Horse racing fanatic Steven Dowler delves into the history of jump racing to bring us his list of ten of the greatest ever French jump racehorses.
There have been many high-class staying hurdlers over the years, with the likes of Big Bucks, Baracouda and Inglis Drever all becoming legends of the game. However, one of the French jump racehorses most often-overlooked at the peak of his powers was Le Sauvignon, who achieved the highest Timeform rating of 178 in the Stayers’ Hurdle division.
Trained by Bertran De Balanda for the majority of his career, Le Sauvignon wasn’t a great horse over the middle distances but really came into his own when stepped up to 2m5f+. He dominated top-class racehorses over that distance with his form figures reading 1-1-1-1-1, proving himself to be a very high-class stayer with two French Champion Hurdle wins to his name.
Surprisingly, Le Sauvignon only ever managed to win two grade 1’s in his career. Even so, Le Sauvignon was a dual winner of the Grande Course De Haies at Auteuil in back-to-back years which is a rare achievement. After winning that race in 2001 he changed hands to Paul Nicholls and won impressively on his UK chasing debut at Folkestone in 2002 under Ruby Walsh as the 4/11 favourite.
The 8-year-old was then sent off 2/1 favourite in the grade 1 Feltham Novices’ Chase at Kempton against the exciting Jair Du Cochet in what was promised to be a fantastic encounter. However, tragically Le Sauvignon died after the race from internal bleeding that he suffered at the third last fence. Incredibly, although he must have been in severe pain, he still managed to finish the race in second.
It’s extremely sad that we never really got to see what Le Sauvignon could do in the UK but what we do know is that Le Sauvignon was a brilliant horse who must be remembered as one of the greatest ever French jump racehorses.
JAIR DU COCHET
Guillaume Macaire is the best trainer in France and had the brilliant Jair Du Cochet, who had a ground-eating stride, plenty of scope and just loved winning. He only ever won two grade 1’s but that didn’t reflect the talent this horse possessed. Both of those wins came over hurdles and fences and his sparkling jumping and travelling was a joy to behold.
When Jair Du Cochet was at his best, nothing could beat him, something he proved when winning a grade 1 at Kempton over three miles. He beat pretty much everything in his hometown before finishing second in a grade 1 at the Cheltenham Festival. Jair Du Cochet was then sent off 2/1 favourite for the 2003 King George Chase, carrying a huge reputation following a string of high-class performances. Ultimately, Jair Du Cochet never jumped or travelled and was pulled up four fences from home.
However, the six-year-old bounced back when easily winning a grade 2 at Cheltenham next time out against useful opponents. Sadly, Jair Du Cochet was injured in the build up to a tilt at the Cheltenham Gold Cup and had to be put down. We will never know how good this french leading chaser could have been but we know he was a high-class horse who achieved a lot in such a short but fantastic career.
One of my all time favourite horses, the legendary Baracouda. He was an almighty staying hurdler and as consistent as they come. In 26 races for Francois Doumen, Baracouda only finished outside the top two once on his final career start. An unbelievable achievement that clearly qualifies him as one of the greatest ever French jump racehorses.
Baracouda dominated French racing, landing multiple graded races along the way, before connections brought him to the UK. Baracouda won seven grade 1 events in the UK and ran four times in the Stayers’ Hurdle, winning it back-to-back in 2002 and 2003 and defeating top class opposition such as Bannow Bay and Iris’s Gift. He was then runner-up in 2004 and 2005 behind Iris’s Gift and three-time winner Inglis Drever.
In my opinion Baracouda was one of the greatest horses of all time. The way he jumped and travelled was a joy to watch. Connections did a brilliant job keeping him at the top of his game for the best part of five years.
Baracouda won 18 times from 26 starts over obstacles, landing two Stayers’ Hurdles at Cheltenham and also runnning in four grade 1 Long Walk Hurdles at Ascot, winning in 2000, 2001 and 2003 and placing second in 2002.
