Racing: French foray can be foiled by Mubrik

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The Independent Online
THE FRENCH connection is one that is rarely made these days in handicaps on this side of the Channel. Early in the century there were some notable Gallic invasions - Sir Gallahad won the 1924 Lincoln, for example, and Epinard was beaten a few inches by Verdict, giving her 18lb, in the Cambridgeshire a year earlier. But since the immediate post-war era, when a classy horse like Sayani, third in the Longchamp Guineas, came over and carried top weight to victory in the 1946 Cambridgeshire, the raiders have confined their attentions to the elite division.

The reasons are easily fathomed. Prize money in France is so good in feature handicaps - normally the big-betting Tierce race on a card - that there is no real reason for a horse to travel unless in search of Pattern- race glory. And conditions here have, up until now, not encouraged visitors. Broadly, to achieve a handicap mark, a horse from the Continent must run thrice in weight-for-age contests which, in view of the pickings available locally, is just not worth it.

Until last year the only exception to the rule was the Free Handicap, based on the three-year-old International Classifications. But the welcome innovation of the Tote International Handicap, to be run for the second time this afternoon at Ascot, has nudged open the door to new challenges. The computer age means that handicappers from the major racing nations can now reliably extend their ratings comparisons further down the ladder from Group and Listed level and the British Horseracing Board have sanctioned the acceptance of foreigners into today's seven-furlong race, which is designed for high-class handicappers.

The pounds 150,000 purse is outstanding, even by French standards, and although the inaugural running failed to attract an overseas contender, two - Bartex and Matin de Printemps - will line up with 25 others today.

The better of the pair is probably Bartex, even though racing for money is not his day-job. In mid-June he made the transfer from Corinne Barbe to Tony Clout, bought as a lead-horse to help the Japanese star El Condor Pasa, who is lodging with Clout at Lamorlaye, with his build-up to the Arc.

Today will be the five-year-old's first run for Clout, and his last for a while. "He has an appointment with El Condor Pasa on the gallops on 17 August," his trainer said, "and will not combine his work there with racing, though he may run at the Arc meeting. I am still getting to know him, but he is a very nice horse who has been consistently placed in listed races, and seems a better-behaved horse since he was gelded during the winter."

Bartex is a son of Groom Dancer, who was Clout's only previous English runner when seventh to Reference Point in the 1987 Derby. He will be ridden by the British debutant Yushi Fukunaga, one of Japan's high-flying young jockeys.

Clout does not over-estimate the chance of Fukunaga and Bartex, who was unplaced under a big weight over 10 furlongs on soft ground last time out, in a blistering cavalry charge among experienced locals, but he would not be surprised by a decent showing. "The race fits in well with the horse's training programme, and will give the jockey, who is in Europe for a couple of weeks, some good experience. Bartex has plenty of speed and stays a mile, so he will be suited by a stiff seven furlongs. And he will be carrying a light weight, which will help because he lacks a little size and strength."

Since Bartex joined his new team, El Condor Pasa has won the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud in tremendous style. "The little horse has been a great help," Clout said. "At home he really makes the other one go. He'll stay with me after El Condor Pasa goes home and I'm sure I can win a Listed race with him."

Bartex may be worth a speculative each-way bet, but for the winner of one of the most competitive handicaps it may be better to put faith in Mubrik (3.05), one of those drawn near him on the far side. The John Gosden- trained four-year-old's encouraging seasonal debut will have primed him for today's task.

The cross-Channel traffic tomorrow will be in the reverse direction as Diktat leads a five-strong British assault on the Prix Maurice de Gheest at Deauville, and should make it four Group One wins in 16 days for the Godolphin team. But there are none to challenge the home side in Ireland's top-level contest, the Heinz 57 Phoenix Stakes at Leopardstown, in which Aidan O'Brien's exciting youngster Fasiliev can follow up his Coventry Stakes victory.