RACING COMMENTARY : Doumen reinforces his lite corps

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The Independent Online
He arrived as a party-crasher, sending out a 25-1 chance to beat Desert Orchid in the 1987 King George, but no one expected him to stay too long. Eight years later, Franois Doumen is not only still here, but has fetched himself another drink and settled back into the best armchair. He is clearly having too much fun to consider leaving just yet.

If he ever decides otherwise, punters should rush to barricade the door. After Val D'Alene's success in the Racing Post Chase on Saturday, Doumen's record in Britain's best National Hunt races is no longer merely outstanding. It is now quite exceptional, and if Val D'Alene follows up in the Gold Cup in 17 days' time, his handler could claim to be the most successful National Hunt trainer in Europe and find few prepared to argue.

The emergence of Algan, this season's King George winner, and Val D'Alene just as The Fellow, Doumen's standard bearer for several years, appears to be in decline might be seen as the conclusive proof. All the finest yards have the knack of producing new contenders as soon as the old champions start to feel their years. At seven and eight years of age respectively, they should be having their say in the championship events for several seasons to come.

And those, of course, are the only British events in which Doumen takes much interest. Prize-money in France is so superior to our own that his horses, like supermodels, need not leave their boxes for much less than £30,000. Indeed, Ucello II, probably the best jumper Doumen has trained, pursued a successful and highly lucrative career without crossing the Channel.

As a result, when the Frenchman's horses run in Britain they do so in the most difficult races to win, but his strike-rate is still remarkable. Four King George VI Chases in eight years (with three different horses), a Gold Cup, two short-head defeats in the same race and now a Racing Post Chase make you wonder what he might achieve if he ever applied himself fully.

Val D'Alene is now a 12-1 chance for the Gold Cup, having been available at 50-1 on Saturday morning (surely we should have learned by now that Doumen does not enter horses for the hell of it). Algan, who was badly hampered in the mle following One Man's fall early on the final circuit, is 20-1, while Flashing Steel, fourth to The Fellow last year, won at Fairyhouse yesterday and is the latest name to enter calculations. Even allowing for the normal pre-Festival expectations, with such as Master Oats, Jodami and Merry Gale also in the running, this year's Gold Cup appears unusually enthralling.

Despite One Man's strange departure on Saturday - he appeared to gallop straight into the penultimate open ditch without the slightest attempt to take off - Gordon Richards's Hennessy Gold Cup winner remains a serious contender.

"Touch wood, he's all right," Joanie Richards, the trainer's wife, said yesterday. "It was a horrific fall, he just couldn't get his feet out of the mud, it was as if someone had clamped them. He's a little quiet, which is what one would expect after a trip like that, and it's probably too late now to give him another run, but we'll try and get a good racecourse gallop into him."

One Man was not the only horse caught out by the treacle which passed for turf at Kempton on Saturday. David Nicholson, who saddled three favourites (two of them at long odds-on) but returned home empty-handed, said: "It was just the ground. There is nothing wrong with them [Viking Flagship, Silver Wedge and Kadi] and they are all on target for their races at Cheltenham."

Two out of three, however, are no longer clear favourites for those targets. Viking Flagship is now Ladbrokes' 5-2 joint-favourite, with Travado and Nakir, for the Queen Mother Champion Chase, while Silver Wedge has drifted out as far as 8-1 (with Coral) behind the new 5-1 favourite, David Gandolfo's Balanak.

Relkeel, Nicholson's Champion Hurdle contender, has also started to drift recently (from 4-1 to 6-1 with Sporting Index yesterday), and his task will be no easier following yesterday's news that Fortune And Fame is back on course for the Champion following an injury scare last week. He worked in satisfactory fashion yesterday and is a 7-1 chance with William Hill.

Silver Wedge will surely find backers at his new price, but it is worrying that Nicholson seems to spend a great deal of time at present making excuses for his runners. At this vital stage of the season, it should be his horses doing the talking.

QUEEN MOTHER CHAMPION CHASE: (Cheltenham, 15 March): Coral: 2-1 Viking Flagship (from 5-4), Travado (5-2), 7-2 Nakir, 8-1 others. William Hill: 9-4 Travado, 5-2 Viking Flagship, 3-1 Nakir, 10-1 Egypt Mill Prince, Coulton, 12-1 others. Ladbrokes: 5-2 Nakir, Travado, Viking Flagship, 8-1 Coulton, Egypt Mill Prince, 10-1 Deep Sensation, 25-1 others.

TRIUMPH HURDLE (Cheltenham, 16 March): Coral: 5-1 Balanak (from 16-1), 6-1 Anzum (7-1), 8-1 Silver Wedge (7-2), 14-1 Greenback (25-1), Lady's Vision, 16-1 others. William Hill: 5-1 Balanak (from 14-1), 11-2 Anzum (8-1), 7-1 Silver Wedge (7-2), 10-1 Greenback (25-1), 14-1 Lady's Vision, Stompin, 16-1 others. Ladbrokes: 5-1 Balanak (14-1), 6-1 Anzum (8-1), 7-1 Greenback (33-1), Silver Wedge (4-1), 14-1 Kissair, 16-1 others.

GOLD CUP (Cheltenham, 16 March): Coral: 5-2 (from 3-1) Master Oats, 5- 1 Jodami, 6-1 Merry Gale, 8-1 Barton Bank, 10-1 Val D'Alene, 12-1 others. William Hill: 5-2 Master Oats, 6-1 Jodami, 7-1 Barton Bank, 10-1 Merry Gale, 12-1 One Man, Val D'Alene, Monsieur Le Cure, 14-1 Algan, 16-1 others. Ladbrokes: 11-4 Master Oats, 4-1 Jodami, 8-1 Barton Bank, Merry Gale 10-1 Algan, Monsieur Le Cure, 12-1 Val D'Alene, 16-1 others