Although Baracouda was past his best by 2005, the great stayer still managed to finish second in the Stayers’ Hurdle that year and then finished fifth in the 2006 Stayers’ Hurdle. He truly was a monster of a horse for Francois and Thierry Doumen.
We move onto the greatest ever french jump racehorse, Mid Dancer. A once in a lifetime horse, he ran in the Grand Steeple-Chase De Paris (French Gold Cup) six times over 3m5f in grade 1 company between 2007 and 2013 and achieved form figures of 1-3-2-1-1-3 in the race. He won five grade 1’s and ten grade 2/3 races, a feat that is unlikely to be repeated in France.
Mid Dancer was a top-class staying chaser who barely ran a poor race in his career. He won the Grand Steeple-Chase De Paris in 2007 as 7/10 favourite before finishing third in 2008 and then returning a year later to finish second.
Unfortunately, Mid Dancer missed the 2010 renewal but came back in 2011 to trounce a top-class field, including Rubi Ball. and win the race for a second time. A couple of defeats in 2012 caused many to believe that age had finally caught up with him and that he couldn’t complete the three-timer. However, the admirable 11-year-old showed his class yet again, powering to victory again in brilliant style.
By 2013 Mid Dancer was approaching his teenage years and clearly had begun his decline but, even so, he ran his heart out to finish third in the race in what proved to be his final career start.
What Mid Dancer accomplished over those years was phenomenal, especially as he wasn’t very big but had bags of stamina. Connections did a wonderful job with him year after year.
We may never see another horse like him again. Mid Dancer was truly one of the greatest ever French jump racehorses.
Between 2008 and 2012, Rubi Ball developed into one of the finest horses France had to offer over obstacles. He won three grade 1’s but should have won more as he was a dominant force at the top of his game. He won 16 of 41 career outings, including defeats of Mid Dancer and Long Run (Cheltenham Gold Cup and King George winner).
Rubi Ball was prone to making mistakes but the engine and gears he possessed made up for it, his career in France was extraordinary. He won the grade 1 Prix La Haye Jousselin over 3m3f in 2010 and 2011 before attempting to win the Grand Steeplechase Paris in 2012, having finished second in the race a year earlier.
Rubi Ball ran three times at Pau, finishing second each time before Willie Mullins bought him in 2013. Interestingly, Ruby Walsh was quoted many years earlier as saying that he felt Rubi Ball would become a lively Cheltenham Gold Cup contender in time. He was sent of as 1/2 favourite on his debut for connections but was beaten by a head.
Therefore, Rubi Ball was sent off at 8/1 for the grade 1 Lexus Chase at Leopardstown behind Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Bob’s Worth but defied those odds and put in a bold front-running display to be beaten just two lengths at the line in third. Sadly, Rubi Ball suffered a career-ending injury afterwards and never raced again. Nevertheless, he was a terrific horse who was certainly of the greatest ever French jump racehorses despite his career’s disappointing ending.
Guillaume Macaire also had the classy So French, who won back-to-back French Gold Cup races in 2016 and 2017. He was a three time grade 1 winner and, on his first attempt at the Grand Steeple-Chase De Paris over 3m6f, looked an outsider on paper due to his stablemate As D’Estruval being made 23/10 favourite.
However, So French went on to win the race by four lengths under James Reveley as the favourite took the wrong course after the seventeenth fence. One year on from that success, So French was made 6/5 favourite for the contest having had a cracking campaign. The result was never in doubt as James Reveley guided him to a six length success to win the greatest french jump race for a second time and become one of the greatest ever French jump racehorses by default.
Unfortunately, So French lost his form afterwards which resulted in him being sent off 15/1 for the same race a year later. He was brought down at the first fence as James Reveley went on to claim the race for a third straight year aboard his stablemate, On The Go. Sadly, So French was never the same after that fall.
As the saying goes, all good things do come to an end and the great chaser was retired in May last year. However, at his peak, So French was a brilliant chaser and will be remembered for what he did in the Grand Steeple-Chase De Paris two years in a row, which not many are able to achieve.
