The death last month of the Marquise de Moratalla, for decades one of France's leading breeder/owners, prompted her longtime trainer, the recently retired Francois Doumen, to remark that “she was the type of owner we don't have in France anymore.”
In fact, Doumen was putting his finger into the wound that has caused much agonizing throughout French racing circles during a year in which most of the big prizes were swept away by foreign owners, many of whose winners were being trained outside of France, with a large majority of them won by horses bred in Ireland, Britain or Kentucky. Things got so bad that Jean-Claude Rouget, perennially one of France's leading trainers, had the gall to suggest that some races in France should be closed to foreign-trained invaders.
Statistically, the numbers should give the France-Galop hierarchy cause for alarm. No fewer than 63 of the 105 group races run in France this year were won by foreign-based owners. And the figures got worse at the higher end of the blacktype scale, with 18 of the 27 Group 2 winners foreign-owned, and 18 of 25 Group 1 winners foreign-owned.
As many of these prestigious winners were owned by Khalid Abdullah, the Maktoums and the Qataris, all of whom have horses trained in France, the number of French trained group race winners looks better, but is still problematic, as 13 of the 25 Group 1 winners were trained outside of France. The numbers nosedive where French-bred group race winners are concerned: 33 of the 53 Group 3 winners were foreign bred, as were 18 of the 27 Group 2 winners, and an astonishing 22 of the 25 Group 1 winners.
The classic season started on a promising note for French-trained, French-owned horses as Precieuse, albeit an Irish-bred, landed the Poule d'Essai des Pouliches (French 1000 Guineas) for owner Anne-Marie Hayes and trainer Francois Chappet on May 13. The next day, another Irish-bred, Brametot, took the colt equivalent, the Poule de'Essai des Poulains (French 2000 Guineas) for trainer Rouget and co-owners Gerard Augustin-Normand and the Qataris at Al Shaqab. At least France could claim a half ownership in that race.
Brametot doubled his classic cache when winning the Prix du Jockey Club (French Derby) on June 4, and four weeks later things were looking up when the French-bred Zarak, trained by Alain de Royer-Dupre for the Aga Khan (whose official residence is in Gouvieux just west of Chantilly) won the Group 1 Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud. The same team would triumph in France's July 14 Bastille Day feature, when the Aga Khan's Royer-Dupre homebred Shakeel defeated eight rivals in the Group 1 Grand Prix de Paris.
But a closer look at that race reveals that those eight were all foreign-owned and foreign-bred, with five of them trained in Ireland or England. A pattern would begin to develop later that month when the first three home in the Group 2 Prix Eugene Adam were foreign-owned, the first three in the Group 2 Prix Robert Papin for 2-year-olds were all trained in England for British owners, and the first three in the Group 3 Prix de Psyche were all owned by Americans Martin Schwartz or George Strawbridge.
That was the first group race of the Deauville summer season during which everything went downhill for French rooting interests. The Aidan O'Brien-trained, Coolmore-owned, Kentucky-bred Roly Poly landed the Group 1 Prix Rothschild, in which eight of the ten runners were owned by non-Frenchmen. Things could hardly get worse but they did a week later when the British-bred, British-owned, British-trained Brando landed the Group 1 Prix Maurice de Gheest, in which the next three were all foreign-trained and foreign-owned.
When the Irish-bred Al Wukair took the Group 1 Prix Jacques le Marois, Frenchmen heaved a sigh of relief as he was trained by the irrepressible Andre Fabre, although the winner was owned by Al Shaqab, but two days later on August 15, a national holiday, French pride took a hit when the British-trained and owned Eminent, an Irish-bred, beat dual classic winner Brametot into fifth place in the Group 2 Prix Guillaume d'Ornano. Embarrassment set in a half hour later when France's 2017 European champion, Almanzor, came home a dull fifth behind the British owned, trained and bred First Sitting in the Group 2 Prix Gontaut-Biron.
