Racing: Lagardere has mix to revive French

Neil Young on the man aiming to spur on France's racing and win its Derby
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The Independent Online
Jean-Luc Lagardere is a busy man. On Sunday he will watch his grey and pink colours carried by Walk On Mix, one of the leading home contenders for the Prix du Jockey-Club, while at Epsom six days later his Diamond Mix may line up as a lively outsider against his stable-mate from Andre Fabre's yard, Pennekamp, in the big one.

This would be enough for most people, but Lagardere can be forgiven for having other things on his mind. His day job is the running of Matra-Hachette, a conglomerate which includes one of France's biggest publishers and makes, among other things, Exocet missiles.

In addition, he has just been elected the first president of the new racing authority, France-Galop, and is regarded as the saviour of the sport, the one man who can rescue it from the crisis that claimed Maisons- Laffitte in the first wave of belt-tightening and which looks certain to lead to even more drastic measures.

"I have not arrived in order to preside over an inexorable decline," Lagardere says. "This business can be put back on an even keel, providing we all speak with a common voice."

This common voice will mainly be used to speak to the new Gaullist government, and the beleagured French racing community views the Lagardere- Chirac axis as the dream ticket to answer their prayers.

On this side of the Channel it is surprising that France, with its top- flight horses and generous prize-money, should be complaining about financial difficulties. But the problems run deep and the glossy facade presented at the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe and the Classics is something of an illusion.

Attendance at bread-and-butter meetings - even in Paris - is notoriously low, and television coverage is virtually non-existent. Flat and jump racing must compete against the more popular trotting, and both codes depend heavily on dwindling receipts from the Tote monopoly, the Pari- Mutuel Urbain (PMU), on whose turnover the state lottery has long had the same effect now being experienced by British bookmakers.

A new jackpot bet, the Grand Seven, has got off to a patchy start, but in the longer term Lagardere's main priority is to rejig the equation by which the government creams off millions from the PMU without contributing to administration costs.

In 1992 a deal was struck by which the government agreed to bail out racing, in return for a wholescale reorganisation of the sport along similar lines to that of the British Horseracing Board here. Central to this plan was the election of an executive and a president.

In the end, this turned out to be more of a plebiscite than a ballot, as Lagardere stood unopposed, carried into office on a wave composed in roughly equal parts of acclamation and desperation.

From the British perspective, however, it does seem a little odd that no voice has been raised to question the probity of giving such an active participant in the sport such a degree of power over it.

Exact parallels are tricky, but a scenario in which Robert Sangster, or Peter Savill, was unanimously swept into the top job at the BHB would not be too far from the mark.

There is a French precedent. In 1960 industrialist and owner-breeder, Marcel Boussac, started a largely successful 14-year stint as head of France-Galop's predecessor, the Societe d' Encouragement. These are infinitely tougher times for the sport, however, and it remains to be seen whether the placing of such a burden of responsibility on the shoulders of a single 66- year-old, however competent he may be, will prove a wise move.

In the meantime, there are the horses to look forward to. Diamond Mix has only place prospects against the likes of Pennekamp and Celtic Swing, but he has been beaten only once in four starts, and there was a lot to like about his five-length defeat of Angel Falls in the Prix Greffulhe last time out, especially in the light of that colt's subsequent close third in the Prix Lupin.

These form lines, however, look about as solid as the rain-sodden turf which Diamond Mix prefers, and he remains some way off Classic standard. Family history is also against him - his sire, Linamix, attracted serious money in the 1990 Derby, but the second-favourite clearly detested the track and ran like a typical French non-stayer in ninth behind Quest For Fame.

The new supremo will be keen to avoid similar embarrassment this time around, but has an even bigger hex to lay in the Prix du Jockey-Club.

Three years ago Lagardere's home-bred Polytain started his career in a lowly claimer, from which he was snapped up for pounds 20,000 and change. Less than three months later, he romped to success at Chantilly in a new owner's colours at the odds of 36-1, recouping his purchase price more than ten times over.