Prix Alain du Breil (Grade 1)

A RECURRING theme of this column over the past couple of years has been how French trainers have been struggling to hold back the tide of foreign invaders, managing to retain considerably less than half of their top prizes.

This trend has come to a sudden halt in the early stages of the 2023 flat season, with the home team turning back overseas raiders in each of the first four Group 1 events of the campaign.

And at Auteuil last weekend the locals did a damned good job in managing what Irish and British jumps trainers have, by and large, been failing to achieve over recent months – keeping at arm’s length the seemingly unstoppable army of horses hailing from the yard of a certain W. P. Mullins.

Indeed, at one stage late on Sunday afternoon, it seemed that the Closutton maestro was destined to be making the long journey home to Co Carlow without a single addition to his ginormous trophy cabinet.

After Klassical Dream had fared best of the Mullins quartet in third in the Grade 1 Racing TV Grande Course de Haies d’Auteuil and his two stable companions had failed to earn a single cent worth of prize money in the Grand Steeple-Chase de Paris, Paul Townend’s chosen mount Zarak The Brave turned for home in a hopeless position in a third Grade 1 event, the Prix Alain du Breil, and things were looking bleak for the 17-time Irish champion.


His saviour proved to be his other runner, Gala Marceau, a 10.4/1 chance ridden by his nephew Danny Mullins, who collared the favourite Losange Bleu on landing over the last before staying on strongly to score by seven lengths.

Rather overshadowed by yet another member of the Mullins brigade, fellow four-year-old filly Lossiemouth, who she had met four times and beaten only once, when her rival got caught in traffic at the Dublin Racing Festival, Gala Marceau seemed to relish this step up to two miles, three furlongs and 110yards.

Immediately afterwards she was selected by her handler as a likely candidate for the Mares’ Hurdle at Cheltenham next March, a race her owner Kenny Alexander has won twice of late with the mighty Honeysuckle.

Zarak The Brave did actually pick up rather well over the final three furlongs, passing six opponents to grab third place, but his earlier hesitancy over the obstacles had cost him dear and the race was already over by the time he got going.

The third and final Irish representative, Andrew McNamara’s Enjoy The Dream, never threatened and was beaten by more than 23 lengths, but did cover some of her travel expenses by winning the seventh prize of €6,950.

Theleme takes a second Haies as Irish raiders fade

Grande Course de Haies (Grade 1)

SATURDAY’S Grande Course de Haies was billed as a vintage renewal, with three of 2022’s first four returning to take on the likes of the dual Cheltenham Stayers’ Hurdle hero Flooring Porter and Shark Hanlon’s incredible globe-trotting bargain buy Hewick.

It was the previous year’s principals who ended up fighting out the finish once more as the seven Irish visitors were firmly put in their place.

The Arnaud Chaille-Chaille-trained Theleme, only fourth 12 months earlier but close to unbeatable in four subsequent starts, proved two lengths too strong for the defending champion, Hermes Baie, with quadruple Punchestown Festival winner Klassical Dream seven lengths back in third, one place worse than last spring.

The front two were much the best and, despite defeat, Francois Nicolle, trainer of Hermes Baie, was particularly upbeat afterwards, saying that he feels that his stable stars are finally turning the corner health-wise after a virus-ravaged few months at his base on the Atlantic coast.

This was certainly a better effort by his Crillon gelding, who had finished 22 lengths behind Theleme on the same terms just four weeks earlier.

One international aspect to the victory was the winning owners, who are the Yorkshire-based descendants of the recently deceased Jim Gordon, a self-made millionaire thanks to his company Leeds Plywood and Doors.

Their British roots mean that Theleme’s main target for 2023 will probably be the Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham rather than a repeat Grande Course triumph, while Hermes Baie is set to go over fences.

Mullins felt that Klassical Dream has run his race (his margin of defeat behind Hermes Baie was identical to their previous meeting) but was less enamoured by the performances of Haut En Coleurs in eighth, Asterion Forlone in 10th and Kilcruit in 11th while Flooring Porter’s ninth place cannot be described as anything but disappointing.

Both Hewick and the Emmet Mullins-trained Feronily, who finished fourth and fifth, emerged from the race with enormous credit.

While admitting that Hewick is surely more of a chaser, Hanlon was adamant that he had made the right decision to have another crack over hurdles, pointing out that his charge had added €35,000 more to a career bank roll that now exceeds his €850 purchase price by a factor of more than 600.

And Emmet Mullins was in awe of Feronily’s effort, especially given that the son of Getaway helped force a fierce early gallop, went eight lengths clear passing the stands with a circuit to run and then held on gamely for fifth having been headed at the second last.

For a horse who was a maiden point-to-pointer only six and a half months earlier to now be a Grade 1-winning novice chaser who had given the best hurdlers in Europe such a fright made even his fearless trainer shake his head in wonder.

Baron best of ‘Grand’ battle

Grand Steeple-Chase de Paris (Grade 1)

UNCONVENTIONAL preparations have quickly become Emmet Mullins’ stock in trade.

Yet, for another of his charges, Noble Yeats, to be contesting the Grande Steep’ having finished fourth in both the Cheltenham Gold Cup and the Grand National within the previous nine weeks, and having got no further than fence four on his one previous experience of Auteuil’s daunting fences, seemed to me like madness.

I spent much of the race thinking: ‘what a crazy bit of race planning’, but was eating a certain amount of humble pie at the finish when, having jumped ponderously and skulked around at the back of a big field for almost three and a half miles, Noble Yeats suddenly engaged turbo-boost to storm up the run-in and be beaten by just 15 lengths, missing out on third place by only three lengths.

Worsening trait

He is an astonishing horse who remains capable of the unthinkable, though his worsening trait of not appearing to want to exert himself until the very late stages needs to be ironed out if he is to fulfil his promise.

The race winner, Rosario Baron, also had an odd preparation in that his final prep race was a two miles and three furlongs hurdle and over half of his nine starts since the start of 2022 had been way down south in Pau – this was just his second Auteuil outing in 15 months.

The biggest win in the five-year training career of Swiss-born Daniela Mele, he came out on top by just a neck following a lung-bursting duel over the last couple of fences with Gex, who was filling the bridesmaid’s position for the second year running.

Hobby breeder

A six-year-old son of Zambezi Sun, who is currently covering at Coolagown Stud in Co Cork priced at just €2,000 a pop, he was bred from the only mare owned by hobby breeder and farmer Jean-Yves Baron and had looked to be a long way short of Grand Steep’ class until he landed the Grade 3 Prix Troytown at odds of 12/1 in early March. He provided a second Grand Steep’ success in as many years for 42-year-old weighing room veteran Johnny Charron.

Gex is part owned by the British resident Lord Daresbury, known as Peter Greenall when he was a top amateur jump jockey. Consequently, rather like Theleme, his primary objective in 2024 could well be the Cheltenham Gold Cup instead of a third crack at this race.

Willie Mullins’ Franco De Port was ridden much more prominently than last year but, having looked booked for another third place, lost five places on the run-in. His other runner, Carefully Selected, raced in the rear for a circuit before being pulled up.