French interests were shut out in two subsequent Deauville Group 1's, the Prix Morny and the Prix Jean Romanet, while the first four in the Group 2 Prix de la Nonette were all foreign-owned. The scene shifted back to Chantilly on September 9 for Arc preview day. Surely, French interests would rebound in the run-up to the great race.
But it was not to be. The Irish-bred Ribchester won the Group 1 Prix du Moulin de Longchamp for Richard Fahey and Godolphin; the John Gosden-trained British-bred Cracksman landed the Group 2 Prix Niel for his British owner Anthony Oppenheimer; and to add insult to injury, the German-bred Dschingis Secret took the Group 2 Prix Foy for his German connections.
Come Arc Day, October 1, French racing interests suffered a complete collapse. Gosden and his British-bred super filly Enable led the invasion for the Saudi-based Khalid Abdullah of Juddmonte fame by winning a Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in which 15 of the 18 runners were foreign-owned, the first nine were foreign-bred and 11 of the 18 were trained outside of France. The other five Group 1 races on the card were all won by foreign-bred, owned and trained horses. On the day, just 15 of the 67 horses in the six Group 1's were owned by French-based owners, and only 15 were French-bred.
What has gone wrong in France? Doumen raised the issue of a lack of prominent French owners. One of the reasons for that problem is the French economic system, in which the tax structure allows Frenchmen to get rich… but not too rich. Unfortunately, a Thoroughbred owner must be “too rich” if he or she is to compete successfully at the highest level. The Maktoums, the Qataris, and Khalid Abdullah, meanwhile, are faced with no such impediments to accumulating wealth. Moreover, as prize money in France is far and away the best in Europe, the country serves, ironically, as a magnet for foreign owners, be they based in France or not. For the record, ten of the 15 leading owners in France this year are foreign-based.
France-Galop has been energetic of late in attempting to attract new owners, but their efforts have yet to show any measurable positive results, it being just as difficult to find new owners there as it is in America, where horse racing is just as poorly marketed as it is in France. If the perception that racing is solely a venue for gambling persists, most people, be they French or not, will shy away from the game.
On October 29, things reached an ugly head when dozens of mid-level French trainers blocked the entrance to the paddock at Saint-Cloud, forcing the cancellation of the remainder of the card, including a pair of prestigious Group 1 juvenile events, the Criterium de Saint-Cloud and the Criterium International. They were protesting France-Galop's proposed reductions to the owners' premiums awarded to French-bred horses, and while they managed to get some of the proposed cuts back, the action gave French racing an international black eye.
It also gave rise to an examination of the current owners' premium scheme in France, in which French-bred 2-, 3- and 4-year-olds receive 64 percent above the published prize money, and French-bred 5-year-olds and up receive 43 percent above, the deal applying to all races not restricted to French-breds except the Arc. On the face of it, this sounds like a juicy deal for owners of French-breds in France. Of course, the scheme was originated in an effort to make the purchase of French-breds more attractive to both French and foreign owners. In practice, however, it may have led to a situation where French owners have been lured into a provincial-minded trap that only helps to exclude them from the biggest prizes.
As we have pointed out, a healthy majority of group races in France are won by horses bred outside of France. There are two reasons for this. One, the big Arab outfits and Coolmore are not seduced into extra percentages. Their objective is to win the best races in the world, and they have decided that goal can best be reached with British, Irish, and to a lesser extent, Kentucky-breds. Two, the owners' premium has developed into a disincentive to French owners to buy foreign-bred horses, horses which are generally superior to French-breds. And so, a large majority of French owners have tended to eliminate themselves from competing at the top level.
Eliminating the owners' premium is not going to solve the problems of French racing, of course. It might make sense to simply transfer the owners' premiums into the overall purse structure, thus putting flat racing on the same prize money basis as French jump racing, and so perhaps attract more French owners into buying British and Irish-breds. But a much stronger, more concerted effort all around is still needed to bring French racing out of its current malaise.
Alan Shuback is a former columnist and foreign correspondent at Daily Racing Form and The Sporting Life.
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