Racing: Fabre remains a potent force

Greg Wood on the dismal start to the season by France's outstanding trainer
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PEOPLE HAVE called Andre Fabre many things - among them haughty, driven and a genius - but since he first emerged as a force in French racing his fellow trainers have never been able to categorise him as anything other than the champion. For 11 consecutive years since 1987, Fabre's stable has finished at the top of the domestic prize-money league, an unprecedented domination of his home turf which only his retirement has ever seemed likely to threaten.

In fact, the contest is often over by the middle of June, when four of the five French Classics are already in the form book and Fabre is usually so far clear that his rivals are pink with embarrassment. But not this year. Fabre is not the leading French trainer, indeed he is not even among the top four. Pascal Bary, Criquette Head, Alain du Royer-Dupre and Jean Claude Rouget have all collected more prize-money.

At first sight, you might think that Fabre has finally started to fall short of the impossibly high standards he sets for himself, or that at the very least, a virus is circulating at his Chantilly yard. His domestic record in Group races, after all, shows just one Group One winner (Loup Sauvage in the Prix d'Ispahan), one success at Group Two level and three at Group Three. For a yard which in some respects is more like a Texas cattle ranch than a racing stable - there were 260 head of horses the last time anyone counted - this is not an acceptable return.

Scratch a little deeper, though, and there is little hint of serious problems chez Fabre. Instead, it seems that the trainer is - at long last - experiencing the sort of bad luck which others take for granted. Peintre Celebre, last year's brilliant Arc winner, was retired through injury before the season had really started, while Xaar has failed to meet expectations and several others who were expected to emerge as three-year-olds of Classic standard have also suffered mishaps.

"He must be disappointed," Desmond Stoneham, the International Racing Bureau's Paris representative, says, "but he's not the type of trainer to run horses unless they are absolutely spot on. He's just got so many horses, 100 more than anyone else, that he only has to get them firing and with the levels of French prize-money, it will soon start to add up."

Fabre is currently about FF3,000,000 (pounds 300,000) behind Bary, the leading French trainer, whose position owes much to his recent one-two in the Prix du Jockey-Club (French Derby) with Dream Well and Croco Rouge. Fabre's only runner in the race, Thief Of Hearts, finished ninth.

Thief Of Hearts, though, was probably running in the race only because of the misfortunes which had befallen some of his stablemates. "Fabre actually got off to a flying start this year," Stoneham says, "but then he had a lot of bad luck. Peintre Celebre would probably have won the Ganay, and Loudiac is also on the sidelines, he would probably have gone for the Poule d'Essai des Poulains (French 2,000 Guineas) and the Jockey- Club. And then he lost Diamonixa, who won the Prix Cleopatra and on a strict line of form might well have won the Prix de Diane (French Oaks)."

There are also legions of two-year-olds ready to emerge in the second half of the year, and if the French had bookmakers to offer odds on such things, Fabre would still be the firm favourite to claim his 12th consecutive title later this year. Like a championship football side which can win despite playing poorly, Fabre is still very much in the game, and that is yet another measure of his brilliance.