10/14/2010 3:55PM

Auteuil: The Racegoers' Cosmopolitain Delight


Longchamp isn't the only game in Paris. Across the Bois de Boulogne hard by the fashionable 16th arrondissement and a stone's throw form a house where the great novelistonore de Balzac lived is Auteuil Racecourse, home of virtually all of the most important jump races in France.
It is possible- indeed, it is preferable -to walk to Auteuil fromost points in the western end of the City of Lights. Entry to the track through the back allows one to walk across the infield, inspect a few of the fences, and get a magnificent view of the Second Empire grandstand. When the sun is shining and the weather fine, like it was this past Sunday, there are few more enjoyable racing experiences than a day at Auteuil.
And Sunday's card featued six or seven of the best chasers and hurdlers in the Fifth Republic. The occasion was prep day for two-day Autumn Jumps Festival scheduled for Auteuil on Nov. 6-7. Four stakes races- a Group 2 and three Group 3's- attracted a crowd of about 10,000, not quite the 45,000 that had gathered at Lonchamp for the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, but one that was surely more knowledgable about what they were looking at.
Jump racing in Paris is more popular than flat racing, perhaps for much the same reason that Balzac's novels are more popular than most writer's short stories. A flat race, especially a sprint, is to a short story what a jump race is to a novel, that is, there is a lengthy plot line to a jump race with often dramatic turns of fortune that are rarely present in a short story or a flat race, especially a sprint.
Purses at Auteuil generally outstrip those at Longchamp, Chantilly, Saint-Cloud or Maisons-Laffitte on all but the biggest meetings like Arc Day, Prix du Joceky Club Day or Prix de Diane Day. On Sunday, which rates as perhaps Auteuil's fifth or sixth biggest day of the year, the eight races on the card were worth a total of 857,000 euros, or $1,170,000.
First of the four big events was the Group 2 Prix Georges de Talhouet-Roy, a 2 1/4-mile hurdle restricted to 3-year-olds, conditions that anyone involved in jump racing in Britain, Ireland or America would find surprising. Hurdle races for 3-year-olds are rare outside of France, especially in summer or early autumn, yet this particular event featured a filly who is already being spoken of in the hushed tones usually reserved for the great ones.
Nikita du Berlais came into the race having won three of her first four starts- the last three in a row- all of them at Auteuil. Her last two were won by 8 lengths and 10 lengths, the most recent in a listed race. This day, however, she would be facing males for the first time.
Not to worry. Sent off at what would later appear to be a most generous 1.30-1 'Nikita' was patiently ridden by David Cottin, began to pick off her eight rivals one-by-one halfway between the third last and second last hurdles, cruised to the lead approaching the last, after which she went quickly clear for an easy 8-length score over Grand Charly.
Nikita du Berlais is by Poliglote, the winner on the flat of the Group 1 Criterium de Saint-Cloud and the Group 2 Grand Prix d'Evry. He is trained by Robert Collet, the man who pulled off one of the great training feats of all time in 1985 when he got the sprinter Last Tycoon to win the Breeders' Cup Mile, with some help from Yves Saint-Martin.
Nikita du Berlais may be the best horse Collet has had since then. She will go next in the Prix Cambaceres on Nov. 6 when she should not be opposed.
The Group 3 Prix Orcada is a 2 11/16-mile steeplechase for 4-year-olds. In Saint du Chenet it featured the winner of a Group 1 Auteuil chase in May who had returned to action on Sept. 15 with a sharp second to France's leading 4-year-old chaser Saint Macaire. Trained by Marcel Rolland, who like Collet also trains a string of flat horses, Saint du Chenet was sent off as the even money favorite, in part because he was part of a 5-horse entry, four of which would have been among the first five favorites had they been uncoupled, but also because he had defeated one of his main rivals, Kauto Stone, by 1 1/2 lengths in that Group 1 chase back in May.
