13 NOVEMBER 1999, Page 77

The turf

Fashionably French

Robin Oakley

It was over a glass of the thick and foamy stuff, with an Irish band cheering the Sandown customers on Saturday, that I heard the one about the burglar who was interrupted while stuffing his sack by a voice declaring, 'Jesus and I are watching you.' He stopped, looked around, saw nothing and resumed his pilfering, only for the refrain to be repeated. This time in the semi-darkness he noticed the parrot in the corner. 'Was that you?' When the parrot replied in the affirmative, he asked its name and the bird replied 'Gabriel'. 'That's a pretty funny name for a parrot,' said the burglar. 'Maybe,' replied the bird. 'But Jesus is a pretty funny name for a Rottweil- er, too.'

The domination of Arab owners on the flat and the fashion for French imports over jumps is providing racecourse com- mentators with some pretty odd names as well. The winner of Sandown's Guilbert UK Handicap Steeplechase was an obvious example. You try yelling 'Come on, Fard du Moulin Mas' after more than a glass or two of lunch. But the victory was a popular one nonetheless because the successful trainer was the amiable, cherub-faced Mer- rick Francis, the boss of Lambourn's main horse transport business and son of former champion jockey Dick.

He and his elegant wife Alex, down on the racecard in American style, I noticed, as Mrs Merrick Francis III (well, why shouldn't she be differentiated from the two previous holders of that title?), refer to Fard du Moulin Mas as 'Frenchie'. This is partly down to the horse's Continental background and partly because Merrick learned his trade initially attached to the revered Frenchie Nicholson.

Anyway, ably ridden by John Kavanagh, Fard du Moulin Mas, running in a French snaffle (which is supposedly a help in


restraining hard pullers), jumped well. He came to tackle Supreme Charm at the busi- ness end of the race and won a grand strug- gle by a neck. The handicapper may not be too kind to him after the Sandown victory, but a horse bought to give the family a lit- tle fun looks like doing just that.

Merrick gave up life as a public trainer seven years ago to concentrate on his inter- national horse transport business but he still owns a yard and is keeping his hand in with a permit, training just 'Frenchie' and 'one that's very slow'. Too much expansion might not be wise if he is to keep his trans- port customers. Four of the five horses he beat were all from Lambourn and Wantage and one of them, Simon Sherwood's Father Rector, had shared a horse box to the course with Fard du Moulin Mas.

It was a good day too for Charlie Mann. If they had a prize for the best-turned-out trainer as well as the best-turned-out horse Charlie would usually take it and his snap- py wide-brimmed trilby made it twice to the winner's enclosure. His Royal Snoopy probably didn't beat a lot in the condition- als' novices hurdle over 2m 6f but he stays and his future lies over the bigger obstacles as a novice chaser.

Charlie Mann is highly adept at placing his horses. But he may have more of a task with his other winner Out On A Promise, who recorded his third victory of the sea- son in the handicap hurdle. On ground that was stickier than he likes he came home gamely in the hands of 51b stable claimer Noel Fehily. As Charlie says, he is a super little horse who tries his heart out. But the handicapper is moving him up and the pony-sized seven-year-old really is not built to carry welter burdens. Nor did he take to the bigger obstacles when tried in novice chases. He will need to be ridden by a capable claimer on most occasions. Fortu- nately C. Mann seems to have one of those to hand.

One real pleasure for jumping fans this season has been Josh Gifford's renaissance. He had a pig of a time last season and a few heads began to wag, suggesting he was in the veteran category and might be wise to call it a day. But it was simply a case of the horses not being right and he has come back with a vengeance this year. His Head- wind ran well to be second to Martin Pipe's Art Prince in the big race of the day at Sandown and Skycab took the novices chase.

When I asked why he was firing so early this season he replied that it was down to all the rain in June. It made the grass grow and we've been able to get on with them.' As for Skycab, he confesses that they can't yet work out what distance the horse really needs. He and the owners reckon the horse wants further than two miles but jockey Philip Hide isn't so sure.

In the end, though, it was a sad day at Sandown. As Art Prince was coming to the winning post to take the £15,000-added Concord Steeplechase for Martin Pipe the green screens were going up on the bottom of the course for the vets to put a painless end to the life of a horse who had always loved the Esher track.

Richard Rowe's Eulogy, running well at the time, had landed awkwardly six fences out and shattered a leg beyond any hope of repair. A day's sport was marred by the reminder of the price paid by some for our enjoyment. Once again a horse box would be returning empty from the course with stable staff inconsolable, owners in tears and a trainer bereft of his stable star.

It was all the more poignant because in the spring Eulogy had had his finest hour on the Sandown course, winning the Whit- bread Gold Cup to give former jockey Richard Rowe his greatest training success for the small Pulborough stable. I remem- bered his euphoria then after a lean season and the joy of his owners, the Coopers. The only consolation I can offer them is that Eulogy died doing well what he did best. He would probably never have exist- ed were there not people like them to race and train horses. And though they would have been too much in grief themselves at the time to notice it, you could actually feel the wave of sorrow and sympathy rolling across the course. Jumping crowds are like that.

Robin Oakley is political editor of the BBC.