Grand Steeple-Chase de Paris (Grade 1)
SO much of the last two decades and more of Irish jump racing has been about admiring the training genius of a certain Willie Mullins.
Last Sunday at Auteuil, with Mullins an appreciative onlooker, it was all about lovers of the sport in France recognising the feats of Guillaume Macaire as he broke the all-time record for wins in the Grade 1 Grand Steeple-Chase de Paris.
Just five months Mullins’ senior at the age of 66, Macaire has won the French title on 13 occasions. But there have been signs of late that he has been slowing down, with his neighbour, Francois Nicolle, denying him the championship every season since 2018 and last year his opting to share the trainer’s licence with his long-time assistant, Hector de Lageneste.
So Sunday’s seventh Grand Steep’ triumph courtesy of Sel Jem must have been particularly sweet - though perhaps not quite as sweet as it was for 42-year-old jockey Johnny Charron, who was landing his first Grade 1 success in spectacular style.
No offence to Charron, but such was Sel Jem’s superiority that he could have probably been ridden by Johnny Depp and still won.
Usually the epitome of a hard-working journeyman, there was a touch of Jack Sparrow showmanship from Charron as, still mounted, he shared high fives over the running rail with spectators after pulling up.
Macaire was in raptures at this point, exclaiming: “I can die happy now. Sel Jem is almost the perfect steeplechaser, he cruised through the entire race and came there on the bridle.
“It’s nearly too good to be true, like a dream. And he’s getting better with experience. He’s only run 10 times, there are very few holes in his record.”
Have we seen the start of the Sel Jem dynasty? Perhaps, though caution has to be advised given the recent record of other horses winning France’s most prestigious chase at the same tender age of five.
In the past 25 years, five other members of that generation have landed the Grand Steep’ (three of them trained by Macaire). Only one has followed up 12 months later, and between them all they managed just two further victories in this extreme three mile and six furlong stamina test.
The official winning margin was eight lengths back to Gex with another five lengths to the least fancied of Mullins’ three representatives, Franco De Port finishing strongly under a customary well-judged ride from Danny Mullins to take third.
The supposed first string, Al Boum Photo, jumped ponderously from flagfall and was pulled up while Burrows Saint, having travelled and jumped smoothly to well beyond halfway, dropped out tamely to come home last of the 10 finishers.
Test of stamina
Mullins said: “That was a surprise! Franco De Port looked like a speed horse when we first got him - he was quick enough to win a Grade 1 chase at Leopardstown over two miles - but he seems to have deceived us and today suggested that he needs a real test of stamina.”
“We were thinking about sending him to the sales but his owners will probably be keen to keep him and make this race the main objective for next season.”
Macaire and de Lageneste completed a perfect day when their four-year-old Martaline filly, Altesse du Berlais, maintained her unblemished record over fences in the Grade 1 Prix Ferdinand Dufaure (two miles, six furlongs) to stamp herself as a major threat to Sel Jem’s Grand Steep’ crown in 2023.
The Haras du Berlais, a stud situated 250 miles south west of Paris, was celebrating again just 35 minutes later when another daughter of its stallion, Martaline, this one called Hawai Du Berlais, justified odds-on favourtism in dominant style in the other four-year-old Grade 1 on the card, the Prix Alain du Breil, a two mile, three furlong and 110 yards hurdle.
Grande Course de Haies d’Auteuil (Grade 1)
THE Papot family is almost as decorated as Macaire, with 12 jump owners’ championships to their name.
And, 24 hours before completing a spectacular double with Sel Jem, their green and dark blue diamond silks were carried to victory by Hermes Baie in France’s top hurdle race, the Grande Course de Haies d’Auteuil.
Beforehand, Willie Mullins had strong hopes of landing this 3m 1f 110y event for a sixth time, as he saddled three members of an eight-runner field.
However, early on the final circuit the Closutton handler was staring down the barrel of a debacle as both Kemboy and Tornado Flyer were already well beaten and his other runner, Klassical Dream, had lost touch with the leaders and appeared to be struggling.
Mercifully, Klassical Dream did click into gear. The deficit proved too large to overhaul Hermes Baie, but the six-time Grade 1 scorer stayed on resolutely to take the €77,000 second prize, seven lengths behind the winner.
Hermes Baie is trained by Francois Nicolle, who was also responsible for the beaten favourite and reigning champion, L’Autonomie, who looked cooked jumping the last but ‘gutsed’ it out to reclaim third close to the line, another five lengths adrift.
Mullins thought Klassical Dream’s lack of early zip may have been prompted by the warm weather and wearing his usual hood.
“We try to calm him down with a hood, but the lightweight one I’d hoped to use because of the heat didn’t fit him properly, so it was back to his normal one which may have been too much in this weather.” he said.
The weekend’s first Mullins runner, Instit, might have been better served by adopting the same front-running tactics she had employed at the Punchestown Festival in the Listed Prix d’Arles (two mile and two furlong hurdle). Ridden from behind by Paul Townend, she kept on doughtily up the run-in to take fourth, only four and a half lengths behind the winner, Madame Moonie.