact of French horses at the highest level, though, is not altogether a modern phenomenon, more a case of plus ça change. Back in the Fifties and early Sixties, horses like Manitou and Mandarin were flying the tricolore to considerable effect. And now, as then, wise men are cherrypicking the best from across the Channel.

The traditional straight fight between English-bred and Irish-bred horses in the jump-racing arena has widened into a three-cornered affair. The impact of French horses at the highest level, though, is not altogether a modern phenomenon, more a case of plus ça change. Back in the Fifties and early Sixties, horses like Manitou and Mandarin were flying the tricolore to considerable effect. And now, as then, wise men are cherrypicking the best from across the Channel.

The two highest-rated chasers in training, Azertyuiop and Best Mate, are both from a Gallic genetic background. Azertyuiop was born and did his early winning in France, and though Best Mate was foaled in Ireland, both his parents were French. Another thing the pair have in common is that they are both former winners of today's Grade Two feature at Cheltenham, the Independent Newspapers Novices' Chase.

One of the qualities associated with horses from France is that they seem to mature earlier than their British and Irish counterparts, and this afternoon Paul Nicholls sends the four-year-old My Will to the fray to try and give his yard a hat-trick in what is arguably the most significant early-season novices' contest, Azertyuiop's victory two years ago having been followed by that of Thisthatandtother. In fact, Nicholls has a fine record in the race, with two other winners (the British-bred Captain Khedive and French-bred Fadalko) and two runners-up (Irish-bred Dines and French-bred Armaturk).

My Will will be the third of his tender age Nicholls has fielded. Armaturk started 2-1 favourite on his chasing debut, but could not cope with the more experienced Seebald, and Le Duc might have given his stablemate a race 12 months ago but for a mistake two out. Nicholls, though, is sure that precocity is as much a matter of environment as heredity. "I've got eight French-bred four-year-olds at home and they can take the work of a six-year-old, with none of the backwardness," he said yesterday, "but when we had Flagship Uberalles, we won with him over fences at four and he was Irish-bred.

"It depends on the horse; it is a matter of looking at the individual. None of our babies jump hurdles at home anyway, as jumping flat and low gets them into bad habits for the future. They either school over the baby fences or the full-size ones."

This afternoon's renewal looks a proper trial for the Arkle Trophy four months hence. Five of the six runners are highly rated prospects; the other, Queens Harbour, has no place here. In terms of jumping fences, My Will (2.05, nap) is the most experienced of the group, having run thrice over the larger obstacles this term already, for two victories and a horlicks of a first-fence unseat, when he cannoned into another runner.

Nicholls adores the horse, having described him as "one with the world at his feet", but does not see him as an embryonic clone of the stable star. "He's not another Azertyuiop," he said. "He's a staying chaser in the making. And my one slight concern is the ground: I'd be happier if it was softer. On quicker ground over two miles he might just be going a gear quicker than he ideally wants, whereas on softer ground he can travel and jump within himself. But if he's going to go for the Arkle, he'll probably have to go two miles on quicker ground, so we'll have to give it a try."

Of My Will's four credible opponents, three - Fundamentalist, Ashley Brook and Mambo - have won their sole outings over fences impressively, and the other, Contraband, is rated by his trainer, Martin Pipe, as his best bet of the meeting.

Fundamentalist was by far the best over timber, having won the Royal & SunAlliance Hurdle at the Festival in March, a victory regarded by his trainer, Nigel Twiston-Davies, as rather a bonus en route to the horse's true metier. But My Will's racecourse miles and four-year-old allowance can carry the day.

Rooster Booster will face eight rivals in the Greatwood Hurdle as he bids to defy top weight in the contest he won two years ago before going on to the greater glory of Cheltenham, but his trainer, Philip Hobbs, has made no secret of his opinion that the gallant 10-year-old will be better for the match practice.

Two other winners of today's two-mile Grade Three handicap are also in the field: the 2001 victor Westender, who returns to hurdles after making it clear he hates fences, and Rigmarole (2.40), successful 12 months ago. The last-named is joined by his Nicholls stablemate Perouse, behind whom he flopped last time out, but their trainer is loath to split them today. "I think you can just put a line through Rigmarole's run," he said. "He's had his breathing problems, but Cheltenham suits him, he can fill his lungs at the top of the hill and freewheel down, and Ruby [Walsh], who knows him so well, is back on board."

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