The Gallic challengers at Churchill Downs
Breeders’ Cup victories are always to be cherished. Notoriously, they also used to be an absolute rarity as far as Britain and Ireland were concerned.
One particular group of European horsemen seemed to cotton on fairly quickly, however. More than once in the first decade, French-trained horses spared Europe’s blushes as they provided no fewer than eight of the visitors’ 11 successes in the first ten years. Starting with the inaugural event at Hollywood Park in 1984, when the Aga Khan’s Lashkari surprised his brilliant compatriot All Along in the Turf, thereby ensuring not everything ended with a home win. Also, among the winners that day was a certain John Gosden, then based in California, who got on the scoresheet with Royal Heroine in the Mile.
Pebbles was the only British winner before Sheikh Albadou in 1991; Royal Academy was the only Irish-trained winner during the same period. Yet as a succession of British-trained stars were sent packing – from Dancing Brave to Zilzal via Warning and Sonic Lady as both the west coast and Florida proved a step too far – so the French kept on succeeding where the rest of us failed, and via performances destined to go down in racing folklore from the likes of Arazi, Arcangues and Miesque.
It was never clear precisely why this should be, although perhaps the midseason break often employed by French trainers before the Arc meeting offered one explanation as it meant their horses were fresher come the Breeders’ Cup.
Things have changed a bit in recent years as British trainers and Aidan O’Brien (sometimes) have learned how to get their horses on and off an aeroplane without leaving their form behind in the luggage hold.
Moreover, despite increased opportunities these days, with the number of Cup races increased 100% (from seven to 14) and turf races expanding from just two to no fewer than seven, this early French superiority is somewhat diminished.
Mind you, they still boast a formidable record in the Mile with ten victories altogether; four of them have come in the last decade (albeit three from the same horse in Goldikova), but there hasn’t been a British- or Irish-trained winner since Ridgewood Pearl in 1995, and only one British-trained winner ever (Barathea in 1994 for the recently retired “Filthy” Luca Cumani). The Niarchos family in particular have an affinity with this race, which they’ve won six times (the family company name is Flaxman Holdings).
Although Andre Fabre might not feature on the Mile honours board, as might be imagined the man who says no to Lasix is the most successful French-based trainer, with a 5-for-49 record. Rather like the French team as a whole, Fabre’s team this year favours quality over quantity, comprising just Waldgeist and defending champion Talismanic in the Turf, a race Fabre has won three times before.
Of course, there’s Enable to beat there. I am trying to restrain myself from saying that she’ll win if she brings her best form – everyone knows that, the question is whether she will. You know what? At those prices, I’d be against her. She may have had an unorthodox Arc preparation, so perhaps the old saw about Longchamp winners failing at the Breeders’ Cup might not be bombproof, but it remains a fact. The Arc was Enable’s prime target and it was no easy task getting her there; she could be sitting on her prime effort on the third start after a layoff, but equally she might go backwards after a hard race.
Look, I’m not saying she won’t win, but while I certainly wouldn’t lay her, I am happy to have a look elsewhere. Bonjour Monsieur Fabre.
With that in mind, here is a quick look at the French contingent for Churchill Downs, plus a quick reminder of some famous past successes.
FRENCH-TRAINED BREEDERS’ CUP WINNERS
1984 Lashkari Alain de Royer-Dupre
1990 In The Wings Andre Fabre
1991 Miss Alleged Pascal Bary
1994 Tikkanen Jonathan Pease
2005 Shirocco Andre Fabre
2017 Talismanic Andre Fabre
1986 Last Tycoon Robert Collet
1987 Miesque Francois Boutin
1988 Miesque Francois Boutin
1997 Spinning World Jonathan Pease
2002 Domedriver Pascal Bary
2003 Six Perfections Pascal Bary
2008 Goldikova Freddy Head
2009 Goldikova Freddy Head
2010 Goldikova Freddy Head
2014 Karakontie Jonathan Pease
1991 Arazi Francois Boutin
1993 Arcangues Andre Fabre
FILLY & MARE TURF (1)
2001 Banks Hill Andre Fabre
JUVENILE FILLIES TURF (1)
2012 Flotilla Mikel Delzangles
FIVE FRENCH AT CHURCHILL DOWNS…
1. POLYDREAM (FREDDY HEAD) MILE
Another filly representing the team behind Goldikova in the Wertheimers and Freddy Head. Set for this since winning the Prix Maurice de Gheest at Deauville in August (with the sort of closing burst that often plays well in US turf races) and a subsequent down-the-field effort in the Prix de la Foret is easily forgiven as she got no sort of run. That could happen again, of course, in a race where trouble-in-running in a persistent worry but Polydream is just the type of ‘long’ sprinter who used to thrive in the Mile – think Last Tycoon and Royal Academy.
