To British turfistes, he has always been the equivalent of Henri Leconte – his Gallic suavity agreeably inflected by the sense of fatalism, irony even, available to any sportsman who discovers that you cannot win them all. At the same time the impression persists that François Doumen has only ever acknowledged this truth as a trainer; seldom, if ever, as a man.
He will be 69 this summer, but remains a sickeningly glamorous figure. It is still easy to picture him in his Corinthian pomp, as a debonair polo player, skier and amateur jockey. And, as his South African wife observes, those excellent teeth. "Amazing, when you think he was given donkey's milk as a baby," Elizabeth Doumen says, her one concession to the fable that he was born on the roadside as his family fled the Germans in 1940.
Yesterday Doumen led a coachload of British journalists into a still, grey forest to watch Kasbah Bliss hurtle along la Piste des Lions, a straight gallop extending 4,000 metres from the palace at Chantilly. This is the latest horse to elaborate Doumen's reputation as one of the most accomplished horsemen on the European Turf. Doumen introduced himself to les rosbifs as long ago as 1987, when Nupsala had the temerity to beat Desert Orchid in the King George VI Chase, and has since saddled six Cheltenham Festival winners, most memorably The Fellow in the Gold Cup itself, in 1994, after two short-head defeats.
"It's about time we had another, though," Doumen complained cheerfully. "When was it, 2005? Moulin Riche and Kelami. It does not help that I have had to sell some good ones. But if you want your owners to re-invest, they need some oxygen."
Sure enough, he has several promising young horses, some of which may yet make it to the Festival in March. He points out Doctor Pat, owned by JP McManus and heavily backed when fifth in a bumper at Newbury last month. "I thought I was going to kill them," Doumen admitted ruefully. "I didn't. But he's a big, lovely chap, and I think he'll be very good one day."
For the time being, however, Kasbah Bliss bears the tricolour. Last year he failed by only a length to thwart an unprecedented third success for Inglis Drever in the Ladbrokes World Hurdle. Last week, however, the champion was retired, and the improvement he has shown on the Flat in the meantime confirms that Kasbah Bliss will now set the standard to the emerging British stayers, Punchestowns and Big Buck's.
This, of course, was the race won in consecutive years by Baracouda, though Doumen is candid in his greater affection for Kasbah Bliss, a home-bred. "Baracouda wasn't elegant," he frowned. He makes it sound like a war crime. "He was moody, always pulling faces. But he was exceptional. He came from a small yard, in the countryside, and even his trainer was worried when I first went into the box. 'No, no, no,' he said. I kissed the horse on the head, he was fine. But how can you compare a horse like this with one you have bred? Kasbah Bliss, he's family. He has always been a very cheerful horse, the only one in the yard who shows his form at home. Which is quite helpful."
Not least in the present circumstances, Kasbah Bliss having been rested since being beaten barely a length in a Group One race at Longchamp in October. He will be given his rehearsal at Haydock next month, in the same race he won last year. "Though once again I warn everybody that he's a far better horse on good ground," Doumen said. "So I hope the taps will not be left on at Cheltenham. I think he's older and stronger now, a better horse than last year. Maybe Christophe Pieux could have been a little more patient – he came with rather a rush to the last hurdle, and the horse hit it."
Pieux, a multiple champion jockey in France, has apparently postponed his retirement in honour of Kasbah Bliss. "I think he's 41, and he's bashed," Doumen said, gesturing vaguely towards his face. "So he has put the pressure on me."
By now the Doumens have brought their guests back to their elegant villa, fragrant with incense and woodsmoke. Racing trophies, photographs and mementos ("Jim And Tonic – 300,000 air miles", winner of Group One prizes in Dubai and Hong Kong) are displayed among eclectic paintings and sculpture, while the furnishings evoke the couple's early days together, in South Africa. A pair of parakeets flirt in an opulent cage.
The Doumens will feel very much at home at Royal Ascot, should Kasbah Bliss proceed as intended towards the Gold Cup. Indeed, they have already been in the royal procession, during the days when Doumen trained for the Queen Mother. But it is the more visceral flavours of Cheltenham that seduce him most. These days, he belongs seamlessly in that madcap milieu, albeit he mischievously reiterates his status as an outsider. "When I go to Cheltenham, I have the Irish behind me," he grinned. "As long as the British aren't winning, they're happy."
Vive la difference, you might say.
Ladbrokes World Hurdle (Cheltenham, 12 March)
Ladbrokes: 5-2 Kasbah Bliss, Punchestowns, 5-1 Big Buck's, 8-1 Blazing Bailey, 12-1 Duc De Regniere, Fair Along, 16-1 Mobaasher, 20-1 Catch Me, Elusive Dream, Lough Derg, Pettifour, Tazbar, 25-1 others.
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