Racing: Ultimate test for the Silver Fox: Today's Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe is not the only challenge facing trainer Francois Boutin. Jamie Reid reports

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IT'S daybreak over Lamorlaye, a prosperous dormitory town some 30 kilometres north of Paris. Several hundred of the more pampered local residents are waking slowly to the sound of singing birds and pitchforks scraping away the soiled straw from their boxes. A cock crows, pigeons scrabble and steam rises photogenically from the muckheap in the front yard. The arrogant blue bloods at the centre of this daily morning ritual are among the most valuable of their type anywhere in the world. For this is Le Mont de Po racing stables, the home and workshop of Francois Boutin, a man who for nearly three decades has, like Vincent O'Brien and Noel Murless before him, been a truly dominant figure in European racing.

An assistant opens up the office at the back of the dark, wooden stable block. Light floods across the room, illuminating picture after picture of famous racing moments. Miesque's Breeders' Cup victory in 1987. Nonoalco turning over O'Brien's Apalachee in the 1974 2,000 Guineas. La Lagune at Epsom. Nureyev. Arazi. One photograph, taken at Deauville three summers back, shows the trainer himself in rude health: tall, broad-shouldered, with his distinctive shock of silver- grey hair (he is known locally as the Silver Fox) and his equally distinctive cigar. The silver trophies on the top shelf include cups and mementoes for the Prix du Jockey Club, the Prix de Diane, the English and French Guineas, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. One prize, though, is missing. In a career spanning 29 years, Francois Boutin has never yet trained the winner of the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. Today, though, he hopes to put the record straight, with the help of long-time ante-post favourite Hernando: winner of this summer's French Derby, a Longchamp course specialist and mount of the irrepressible Cash Asmussen.

An extraordinary number of Boutin's fellow professionals, and countless other French and British racing enthusiasts, are willing him to succeed: not for financial reasons - serious gamblers never allow sentiment to influence their selections - but because in addition to his battle to carry off Europe's most sought-after horse race, the 56- year-old trainer is also fighting his own private battle against a potentially life-destroying cancer.

At seven o'clock exactly Boutin arrives. I have never met the man before, but I feel as if I know him because I have seen him so many times at close quarters, gracing all the biggest stages in the game. And so I experience the same shock as one would feel on seeing an old friend or relation in a similar condition. That distinctive silver-grey hair has all gone, an early casualty of his three-weekly chemotherapy treatments. On this chilly September morning he wears a cap and gloves and a jacket buttoned up tight at the neck for warmth. He is still tall, and his presence will always be imposing, but he has shed weight, and there is a stoop in his shoulders and a shuffle in his walk. He deals courteously with our presence. The pho

tographer explains that he would like to take pictures of Hernando, of the stable yard and of the trainer himself. Boutin smiles. 'What do you want to take a picture of me for?' he asks. 'You should have taken my photograph 20 years ago.'

Outside, the first horses move out towards the forest. We drive a short distance into the vast encircling woodland, walk briefly through dripping trees, and there are the horses again, circling in a muddy glade. Boutin inspects each horse calmly, patiently; then they are sent away to the bottom of Le Perth gallop. We follow the trainer down the long sandy ride, groves of horse chestnut trees flanking us on either side. The early morning world is silent and still. Then the horses start to reappear, working their way back up the gallop at 30 yard intervals, their hooves echoing over the slop and sand. 'Doucement, doucement,' says the trainer beneath his breath. Hernando is third up: visibly improved for his mid-summer rest and stronger and more forward than when comfortably winning his Arc trial, the Prix Niel, three weeks ago. The stable are convinced that this horse has the ability to win the big race and that he couldn't be in better shape to attempt to do so. But there is no disguising their concern that rain-softened ground at Longchamp may blunt Hernando's speed, giving the prize once again to Boutin's arch rival, Andre Fabre, whose two fillies, Wemyss Bight and Intrepidity, are described by Boutin as 'the class of the race'.

The horses steam and snort after their work. They look good for it. But no one looks more at one with his surroundings than Boutin himself. The earlier frailty seems to have left him as he settles down on his shooting stick to talk.

He declines to go into intimate details about his illness, which affects his liver and was first diagnosed in March. Even his closest friends are still unclear as to the exact stage of his remission or the likely outcome. He admits that it may be incurable but refuses to be cast as a tragic hero. 'Don't glorify me just because I'm ill,' he says. 'Write about me winning races if you want. But remember I'm an extremely lucky man. I've been able to spend all of my life dedicated to a passion. Others are not so fortunate. But others get ill, too, and suffer pain and bereavement. Their pain, their loss, is just as severe. But nobody writes about that.'

What has been remarkable about Boutin over the past seven months is that, far from neglecting his horses to concentrate on his own peril, he has maintained an extraordinary strike rate in big events, winning eight Group One contests so far this season. He is quick to attribute this to the excellence of his staff, as well as talking about his luck in receiving every year the pick of Stavros Niarchos's yearlings. (He has trained for Niarchos for more than 20 years.) Other explanations which Boutin offers for his resilience include his love of music, travel and the countryside. But the clearest possible answer is that what has sustained Francois Boutin in adversity is that same passion, that appetite for the earthy hands-on business of working with horses, that has motivated him all his life.

He was born in Beaunay, a tiny village just south of Dieppe. He learnt to ride when he was five, started showjumping and cross- country riding when he was 11 and throughout his youth helped his father to look after the horses with which they worked the land on their small farm. After two years' National Service in North Africa, Boutin came to Chantilly to work as an assistant to Etienne Pollet, a master horseman who was sending out champions like 1965 Derby winner Sea Bird when blood tests and biorhythm charts were still only a gleam in some hi-tech trainer's eye. Suggest to Boutin that you can master his profession by means of scientific immersion alone and he laughs scornfully. Training takes place here, he says, digging his shoe into the ground: 'Sur le terrain.' The only secret, he adds, is that 'there is no secret'. Only 'work, work, and more hard work. You just have to keep on winning races. Unless you do that the owners would leave, the money would dry up and the whole operation would go under. Not winning would be a catastrophe.' The likelihood of that kind of catastrophe overtaking Le Mont de Po stables in the near future seems slight. There will be fewer horses next season, as a sop to the doctors, but there still seems to be a surfeit of future stars waiting to carry on the pattern: the precocious Coup de Genie, who runs in today's Prix Marcel Boussac, the hugely promising filly East of the Moon, the colt Psychobabble. But does the trainer still really get the same buzz, on these cold autumnal mornings, as he did 10 years ago? 'Oh absolutely,' he says. 'Always, always . . .' Whatever next year may bring, he adds, he will in the meantime 'be happy to embrace life from week to week and from day to day' as he tries to find the strength to cure himself. Other than that, he says, he will 'just wait for whatever it is that God may bring'.

By half past ten the work is finished, the gallops are deserted and the great forest is empty and silent again. In the stable yard everything is settling down pleasantly into that dreamy lull that descends on all racing stables by late morning. Boutin bids farewell politely and walks back towards his house to rest. On the other side of the hedge, within sight of the trainer's bedroom window, the Arc favourite, his coat now a glistening sheen of darkish brown, is munching straw absent-mindedly in his box. For Hernando at least the waiting is nearly over.

(Photograph omitted)