Auteuil's Weekend du Grand Steeplechase is an occasion not to be missed
Bragging rights for the highest quality and most exciting steeplechases in the world may be argued out between the Irish and British, but ask any Frenchman, and he's more likely to draw comparisons with France's richest Jumps race, both in value and history, the Grand Steeplechase de Paris, which enjoys its 143rd running at Auteuil this Sunday.
The €820,000 race forms part of the richest weekend's racing in France, that stands scrutiny against the best that Punchestown and Cheltenham can throw, at a metropolitan racecourse in plain sight of the Parc des Princes one one side, the Eiffel Tower at the other. €2,510,000 is on offer across the two days, led by France's answer to the Grand National and their own version of the Champion Hurdle, worth €350,000.
Auteuil is among the oldest of France's racecourses, and at the heart of Paris' centralized town planning under Napoleon III in the 1860s and '70s, during which time much of Paris was rebuilt to the designs of Baron Haussmann. The provision of elite sport for the masses, as well as the affluent aristocracy, was part of ensuring that they were enjoying themselves too much to get restive again. The newly inaugurated Société des Steeplechases de France, created in 1863, moved to Auteuil in 1878 and the creation of a course at Auteuil was a logical next step. Renowned architect, Walter Destailleur, was commissioned to create a grande tribune.
The two races, inaugurated in the same Spring season as Auteuil's first November fixture, were designed to draw the best horses and riders from the hunting nations of northern Europe. Indeed, from the first recorded steeplechase in France in 1829, the sport had been regularly raided by British and Irish riders.
The Grand Steeplechase de France, wonderfully understated, enjoyed instant success, attracting British and Irish runners, and a British winner, Miss Hungerford, ridden by the future Earl of Minto, riding under an assumed name of Mr Rolly. The last 20 years of the nineteenth century saw Auteuil assume the sort of international competitiveness that is now seen every year at Cheltenham: 5 British-trained winners and 3 Irish in the period 1873-1894, and 11 British winners of the Grande Course des Haies. Money was clearly talking; the Grand Steeplechase was worth more than double the Aintree equivalent.
If truth be known, those first 30 years of the race were arguably its zenith, in a country where other sporting past-times had not yet surpassed horseracing for public appeal. The Auteuil weekend became a gluepot for French society, drawing huge crowds to fill the expansive Imperial-style grandstands. It was a perfect riposte to the injury to France's pride endured through the Franco-Prussian War.
The current title of the Grand Steeplechase de Paris was adopted in 1876, as copycat races popped up all over France, and the race ceased to be a handicap. Since then, the race has only failed to take place on five occasions; four during the Great War, and once in 1940, when Paris was imminently to fall into the hands of the Germans in the Battle of France.
To many British racing fans, the introduction of early-maturing French-breds seems a relatively new phenomenon. Not so; in the 1940s, post-war, the exchange of horses between Britain and Ireland was continuous. Medoc (1942), Fortina (1947), Mont Tremblant (1952) and Mandarin (1962) were all French-bred winners of the Cheltenham Gold Cup, albeit trained in England.
Mandarin is of course the legend about which British racing fans still wax, some 59 years after Fulke Walwyn prepared the horse to win the race under Fred Winter. The race is part of racing folklore after Mandarin's rubber bit broke at the fourth of 30 fences, and it took all of Winter's horsemanship not just to keep Mandarin in the race, but to win, despite the fact he'd broken down at the last. It was the great horse's final race and he was retired shortly afterwards.
Despite what looked a perfect advertisement for other British and Irish horses to follow his lead, however, a flood of runners across La Manche to join the fray did not follow. In part this is due to the proximity and growing importance of Cheltenham, Aintree, and to a lesser extent, Punchestown, all condensed into a 10 week period in the Spring. But it has also to do with ground conditions at Auteuil in Spring, which are often soft, in ground that has been well used the previous autumn.
Reassuringly for France Galop, however, money is talking again and British trainers are running satellite operations in France to benefit from better prize money and travel grants. Given the impecunious nature of British racing in particular at present, this is likely to accelerate, although these horses are not necessarily of the quality to compete in the Grande Steeplechase. Riders like Dean Gallagher, James Reveley and Felix de Giles, based in France, have been key instigators of this drift toward France.
Multiple winners of the race, like Katko and Ucello III, were never seen in the UK, but The Fellow (1991) and First Gold (1998) were both seen across the Channel, and the former notably won the Cheltenham Gold Cup at the third time of asking after two second places less than a neck, in 1994 under the late Adam Kondrat.
British and Irish riders have increasingly been in demand for Auteuil's big weekend. Philip Carberry triumphed on Princesse d'Anjou in 2008, whilst Davy Russell was imported to ride Carriacou to victory in 2019. James Reveley won the race on three consecutive occasions from 2016-18.
By contrast, British and Irish winners of the Grande Course des Haies these past 20 years have been much more frequent. Willie Mullins, following his father's lead with the successful Dawn Run in 1984, has won the race no less than five times since 2003 with four different horses, the most recent of which was Benie des Dieux, recently retired to the paddocks, in 2019, but David Pipe, Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson have taken home the French silverware with Un Temps Pour Tout (2015), Ptit Zig (2016) and L'Ami Serge (2017).
Brexit and Covid restrictions have conspired to make the 2021 renewal especially difficult for British and Irish raiders. One who hasn't been put off is Richard Hobson, whose Lord du Mesnil lines up on Sunday. The trainer found Hurricane Fly, superstar legend of Irish and Cheltenham fame, so he's no slouch in identifying a horse for the big occasion.
Auteuil continues to lead by example in presenting the sport in the best possible light. Whether you're an owner seeking the limelight and a big prize, or merely a spectator setting out to enjoy a fabulous day's racing in the heart of one of Europe's greatest cities, this is a weekend not to be missed.