Soumillon leaves cream of French jumps trailing in Auteuil triumph

Leading Flat jockey wins Gallic Champion Hurdle on Mandali as <I>turfistes</I> boo established names
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The Independent Online

As Ryan Moore, Johnny Murtagh, Frankie Dettori et al fought out finishes in their conventional arena of Royal Ascot, the weekend's sport in France produced a quite extraordinary result for one of their Flat colleagues and showed that a horseman is a horseman, whatever the challenge. Christophe Soumillon, three times French champion, dipped into the world of jump racing, and promptly won the Gallic version of the Champion Hurdle at Auteuil.

It was the Belgian's first victory over obstacles, having finished third on his debut at the famed and difficult Parisian track last Thursday. And, riding the 11-2 chance Mandali for Jean-Paul Gallorini, the flamboyant flatman simply rode some of France's best jump jockeys to sleep. He set off in front and was soon a hurdle ahead of his rivals, who reckoned the upstart had got it wrong and would come back to them.

But Soumillon's judgement of pace through the three and a quarter miles was such that he was able to give his mount a breather down the final backstretch before pressing on again to win the £300,000 contest by more than 30 lengths.

Second place was taken by the reigning champion Questarabad, the 7-10 favourite. And the furious local turfistes left his rider Regis Schmidlin and the others behind in no doubt of their opinion; the storm of booing that greeted their return made the reception given to the England footballers seem mild.

"It's crazy," Soumillon said, "but it's not my problem what went on behind me. I just rode my race for my horse. I can't really believe what happened, but I'm absolutely delighted."

Soumillon had ridden Mandali – a six-year-old half-brother to top-class filly Mandesha – before, as a three-year-old in his days on the Flat before he was cast off from the Aga Khan's string to go jumping. He is now part-owned by equestrian impresario and trick-rider Bartabas, who met the jockey after one of his shows in Hong Kong. "He said then he'd like to ride for me one day," said the artist, "but I never imagined something like this."

Although Lester Piggott once rode a Cheltenham Festival winner before seriously turning his attention to the Flat, riders from the two disciplines rarely overlap outside novelty events. The closest equivalent to Saturday's performance previously was when Murtagh tried his luck on Golden Cross in the World Hurdle at Cheltenham four years ago and failed by a head..

Horses, however, can be more versatile – witness Markington, who followed a success over hurdles at Aintree 10 days ago with victory in the Pontefract Cup on the Flat yesterday. And, at a higher level, several worlds are now an oyster for new Gold Cup hero Rite of Passage. One bookmaking firm, SkyBet, has responded to the Dermot Weld-trained chestnut's battling success over Age Of Aquarius in the Royal meeting's showpiece by cutting him to 14-1 for next year's Champion Hurdle. Another, William Hill, has gone further by offering 25-1 against his becoming the first horse to win the Flat and jumping Gold Cup.

Rite Of Passage has already shone at Cheltenham, finishing third last year in the Champion Bumper to Dunguib and taking the same position in March behind Peddlers Cross in the Neptune Novices Hurdle. The six-year-old is unbeaten in three starts on the Flat and has the Melbourne Cup pencilled in.

"He'll have a summer break now and then we'll see," Weld said yesterday. "The Irish St Leger would be his most likely comeback race. I think it was a very good Gold Cup – it was a record time and the third horse [Purple Moon] was a good bit back and a long way ahead of the others. But he's a super leaper over hurdles and a very athletic horse, so the Champion Hurdle could well be a race for him."

Weld also has the talented mare Profound Beauty – who has taken the scalp of Age Of Aquarius this term – under consideration for the Flemington feature, which he has won in the past with Vintage Crop and Media Puzzle. She will reappear at the Curragh at the weekend, during the Irish Derby meeting, in either the Curragh Cup over a mile and six or the Pretty Polly Stakes over 10 furlongs.

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