Racing / Cheltenham Countdown: Kondrat faces harsh critique: Jingoists are joining the taunts as a French rider prepares to make it third-time lucky in the Gold Cup

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The Independent Online
CHELTENHAM eve and, for the second year running, the main focus is on the performance of the favourite in the Gold Cup. Carvill's Hill withered in the furnace 12 months ago, and this Thursday will see whether Adam Kondrat, who rides The Fellow for Francois Doumen, joins him in the Festival's museum of underachievers.

But for a matter of centimetres, Kondrat would now be going for a hat-trick in the race and attempting to match a feat last achieved in the 1960s by Pat Taaffe, who had the assistance of a horse called Arkle.

No-one has ever said The Fellow is in the same league as Arkle, but there are those who vocalise the belief that the French horse's short-head defeats in each of the last two Gold Cups can be attributed to his jockey.

The jingoists would like this to be true. There remains a conviction in racing, long since abandoned in every other major sport in Britain, that our representatives are undoubtedly the best in the world. That our way is right.

To accept that Kondrat is a good jockey, these people also have to accept there may be some merit in the French riding style, which is almost balletic in comparison to accepted National Hunt technique. Like some in America, who found Lester Piggott an acquired taste, they have to acknowledge that different does not automatically mean inferior.

Peter Scudamore, Britain's top National Hunt jockey of recent years, likes both Kondrat and the French method. 'I think he's very good and I admire the French style of riding,' he said yesterday. 'They're much more stylish, much neater than we are. They sit stiller, and leave the horse alone more than we do, and to me, that is the correct way to ride steeplechasers.

'In general, you find that wherever you go in the world riding, the jump jockeys ride the same as the Flat jockeys from that particular country. The French boys sit above a horse, whether they are at Auteuil or Longchamp, we sit with our bottoms in and drive the horses along.

'To compare the various styles is very difficult, though. Could you ever say that Yves St Martin was a better or worse jockey then Lester Piggott?'

What can be said, though, is that the main factor against Kondrat and The Fellow on Thursday is that they are competing abroad.

A regular excuse for the failure of British horses on the Continent is that they 'didn't get the run of the race'. This argument usually reaches a crescendo when travellers find themselves in an event at Longchamp with a team of Daniel Wildenstein runners - Les Bleus - who help each other round the course.

But to consider this a phenomenon exclusive to the French is ingenuous. When Andre Fabre's Subotica, the subsequent Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe winner, ran in the Coronation Cup at Epsom in June, he was the victim of a particularly rough passage.

That Adam Kondrat has taken a wide route on The Fellow in his British outings should surprise no- one but the naive. For one, the horse himself is used to the French style of racing, which includes a fanning out of the field once the straight has been reached. For another, he knows that if he goes to the inside there are those who can throw away the key.

'It's difficult when a rider goes abroad because he knows that if he goes round the rail he is not going to get any light,' Steve Smith Eccles, National Hunt's senior jockey, says. 'I went abroad recently myself, to Italy, and I can tell you I got no favours at all.'

Smith Eccles, though, admits the pendulum swings when he gets back on his own patch. 'If I shouted up to a mate in front here, I'd get daylight,' he says. 'But if a Frenchman shouted here he'd get something else. He'd get trouble.

'At Kempton (when winning his second consecutive King George VI Chase on Boxing Day) Kondrat went round the world and I actually thought it would get him beat. But you can understand why he rides those type of races, and that day proved what a good horse The Fellow is.'

These though are not even tactics devised by Kondrat. They come from the trainer. 'I always give him instructions not to get himself stuck inside the pack, because he is likely to be eaten alive during the race,' Doumen said yesterday. 'That's why he is ordered to keep on the outside.

'Obviously you lose a bit of ground that way, but that's the price you pay for travelling overseas. I understand the situation. Why should they give room to The Fellow when he's the hot favourite. Why should they let him pass? We're talking about a race.'

Doumen pays little attention to the criticism of Kondrat and the jockey himself may be the least worried of anyone. 'This doesn't touch him at all,' the trainer says. 'He doesn't even read these English newspapers, so he doesn't even know about it.

'Kondrat's quite all right, his morale is very good. He's very confident in his horse, and I'm very confident in him.'

(Photograph omitted)

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