Shannon Rock was one of the best staying chasers in France never to win the Grand Steeple-Chase De Paris. He finished runner-up in the race four years in four consecutive years between 2012 and 2015. He only won a single grade one in his career but, if you look through his record, it clearly indicates what a consistent horse he was for connections through the years.
Two of his four second place efforts in the French Gold Cup were photo finishes, one of them he was beaten by half a length and the other time by a short nose. How Shannon Rock didn’t win it at least once I will never know, he was just a desperately unlucky racehorse.
Shannon Rock was a proper warrior when it came down to marathon events around Auteuil, wearing his heart on his sleeve every time. He was retired in 2017 having won seven of his 53 races and placing 22 times. I think he was a very underrated chaser in France, his win percentage never truly reflected his quality.
Guillaume Macaire had the mighty Long Run before he switched to Nicky Henderson and continued his fantastic career in the UK. However, before he made that move, he was a beast in France winning eight of his twelve starts and finishing in the top three on the other four runs. Notably he easily defeated Rubi Ball twice in grade 1 and grade 3 company at Auteuil before moving to Nicky Henderson.
Long Run won four grade 1 races in the UK. He landed two King George Chases at Kempton in 2010 and 2012 but the highlight of his career came in the 2011 Cheltenham Gold Cup when he defeated the legends Denman and Kauto Star.
He ran in three Gold Cups in total, winning in 2011 and then placing third in the 2012 and 2013 renewals. Long Run also chased home Kauto Star in the 2011 King George inbetween winning the race in 2010 and 2012 and finished runner-up in the Betfair Chase twice.
There is no doubt that Long Run was a fantastic racehorse in both France and in the UK and will always be remembered for his defeat of both Denman and Kauto Star in the 2011 Cheltenham Gold Cup at the age of six. For that achievement alone he is one of the greatest ever French jump racehorses, although his career provided so many other highlights as well.
Questarabad was an extraordinary racehorse for trainer Marcel Rolland winning 15 of his 24 starts and never finishing worse than fourth in his entire career, cementing his standing as one of the greatest ever French jump racehorses
He won four grade 1’s and managed 13 graded races in total which proved him as an exceptional specimen. He won grade 1 races between 2m3f and 3m1f, with his career highlight coming in the 2009 French Champion Hurdle. Considering that he won so many quality races through his career, Questarabad was still only a seven-year-old when having his final start.
Regrettably, Questarabad suffered a double fracture to his leg in what proved to be his final race, yet still managed to finish second in an incredibly courageous effort. However, very sadly the extent of his injury he suffered proved to be so severe that there was no option other than to put him to sleep.
Questarabad was a phenomenal racehorse who would have had the world at his feet for years to come. It isn’t far-fetched to suggest that he could have become the greatest french jump racehorse of all time. Regardless, Questarabad was adored by the French fans and what he accomplished as such a young horse will long live in the memory.
Bertran De Berlanda was a master of finding top-class racehorses in France and one such specimen was Gemix who was by far his best horse since Le Sauvignon.
Gemix raced 20 times over hurdles, winning eight times and never finished outside the top four. He became a dual French Champion Hurdle winner, having won it back-to-back in 2013 and 2014 beating top-class opponents in the process.
Gemix was an Auteuil specialist and only ever raced in the UK once, finishing last of four runners in the Relkeel Hurdle at Cheltenham. Although Gemix disappointed that day, his form in France was top-class having adapted to a various range of distances over the years.
His victory in the 2013 Grande Course De Haies (French Champion Hurdle) was brilliant as he defeated the favourite Solwhit, who was bidding to complete a hat-trick following wins in the Liverpool Hurdle at Aintree and the Stayers Hurdle at Cheltenham. Gemix had a terrific attitude in a race and when it came down to a battle and should be given more recognition considering he was a dual champion in France.
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