21 December 2003

The revolutionary methods of French trainer Guillaume Macaire could result in Best Mate’s invincibility being shattered for a second time on Boxing Day

French star Jair du Cochet and jockey Jacques Ricou slam through the heavy sand at Palmyre racecourse 100km up the coast from Bordeaux. Study his action and listen to his trainer, Guillaume Macaire, and you will find a challenge not just for Best Mate in the King George on Boxing Day, but for the central methods of preparing horses for the jumping game.

Look at Jair du Cochet’s tack for a start. As with all 60 of Macaire’s horses on active duty, his head is held in not just by the jockey’s hands on the reins but also by two other elastic reins running from the girth to the rings of the bit. The theory is that keeping the horse’s head and neck arced down throughout his 90 minute exercise (except when on jumping practice) makes the back more flexible, gets the hind legs more underneath the body. Macaire believes he can actually lengthen a horse’s stride.

“A horse or a dog has a very flexible spine,” he says, brown eyes very direct beneath the tight curls and crumpled face. “When the dog is running fast he is pushing with his back legs in front of his front legs and he is very effective. For a horse that is not possible because he is too stiff. My job is to try to have a horse pushing under his back without wasting energy. If you are able to improve your stride just a little bit with the same energy, after three kilometres it will make a difference.”

The results are revealing. In the past year Macaire has become the first French jumps trainer to send out more than 200 winners and win over three million euros. The 47-year-old former Paris law student is a quick and cultured man whose form-book-cluttered den at the heart of his yard is offset by a bust of an 18th century courtier he found in a skip outside the Academie Francaise. On the wall is a large printed quote from Lafayette which translates as “my passions are able to drive me, but they are not able to blind me.”

As Jair du Cochet readies for a repeat of his Huntingdon defeat of Best Mate, Guillaume Macaire thinks it is time the British let the scales drop from their eyes. “My English is not good, I speak like a little boy,” he says with an edge emerging from the geniality, “this is pleasant for you because it sounds exotic. But I want to explain my methods, to show that down here we are a team and we are very serious.”

For him that all starts with jumping. On the office wall there is another quotation which translates provocatively: “The only good jumpers are those who get really accustomed to it at a young age.” Go out early with Macaire at this time of year and you will see them doing it at kindergarten. For that, in equine terms, is about the education stage reached by the 25 French jumping-bred, woolly coated two-year-olds who hack and pop round the three little jumps set up on the furlong-round sand school.

This was how Jair du Cochet started almost four years ago, although he did not get going until the spring because he was so difficult to educate. “He was quite ugly and very stupid, but I loved his sire,” says Macaire, admitting he bought him and his half-brother, Janus du Cochet, after a long Normandy lunch. “We could not get him on to the van, he was like a volcano. So we waited until he was three-years old but he then learnt his lessons very quickly. “He was carried out on his first run at Bordeaux, then won three hurdle races in France before coming to Chepstow (Dec 27, 2000) and becoming my first winner in England. He was my destiny.”

In all 12 of his victories to date, Jair du Cochet has been ridden by the neat if rather perched-up Jacques Ricou, who has been with Macaire all his working life and for whom he has scored most of the 79 successes (from just 199 rides) in the current year. To British critics he has seemed rather negative at the obstacles and his short reach and inability to slip his reins does mean he throws a hand back in the air to keep his balance (“calls a cab”) if the horse does an extra reach at a jump. But watch Ricou at Macaire’s work bench and you see that he is quite a craftsman in his own right; that what to us is tentativeness is actually the method his master decrees.

The British and Irish style is for a jockey to add a very definite impulsion with body and heels as the horse closes on the jump. In France, in general, and at Palmyre, in particular, the plan is quite the opposite. The young horses in the ring – and Ricou must have ridden a good half-dozen of them – canter and pop round one way and then the other, morning after morning with the riders just perched quiet while their four-legged partners become first willing, then adept at taking an obstacle in their stride.

“It is like learning to ride a bicycle,” says Macaire, when we move across to the assorted fences that litter the interior of the racetrack nearby. “You have to get the knack and then you have to practice.” By now Ricou and four of his fellow riders had switched to some older (although still only three-year-old) equine students who proceeded to canter round and round the racetrack circling one way then the other, jumping hedges, rails, walls, banks, bullfinch, water jumps, drop fences – the lot.

As an ex-jock, my instincts wanted to kick the horses on as each turn produced a new and seemingly unexpected challenge. But Jacques sat quiet, the horses’ endless schooling giving them a footsure confidence as they closed on the fences. “He is listening to the horse,” says Macaire, “that is our method. This is what you have to understand about Jair du Cochet. Today and in a race Jacques’ job is the same. To tell him the speed and to give him the map.”

Even the map may surprise us. Jair du Cochet tends to jump to his left. The received wisdom is that you treat such a problem by keeping yourself to the right of your opponent. Macaire disagrees. “If you put him to the right, he keeps straight, but you are forcing him,” says the trainer. “In nature a horse likes to follow the herd. So in a race if you take a left-handed horse to the outside he will still want to go right to keep with the others if they are in front of him. He does it willingly, he keeps his morale.”

So Jair du Cochet, like Macaire, will go his own way. They have already ploughed quite a furrow.

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