2. TALISMANIC (ANDRE FABRE) TURF
Was a 14-1 chance last year when beating top US horse Beach Patrol and Highland Reel at Del Mar before a good second to the latter in Hong Kong. A son of Medaglia D’Oro, he clearly loves the US style of racing and faster ground, and once again seems to be coming in under the radar after being trapped out wide all the way in the Arc. One horse for whom plainly the Breeders’ Cup is not an afterthought.
3. WALDGEIST (ANDRE FABRE) TURF
Two of Fabre’s three Turf victories have come from four-year-olds (In The Wings and Shirocco) who had come fourth in the Arc, just like Waldgeist. The son of Galileo stayed on well at Longchamp, where he’d been drawn badly, though he just lacked the finishing pace of the runner-up Sea Of Class. Had a great season elsewhere, winning the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud and beating stablemate Talismanic comfortably in the Prix Foy. A spot of rain might help.
4. THE BLACK ALBUM (JANE SOUBAGNE) JUVENILE TURF
Bought by Team Valor after winning a Group 3 over 7f on softish ground at Longchamp in September (fellow Cup candidate Lily’s Candle only fourth), with his new owner’s chief executive Barry Irwin explaining how he should be just the right type for American racing with the ability “to lay handy, pounce instantly when asked and moxie to hold off all challengers”. He’ll need to be: while he looks one of the better two-year-olds in France, his form still looks some way adrift of the best of the transatlantic visitors. Joins Kentucky-based Rodolphe Brisset after the race.
5. LILY’S CANDLE (FABRICE VERMEULEN) JUVENILE FILLIES’ TURF
Stepped up markedly on previous form for a shock 28-1 win in the Prix Marcel Boussac on Arc day with a performance 12lb better than her previous best according to Racing Post Ratings. That race played into the hands of hold-up types and looks pretty moderate for the level. She’ll probably be a decent price again at Churchill Downs.
…PLUS FIVE OF THE BEST FROM THE ANNALS
1984 TURF – LASHKARI (HOLLYWOOD PARK)
The dream became reality with the first Breeders’ Cup at Hollywood Park. Largely as a sop to overseas owners and breeders, two turf races were included among the initial seven, and France duly ensured Europe was on the scoresheet as the Aga Khan’s longshot (under riding legend Yves Saint-Martin) edged out her compatriot, the superstar mare All Along, reigning US Horse of the Year after her amazing exploits in 1983 in the pre-Breeders’ Cup era.
Race replay: Lashkari strikes at the inaugural Breeders' Cup for France.
1988 MILE – MIESQUE (CHURCHILL DOWNS)
After breaking the track record on firm ground at Hollywood Park in 1987, Miesque the magnificent became the first horse to win back-to-back Breeders’ Cup races with an utterly emphatic victory over a stellar field also featuring Warning, Belmont Stakes winner Bet Twice and Steinlen, who was to win the Mile in 1989. On a deep, wet turf track, Miesque went four wide at the first turn and four wide coming out of the second – and won by four after circling the field and charging down the straight under Freddy Head (who two decades later was to train another Cup star in Goldikova). She was retired with a race record of 12 wins, three seconds and one third from 16 career starts; she was a Group/Grade 1 winner at two, three and four.
Race replay: Miesque becomes the first horse to win back-to-back Breeders’ Cup races.
1991 JUVENILE – ARAZI (CHURCHILL DOWNS)
The passing of the years has done little to extinguish the memory of an explosive performance often cited as the most memorable Breeders’ Cup performance of them all. Entering the back straight, Arazi was still 15 lengths adrift of the leaders, having passed just one horse but what happened next beggared belief as he passed rivals inside and outside as if they were treading water. He powered down the stretch to score by five.
Race replay: Arazi puts in one of the most memorable Breeders’ Cup performance of them all.
1993 CLASSIC – ARCANGUES (SANTA ANITA)
Still the biggest Breeders’ Cup shock there’s ever been as the unheralded Andre Fabre-trained five-year-old – a 133-1 shot on his dirt debut – floored hot favourite Bertrando. “I agreed to ride Arcangues simply because it beat the alternative, which was to watch the race in the jocks' room,” said rider Jerry Bailey. “It represented the most improbable victory of my career. Actually, it represents the most improbable victory in any jockey's career.”
Race replay: Arcangues causes the biggest Breeders’ Cup shock there’s ever been.
2010 MILE – GOLDIKOVA (CHURCHILL DOWNS)
Although slightly overshadowed by Zenyatta’s defeat later the same night under the floodlights, this was slice of racing history as Goldikova overcame a bad draw to become the first horse to win three Breeders’ Cup races (US-trained Beholder has since emulated her). An unprecedented hat-trick was completed with a signature turn of foot as Goldikova overwhelmed her rivals in the stretch under Olivier Peslier. Easy peasy.
Race replay: Goldikova overcomes a bad draw to become the first horse to win three Breeders’ Cup races.