24 December 2000
Champion French trainer is looking to keep See More Business at bay and earn a record-equalling fifth success in the King George VI at Kempton on Boxing Day
The world’s most versatile trainer looked out over Hong Kong’s Stanley Harbour on Monday and permitted himself a smile. “Yes,” said Franois Doumen, raising a glass to the far horizon, “there are good possibilities.”
He is entitled to his understatement. Last Sunday his Jim And Tonic had gone close to winning Hong Kong’s biggest Flat race for the second time. The day before his son Thierry had saddled and ridden two winners for him over hurdles at Ascot. On Boxing Day the pair will put the massive First Gold at the Kempton fences bidding for a record-equalling fifth Doumen victory in the King George VI. Forty years ago Franois was on the French ski team. Now he is slaloming into history.
Doumen first leapt into our Kempton limelight when saddling the funny faced Nupsala to overthrow a runaway Desert Orchid in 1987 and, in our insular way, we have over the years come to accept him without fully appreciating quite what a wonder we are welcoming in. In the Nineties he took three more King Georges, with Algan and twice with The Fellow, who with a bit of luck would have won three Gold Cups, rather than one, at Cheltenham.
Two years ago the then 19-year-old Thierry Doumen made it a family triumph riding Snow Drop to win Cheltenham’s Triumph Hurdle and this spring and summer father and son travelled all the way to Japan and then to Italy to win £238,000 by being second and first with the five-year-old Boca Boca.
On Monday, Thierry was sleeping off his Ascot-to-Sha Tin jet-lag but as Franois lunched with his wife, Elisabeth, and his law student older son, Xavier, it was pretty obvious that this team had not made it by dumb sweat alone. “I think you have to think things through,” said Franois. “I like to have horses a long time, to develop them in my own way. It is not factory farming.”
We had just been Christmas shopping in the addictive labyrinth of Stanley market, the day before we had watched 80,000 Chinese punters bet up to £5 million a race, all a long way from the stud farm in Normandy and the racing stable at Lamorlaye, 30 miles from Paris where the Doumen spell is cast and where now the Queen Mother is numbered among the owners. A visit there will find stable life marching to a very different drum than the quickfire exercise shuttle that many trainers have to opt for to get their numbers through and their staff happy. A top horse will go out both before and after his breakfast and will have a good walk of an afternoon.
The Lamorlaye stable is a 40-strong central “showcase” where only the finishing touches to training are done. The long-term preparation and all recuperation are done down on “the farm” in Normandy, where another property has been purchased to make the training facilities complete. At 60, the son of a trainer and fine rider in his own right, Franois Doumen has developed a system of choice not necessity, of quality not quantity. It is not only his dress sense that other trainers envy.
Three years ago other trainers could have bought First Gold but they would have had to travel a bit to find him. At that stage he was a huge, impetuous four-year-old setting off on his chasing career down in Pau, that gateway to the Pyrenees, whose jump track has a deep ditch along the inside towards which I once pushed their leading jockey with somewhat unpopular results. Doumen’s spy knew class when she saw it. “I think we should buy him,” said The Fellow’s owner, the Marquessa de Moratalla, after First Gold’s first chasing success on Jan 31, 1998.
Within the month, Thierry Doumen had ridden him to an all-the-way eight-length demolition at Auteuil. In May he had done the same thing in the Grand Steeplechase de Paris, the French Gold Cup. First Gold had scaled the peak as a five-year-old but come September all bets were off.
A tendon injury forced an 18-month lay-off and it has only been this autumn that the 17-hand powerhouse has got his act fully together with a magnificent treble which has seen his jockey describe him as “extra terrestrial” and his trainer put him alongside his “Three Musketeers”, The Fellow, Ucello and Urbu, who between them ruled the roost and won almost a million £in the Nineties. “He is a mature horse now,” says Franois. “He is not the brute that he used to be. His jockey can control him. His jumping is very good, he takes the huge rail ditch at Auteuil as if it is nothing, but he will need to adapt to the English fences. He will travel at the weekend and school over them on Sunday. I believe he is very good, but so too is See More Business.”
First Gold got on the floor in his first season at Auteuil and fell again on his comeback in February. That hardly constitutes ground for panic but First Gold’s backers are in for an exciting time on Tuesday.
Cool, ambitious, pragmatic, that’s Doumen. The family were to have their Christmas dinner on Friday to be clear for the excitements of the English journey pioneered by Doumen, but surprisingly not followed by other French trainers, for the perfectly good reason that you have to go to Pau or Cagnes-sur-Mer for jumping at this time of year and when it resumes the Auteuil track is usually bottomless. “It is terrible,” he says, “that’s why I like to go to Cheltenham in March. A good horse deserves good going.”
And a good owner. The Marquessa de Moratalla is an aristocratic septuagenarian who understands her own mind as well as her horses. She is insists that they are given the minimum use of the whip, and with her friend, Sir Peter O’Sullevan, she has formed the greatest of all the Doumen alliances. Others have not always worked. Relations with Snow Drop and Jim And Tonic’s owner John Martin were severed to non-speaking terms this year – although Jim And Tonic stayed. For all his gallic charm, Franois Doumen would be a tough man to cross.
He looked out across the timeless waters of Stanley Bay. Silver-haired and 60 now, but a proud man and a winner like so many who had looked out there before. Their invasions were of bloodier kinds than the one Doumen will mastermind this week. Yet on Tuesday, First Gold will not just be battling for style but for a better way of getting horses right.