Jason Kiely provides a preview of this weekend's top-class jumps racing in France featuring the 141st Grand Steeple–Chase de Paris.
Now that all the spring festivals have been and gone, some of the UK and Ireland's biggest names in jumps racing will be making their way towards Paris as the Hippodrome d’Auteuil will take centre stage in an action packed weekend crowned by the 141st Grand Steeple–Chase de Paris worth €820k.
Jason Kiely spoke exclusively to some of those trying to claim some of the €2.4 million prize-money on offer over the two day festival on ground that is described as very soft at the Parisian track.
Considered to be the best jumps horse in France by many a punter and professional alike, De Bon Coeur will aim to make it a remarkable 14 wins in 16 starts in Saturday's Group 1 “Grande Course de Haies d’Auteuil”, commonly known as the French Champion Hurdle.
Winner of last year’s renewal by an astounding 16 lengths partnered by ultra-cool jockey Kevin Nabet, the same combination will be looking to repeat the feat once again for a confident sounding mentor trainer Francois Nicolle.
‘’I could not be happier with her, all her homework has been excellent and she is looking strong," he said.
"We have taken the same passage as last season and she knows the course off by heart. I can be confident but we should also respect the opposition.”
The six-year-old daughter of Vision D’Etat holds an entry in the Gold Cup at Royal Ascot next month but her Royan-based champion trainer is keen to keep things straightforward for the moment.
“Let’s just run this race first and see, it would not that easy considering she has never run on the flat, so for now it is just a beautiful idea to have.”
Winner of this race in 2011 and 2012 with Thousand Stars, Irish champion trainer Willie Mullins has five of the 12 runners lining up in Saturday afternoon's feature.
Benie Des Dieux, winner of the Grade 1 Annie Power Mares Hurdle at Punchestown Festival will head the Mullins raid ridden by Paul Townend. An optimistic Patrick Mullins explained the reason for such a strong party in the 5100m (3miles 1 and a half furlong) contest;
“We are always keen to come over to Paris, it’s something we always enjoy, even going back to Dawn Run and Grandad.
"There is some incredible prize money and considering we have had such a dry winter a lot of our horses have had less runs and it’s nice to come over with some strong hopes. Benie would be the main chance in the hurdle, she’s in great form at home and has only had the two runs this year.
Of the other Mullins runners the one to take note of looks to be last year’s runner-up Bapaume,
“He knows the place now and that helps, he was second in this race last year and came back and won the Prix Barka a couple of weeks later.”
He added, “Melon and Yorkhill are well up to winning this on their day and may just need to recapture some of that old form.”
The Mullins quintet is rounded off by the five-year-old Mr. Adjudicator ridden by 2016 French Champion jockey James Reveley.
Of the remaining runners Berjou, who was a length and a quarter second placed behind De Bon Coeur in last month’s Prix Leon Rambaud should go close again, along with Galop Marin who was another two lengths back in third.
Looking like one of the most open renewals for many years Sunday's Group 1 Grand Steeple Chase de Paris has attracted a maximum field of 20. The race is run over 6,000m (3 miles 6 furlongs) where the seasoned warriors will face 23 obstacles including the famous “Riviere des Tribunes”.
Bipolaire, already an 11 times winner at Auteuil including twice in the Group 1 Prix Haye Jousselin will look to make amends after being an early casualty in last year race. The eight-year-old AQPS son of Fragrant Mix who, like de Bon Coeur is also trained by Francois Nicolle is the trainers leading hope in a race in which he is still looking for a first success.
It is clear the champion trainer is excited.
“Bipolaire knows the track so well, he jumps and he’s ready," he said. "I am getting impatient now, I just want him to run his race! It’s true that I haven’t won this race yet and I am getting older but this could be his year, I’ve been pleased with his preparation races.”
Jonathan Plouganou is a perfect three from three when riding the courageous grey and will take the ride again Sunday.
Nicolle's three other runners in the race are Roy Image, Dalia Grandchamp and young pretender Eludy, and he feels that the competition is strong,
“20 runners is going to make it difficult to even get placed, it is great to see so many turning up and I have to say well done to Willie. To run “outside” horses in this race it is not for everyone, it’s a tough race.”
One man that knows this race well is James Reveley. Winner of the three previous runnings of the French Gold Cup, So French, with whom he won the 2016 and 2017 renewals, is in this year's race, but it will be the gigantic chestnut Le Costaud who will have the Englishman’s help this year.
“To make it four in a row will be difficult, on his day Le Costaud can win a race like this but he will need everything to go in his favour," Reveley said. "It’s a huge field so even to be in the mix would be great.“
Le Costaud is one of three Guillaume Macaire trained runners in the race, Macaire has won five of the last six Grand Steeple Chases and also saddles 2014 hero Storm Of Saintly and the aforementioned So French.
As expected with so many runners this year there are a couple taking a leap up in grade. Doctor De Ballon, winner of six of his 11 starts will try and make the step up to Group 1 company after being hugely impressive in two starts so far this year, most notably when beating some proven performers in the Group 3 Prix Ingre in Auteuil three weeks ago.
Both Le Costaud and Storm Of Saintly were behind the seven-year-old that day and his handler Louisa Carberry feels he has what it takes.
“He’s a lovely horse, he’s not the biggest but he is so intelligent," she said. "To me the distance should be okay, he is a very relaxed horse who jumps very economically. Its great to even just to have a horse with a live chance and with Felix (de Giles) on board we couldn’t be happier. I just hope that with 20 runners that the best horse will still manage to win”.
Crystal Beach comes into the line up as the winner of the Group 2 Prix Murat ran in early April. As it is one of the recognized trials for the Grand Steeple, his trainer Lamorlaye-based Marcel Rolland, was quietly confident on his chances of taking home some prize money.
“My horse is very good, he has run all his preparation races and things are going smoothly, my worries would be the distance and the field size, but we are all the same."
Sunday also plays host to the Prix Alain Du Breil which is a Group 1 for four-year-old hurdlers, Mullins winning this race on two occasions in the past with Footpad and also with Diakali.
This year he saddles French Made a daughter of Dream Well in what looks to be once again a strong field with the likes of the David Cottin-trained filly Laterana and the Guillaume Macaire-trained gelding Feu Follet possibly holding the strongest chances and could be stars for the future.