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La belle France: threat or opportunity?

27-March-2021 19:26
in General
by Peter McNeile

I've always beena big fan or French steeplechasing, especially out in the provinces, where crowds are almost always larger, despite a lower quality of racing than at Auteuil and other France Galop owned metropolitan tracks. It seems now there is a growing tide of British trainers discovering the delights of la belle France too.

We've been told for well over 10 years that French-breds are more precocious than the Irish or British stores, and come to hand quicker; even to the extent that you'll find 4 year old steeplechases in France, where most British and Irish horses are running in their first juvenile hurdle. But it's generally been acknowledged that the quality of competition is higher over here; that was until we received a rude awakening in Festival week from a predominantly Irish-bred 23 winners. French-breds were actually squeezed, with just 4 winners this year, compared to 11 in 2020, 14 in 2019. 

So is the love affair with France over?  Not quite.

Although predominantly an export nation - like Ireland, France is increasingly attracting British trainers and owners wishing to underwrite the costs of keeping a horse in training through the better average prize money and generous travel allowances. Among Gloucestershire trainers availing themselves of these benefits, Sophie Leech and Tom George have been leading proponents. 

Sophie has kept a string in France all winter, but a glance at her 2021 figures tells you plenty about the status of the two countries. Two horses have run in 3 races, with one win and one placed effort, earning €51,000. Her one UK winner has earned £15,546 (incidentally a French-bred, rated 134 so pretty handy). 

Tom George has also been campaigning successfully in France, and whilst winning a 0-150 Handicap Chase of £20,000 today at Newbury, his winner Espoir de Teillee won £9,769, against a third placed effort in a Listed Chase at Compiegne 10 days ago by stablemate Garde la Victoire, earning £7,250. Tom's two victories this Spring and one placed effort have earned him €31,110, about the same as winning a £50,000 race over here. 

The French are more than happy to welcome British trainers to their races, first to grow the international flavour of their events, but more importantly, to grow the connection with French breeders, ready to sell them the next Kauto Star. Even the winner of the Foxhunter, Porlock Bay (pictured beneath denying Billaway the Foxhunter) was a French-bred. 

This is the unequal financial contest that British racing needs to address. Its latest effort, to lower the winning percentage in order to reward placed horses more, has not been especially well received. The nub of the argument, whether combatting Irish or Frecnh competition is to reset the dial with a greater contribution to prize money, which is currently spread too thin over too many events, Flat and Jump. 

Those of us who follow Point-to-Point racing scratch our heads in wonderment at the argument, where our prize funds are set at a maximum of £1,000. But there will be an impact on our sport too, increasingly populated by quasi-professional trainers introducing young horses to sell on to Rules racing. With a diminishing market for young stock, those trainers will be among the growing flow of trainers upping sticks to set up a business in a country where the remuneration is better. 

Just in the immediate future, this seems a faraway problem for Pointing, given the 187 entries for Maisemore on Tuesday. But any Fixture Secretary will tell you most meetings in the second half of the season are happy with a third of that entry nowadays. 

There are no quick fixes here, but the results from Cheltenham are hopefully stirring some action in the right places. Don't expect instant results however. The foundation for this year's Cheltenham results didn't come about last year, or even the year before, but 5, 6 years or longer previously. 

It's going to be a long haul. 

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