Racing: Doumen banks on Baracouda's plain talent

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The Independent Online
SINCE THE early 1700s, Chantilly has been the realm of dream horses, from the time when Louis Henri de Bourbon, the owner of the great chateau, convinced himself he would be reincarnated as a thoroughbred.

To ensure his next life was similarly comfortable, the French prince constructed the Grandes Ecuries, the most opulent and baroque stables the world has ever seen. If Louis has indeed returned to these environs it may be within the frame of Baracouda, possibly the sovereign hurdler in the modern age of National Hunt racing.

Baracouda was out down the sandy lanes of the Chantilly forest yesterday, preparing for yet another appointment in the Cotswolds. If Francois Doumen's gelding wins the long- distance hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival next month it will be his third success in the championship race, his 19th in 24 starts for his trainer, an addition to the Û1m (pounds 700,000) he has already accrued. These are the statistics.

There was more to enjoy about the poetry under pale blue skies yesterday, 50km north of Paris, the sight and sound of good horses pounding up La Piste des Lions, the three-mile straight sand gallop guarded at its start by two huge, stone felines.

Doumen's small string exercised in their distinctive fluorescent orange bandages. Doumen likes his horses to be seen and be recognised. If any horse has earned the right to be the king of this particular jungle, with its winter leafless canopy, it is Baracouda.

Yet it emerged yesterday that this is no simple story of one man and his horse. It is not all undying affection between the pair.

Doumen does not like the way Baracouda looks. He is not taken with the gelding's character much either. But he admires the athlete and benefactor.

"Physically he is a very plain horse," the trainer said. "His neck goes the wrong way and his hips go out. He has got a white eye. He's spooky and he doesn't like his sugar lump. And he hasn't got that much personality, I'm afraid.

"I was completely in love with The Fellow [his 1994 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner]. He was a real personality, but you can't make me say how wonderful this one is. He's wonderful in my bank account and wonderful because he's a challenge.

"I have enormous respect for him, but it's difficult to be personally attached. I have been in touch with many horses and they have been something like pets with me. Jim And Tonic, The Fellow and Snow Drop, for example, were horses that were sensitive with me. He is not. He is a very plain horse."

Doumen was born at the side of the road in wartime France and has travelled a long way down it. There are 70 horses at his other yard, Le Gue, at Beauvoisiniere in Normandy, 20 at his Lamorlaye base, where yesterday he poured Veuve Clicquot in a front room which was not much less than a chapel to his victories around the world.

He could not have done it without the horses. There have been four Cheltenham Festival successes, 50 per cent of them provided by Baracouda, who, on 17 March, will attempt to add to the legend in the freshly minted Ladbrokes World Hurdle. The 10-year-old might look like a crayonned figure in a child's drawing book, but the engine and performance have always been something else. That was what first attracted Doumen.

"He was elastic on four legs," the trainer said. "He had an amazing approach to the jumps. He didn't seem to make any effort at all. The take-off and landing didn't appear to be an effort. His action seems to be trotting on a cloud, on an air cushion.

Doumen is 64 now, but the calendar has been kind to him. They season well on the Avenue des Chartres. "This horse is ageing positively, getting stronger," the trainer added. "He is so well today that I wish Cheltenham was next week. He's never been so strong. He's fantastically well in his skin. We have to dose his work to get him to his top on D-day."

The Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham at the weekend was a race which might have shaken Doumen, a race in which several Festival combatants were ranged. Events hardly appear to have given him the collywobbles.

"I won't write a big novel about it, but all I can say is what I saw at Cheltenham on Saturday was constructive," Doumen said. "I don't think they were of his level. He has to do it [at the Festival]. He is the best horse."

l The second race at Lingfield yesterday was declared void as some stalls opened before others. Cargo, the first horse home, had charged the gate in stall eight, causing those numbered five to 12 to open fractionally before those numbered one to four.

l The trainer Barney Curley has apologised for his outburst on At The Races against pundit John McCririck and presenter Luke Harvey after the poor run of his Cristoforo at Folkestone last Friday. "My wife's said enough's enough," Curley said. "She can't stand this carry-on."