Kauto Stone himself had won last year's Prix Georges de Talhouet-Roy, but had disappointed in his return after the summerlong break most of France's best jumpers take when sixth in the race in which Saint Macaire had beaten Saint du Chenet into second. But there was reason to back Kauto Stone for other than trying to beat the short priced entry. Kauto Stone, you see, is a half brother to Kauto Star, the winner of the 2009 Cheltenham Gold Cup, arguably the best jump race in the world.
Trained by Jehan Bertrand de Balanda, Kauto Stone re-employed the front running tactics that had brought him his last victory in a listed chase on May 9. Ridden to perfection by the admirable veteran Christophe Pieux, he went straight to the front, maintaining a half-length to two-length lead throughout, going clear on the run-in after the last fence for a 2 1/2-length vcitory over Still Loving You as Saint du Chenet, done in by a couple of bad mistakes, faded to seventh, 21 lengths behind the winner, who was banged down form 14-1 at the opening bell to 4.10-1 at post time.
By With the Flow, a Kentucky-bred son of Irish River who won the one-mile, Group 3 Prix de Fontainebleau at three, Kauto Stone will re-engage Saint Macaire in the Prix Maurice Gillois, the French champion 4-year-old chase championship, on Nov. 7, after which he will follow in the footsteps of his half brother Kauto Star and travel to England for the Felton Novices Chase at Kempton Park's big Boxing Day Meeting on Dec. 26.
The Group 3 Prix Carmarthen, a 2 7/16-mile hurdle that has been won in the past by French jumping luminaries like Rose Or No, Ucello, The Fellow, Bog Frog, Vaporetto and the good flat stayer Kasbah Bliss, was notable for the presence of last year's winner Questerabad, a son of the Kentucky-bred Astarabad, himself the winner of the Group 1 Prix Ganay on the flat and who later finished fourth in the Charlie Whittingham Handicap and fifth in the Canadian International.
In Polar Rochelais he was facing the winner of this spring's Grand Steeple-Chase de Paris, the race any Frenchman will tell you is the superior of the Cheltenham Gold Cup. But as Polar Rochelais was using the Carmarthen as a prep for the big November chase, the Prix La Haye Jousselin, the money was all on Questerabad, who went off as the 7-10 favorite.
Questerabad, you see, was the winner of the Grande Course de Haies d'Auteuil, or French Champion Hurdle, in 2009. He also finished seocnd in the same race this past June. He came into the race the winner of 12-of-19 hurdle races and rewarded his trainer Marcel Rolland with a rather comfortable one-length victory over Tyko. He will defend his title in the 3-mile Grande Prix d'Automne, a race he won by three lengths last year on heavy ground.
The aptly named Prix Heros, a Group 3 chase at 2 3/4 miles, counts among its winners Katko, arguably the most popular horse trained in France in any discipline in the last 50 years, Ucello, The Fellow (himself the winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1994), and The Fellow's full brother Al Capone, who not only won the Heros three times, but won the race for which the Heros is the prep, the 3 1/8-mile Prix La Haye Jousselin, seven times! To put that achievement into perspective, understand that the Haye Jousselin is the French jump racing equivalent to the Jockey Club Gold Cup.
In this renewal of the Heros, Mid Dancer was defending the title he had won last October by 1 1/2 lengths. A son of Midyan (Yes, he too, was bred in Kentucky.), Mid Dancer was ridden by Christophe Pieux, but went off at a healthy 3.70-1 after three straight losses. Opposing him were Remember Rose, the winner in 2009 of both the Grand Steeple-Chase de Paris and the Prix La Haye Jousselin, who also sported a price of 3.70-1, and the 2-1 favorite Rubi Ball.
Always well placed by the ever reliable Pieux, Mid Dancer prevailed over the 8-1 Oculi by a half-length, a very narrow margin in a race of this distance. Rubi Ball was just a short nedk behind in third as the pacesetting Remember Rose came home fourth, 8 length further back.
The result, howvwer, was inconclusive. Polar Rochelais will join the first four in the Haye Jousselin on Nov. 7. Before any of them can get past the line that day, they will all have to pass by the shadow of the statue of Al Capone that stands above the Auteuil walking ring.