Racing: Fellow reaches a turning point: A phenomenal French steeplechaser pursues a Kempton hat-trick. Matt Chapman reports

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HIGH confidence from his trainer and low odds from the bookmakers convey the impression that The Fellow has an outstanding chance of winning the King George VI Chase for the third consecutive year. But is he really the same force that overtook Docklands Express and Remittance Man in 1991 and swooped past Pat's Jester last year?

The form book would suggest he is starting to fade, but Francois Doumen, his trainer, believes otherwise. 'I'm very happy with his preparation,' he said. 'We had a long frost, and The Fellow missed about 10 days' training. He is now working very well on the straight dirt gallop at the Piste des Lyons and has been popped over the one British-style fence, though I wish we had a few more. I'm very hopeful he'll run well in the King George.'

If the eight-year-old succeeds at Kempton on 27 December, he will have emulated Desert Orchid's three consecutive King George's (1988 to 1990), although of course the grey also won the race in 1986.

Bookmakers quote The Fellow at around 5-2 to complete the hat-trick. But their prices seem far from a true reflection of the gelding's chance, even though his main opponents, Barton Bank, Bradbury Star and Young Hustler, have plenty to prove at this level.

In 1991, The Fellow preceded his King George victory with three straight wins, before unseating his rider in his final prep-race, at Auteuil that November.

Similarly, last year he went to Kempton with first-rate credentials. Two convincing victories at Auteuil showed his well-being, while his final effort before the King George, third when conceding almost 2st to Sibton Abbey and Jodami in the Hennessy Gold Cup, underlined his claim to be Europe's leading chaser.

The Fellow duly strolled away from a moderate King George field, but was a well- beaten fourth, when 5-4 favourite, to Jodami in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, and fifth to Topsham Bay, when breaking a blood vessel, in the Whitbread Gold Cup.

This season, The Fellow will line up at Kempton without a win in his last six starts and now wears blinkers. He is no longer the top-rated chaser in France, a position he held between 1991 and September this year. Michel Bauer, France's chief steeplechase handicapper, has relegated The Fellow to third spot, behind Al Capone II and Ucello II.

The Fellow has had four runs in his build-up to this year's King George. In his first, the Prix Millionnaire II at Auteuil in June, he was a close, though disappointing, fourth to Ucello II and was fifth to the same horse in the Grand Steeple-Chase de Paris later that month. Two subsequent runs have resulted in a disqualification from first place and a distant third in a four-runner event.

But Doumen is not worried. 'I think he has run well this year and is suited to wearing blinkers,' he said. 'I ran him last time (at Auteuil on 14 November) because there were four runners and a first prize of pounds 70,000.

'He jumped the last upsides the winner, Al Capone, and Ucello, but couldn't quicken on the bottomless ground. He didn't blow up, he just couldn't cope with the surface and Adam Kondrat didn't give him a hard race.

''In Britain you just don't understand how bog-like the ground can become over here - if the race had been run in England it would have been abandoned.

'Before that The Fellow had beaten Ucello but was disqualified and placed third. That was a very pleasing effort, though I'm not sure it would allow me to say he has improved this year.'

Those may be significant words, for although he is only eight The Fellow has been chasing since he was a five- year-old. The best years may be behind him.

Francois Doumen's Man To Man contests the opening race at Uttoxeter today having shown himself to be a useful novice hurdler in the making, running a good third at Auteuil on his latest start.

(Photograph omitted)