Racing: Flanders beckons the bold: Small stables are making tracks for Belgium in search of fame and fortune. Richard Edmondson reports

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The Independent Online
THE LIST of famous Belgians is a short one. In literature they can offer Georges Simenon, Maurice Maeterlinck and Tintin's creator, Herge; musically there are Jacques Brel, Adolphe Sax and the man the French have turned into their own rock star, Johnny Halliday; and in sport comes the trio of Jacky Ickx, Paul Van Himst and Eddy Merckx.

This limited register of heroes could be a mystery even to a fictional Belgian, Hercule Poirot, yet it stands as impressive compared to the country's famous horse races.

For National Hunt aficionados, next Tuesday is the one, and only, day of note in the calendar, when the Grand Steeplechase of Flanders is the centrepiece of a jumping card in Waregem, about 50 miles north-west of Brussels.

This meeting is a climax of a four- day festival in the Flemish area of the country and dates back 150 years, yet it has taken until this season for British and Irish trainers to fully recognise its potential. The 13-strong party from the United Kingdom that will participate next week is the strongest numerical challenge ever for a foreign jump meeting and stands among fellow prospectors from France, who field 90 runners, Russia (five) and Germany (two).

While it must be noted that David Nicholson trained Kildagin to win the Grand Steeple Chase twice in the 1970s, this is essentially a meeting that attracts the smaller British trainers.

Dai Williams, who prepares a dozen horse at Great Shefford, near Newbury, will be having a stable outing when he takes over three of his string in Spirited Holme, Pennine Pass and Polder. 'There won't be an awful lot left at home,' he said yesterday.

'It beats me how owners and trainers don't go for these races in Belgium. They get paid pounds 1,100 per horse transfer allowance, the owners go over and have a real good weekend and the horses run for good prize money. What's more the atmosphere and the crack is brilliant because it's a one-off event.

'It's better than running at Cartmel and taking on Gordon Richards and Martin Pipe. It would cost me an arm and a leg to get there, six hours driving and we're running round for pounds 1,200 first prize. With this I'm being paid all the time I'm away. It's a great idea and I can't understand why more of the smaller trainers haven't taken advantage of it.'

The men who have seen the benefits are Mark McCausland, who sends four from Northern Ireland, Rod Juckes and John Ffitch-Heyes, whose Marzocco and Gabish are expected to be ridden by Adrian Maguire. Marzocco, who was unplaced in a sharpener on the Flat at Nottingham on Monday, finished third in the Prix Felix De Ruyck last season and is expected to be further up the podium this year.

While none of these visitors will contest the main race, there is still a consolation event which does not compare badly in financial terms with Britain's most valuable early-season chase, the Hennessy Gold Cup.

Challengers for the prize money will find themselves confronted with a course as tight as Chester, less than a mile round, and a variety of obstacles crammed into the right-handed track. While the challenge has changed from the early days, when deep water, lipped ditches and stiff, high fences meant that Waregem was almost a mechanism for getting horseflesh on to Continental dinner tables, there are still severe demands.

'The fences are more like those found on the cross-country section of an event than British steeplechase fences,' Richard Dunwoody, the champion jumps jockey, said after last year's meeting. 'They include a long bank, up, four strides and down, a double of privet hedges, large water ditches, post and rails, and hurdles.'

The post and rails is, in fact, one of the most demanding obstacles on offer, being made from telegraph posts. Perhaps that is why the communication wires have not been singing to other trainers on the merits of Belgium's one, and only, day of jump racing.

(Photograph omitted)