Turf Hallmarks


 Genetic Markers




 Search our site

 E-mail us


Turf Hallmarks

Important Races

  Steeplechase Race Index

Champions of the Turf

Race Course Gazeteer


  Horses for Courses

  The Birth of the Grand National

  Steeplechasing in Great Britain

  Steeplechasing in France

Grave Matters

Boston vs. Fashion


  Les Anglais in France

Gone Abroad

Related Links

Jump Sires

Half-Bred Female Families


  Steeplechasing in France

Scene from the steeplechase 
Steeplechasing in France

By Paul Davies for Thoroughbred Heritage. ©Paul Davies, 2007. Paul Davies publishes The Complete Record, a regular newsletter that offers in-depth coverage of current steeplechasing and highly detailed information regarding the history of current and past races, horses, jockeys, trainers and owners. Past booklets, rich in detail, are available by contacting The Complete Record.

Edgar Degas: Scene from the Steeplechase

Jump racing in France has never enjoyed the same level of popularity that it does in Britain and Ireland. It lags behind Flat racing in terms of popularity and also has to contend with trotting, which is widely supported. It would, however, be a mistake to assume that French jumping is in the doldrums. Races over jumps are staged annually at more than 130 venues around the country. These range from Auteuil in Paris, which in 2004 staged 39 days racing, making it almost certainly the busiest jumping course in the world, to obscure arenas like Limoges, Lucon and Vessouil, whose annual contribution to French jumping in 2004 was a single race apiece.

Thanks to the painstaking research of Chris Simpson1, published in his 2005 work, A Brief Guide To European Jump Racing, we know that 2,046 jumps races were staged in France in 2004 (875 over hurdles, the rest being run over fences or cross country). As a matter of interest, 3,336 jumps races were staged in Britain that year and 1,352 in Ireland. Next best, with 333 was Italy while the only other country in Europe staging more than a hundred jumps races during the year was the Czech Republic (the home of the legendary Velka Pardubicka Steeplechase).

A French steeplechase 1859
A cross-country steeplechase in France, 1859
More than fifty courses in France staged at least one race over unorthodox cross country courses. These races, much lampooned in Britain, remain popular in much of mainland Europe. The courses are complex, often elaborate figure of eight designs, with obstacles such as banks, hedges, ditches, walls, oxers and bullfinches. In many respects these races are the direct descendents of the earliest steeplechases, which were contested across open fields with natural obstacles.

The first French steeplechase was staged at Saint-Germain-en-Laye in 1829. The race was devised by M de Normandie, who had hunted in Leicestershire and had witnessed races over obstacles. He transported the idea to France and had the honour of riding the winner of the first race. Within a matter of years, leading British and Irish jockeys, such as Jem Mason, Tom Olliver and the McDonagh brothers, were regular visitors to France. They enjoyed great success at courses such as the Bois de Boulogne, La Marche and the Croix de Berny. Mason, Olliver and the McDonaghs rode as professionals, but French jumping was run by, and for the benefit of the aristocracy and the military elite. Most horses were ridden by amateurs, whose wealth or status invariably superseded their riding ability. The remaining runners in chases were usually ridden by British-born jockeys, some on brief raiding visits, others based permanently in France.

As well as supplying many of the jockeys, Britain was also responsible for France's foremost trainer in the 1860s, Harry Lamplugh. Born in Yorkshire, Lamplugh was the son of jump jockey John Lamplugh. At the age of seventeen, Harry went to France. In time he trained for the leading French owners, the de la Motte family, the Viscount de Namur (for whom he trained and rode the 1862 Grand National winner Huntsman) and the Duke of Hamilton.

Prince J. Murat
Prince Joachim Murat
The first serious attempt to establish a governing body was made in 1863 with the establishment of the Société Général des Steeplechases. The first president of the Société was Prince Joachim Murat, a distant relation of Napoleon Bonaparte. At first this organisation had responsibility for Vincennes only, but after three years it embraced all steeplechasing in France. In 1870 Vincennes was requisitioned by the army during the Franco-Prussian War. The course was damaged during the course of the war. It eventually reopened but is now best known as a trotting venue.

By 1878, the Société des Steeplechases de France, as it was now known, had moved its headquarters to Auteuil. This course, located at the Porte d'Auteuil, was opened in 1873. From the outset, the course was ambitious. In its second year it introduced a chase called the Grand National de Paris, which was reputed to be the world's most valuable race over obstacles.

Grand Steeple Chase de Paris 1877
The Grand Steeple-Chase de Paris at Auteuil, 1877, won by the British horse Congress
The race proved an instant success, and with a sizeable prize fund, it attracted British and Irish runners. The first renewal was won by Miss Hungerford, ridden by the future Earl of Minto, riding under the assumed name Mr Rolly. The following year the race was renamed the Grand Steeplechase de Paris1. It was won by a French-based runner La Viene, but ridden by a British jockey, John Page.

Page, who was born in Birmingham in 1844, rode his first winner on the Flat at Liverpool in 1858, aged 14. He was champion British NH jockey on at least two occasions and rode two Grand National winners. His family ran a successful livery stable in the Birmingham area, and when Harry Lamplugh succumbed to injuries sustained in a fall at Angers, Page was chosen to replace him as trainer to the influential Duke of Hamilton.

Along with the Grand Steeplechase, Auteuil also inaugurated a valuable hurdle race, the Grand Hurdle. These two feature races became the focus of a race week noted as much for its social scene as for its racing. In the latter years of the nineteenth century, the cream of European society would meet at the course, which developed something of the reputation of a jumping version of Royal Ascot.

The last twenty years of the nineteenth century represented the sport's international era with French, British and Irish runners competing in a way that they would not do again for more a hundred years. Between 1874 and 1893, the first twenty renewals of the Grand Steeple were won by twelve French-trained horses, five from Britain and three from Ireland. In the Grand Hurdle, British runners fared even better, winning eleven of the twenty seven renewals between 1874 and 1900.

Away from Auteuil the sport continued to develop. Important races were staged at Pau, Nice, Dieppe, Vincennes, Boulogne-Sur Mer, Caen and Enghien. Taking 1885 as a typical year, France's most valuable chase, the Grand Steeple was worth £2,306, more than double the value of Liverpool's Grand National. Auteuil staged thirty-four days racing that year. No race staged at the course was worth less than £100; the average at the time in Britain was little more than £70.

Grand Steeple Chase de Dieppe
The Grand Steeple-Chase de Dieppe, 1856
The greatest French chaser of the nineteenth century was the remarkable Franc Picard. He raced for thirteen seasons and became a national hero, in much the same way that Arkle, Red Rum and Desert Orchid would later do in their home countries. From a humble background, Franc Picard developed into a tough and brave racehorse. He made 96 appearances in all, including nine on the Flat and was successful on 46 occasions. His career earnings were 230,000 francs (£9,200), an enormous figure at that time.

Foaled in 1846 (Royal Oak-Niobé), Franc Picard was best known for his exploits in the Grande Steeple at Dieppe. He finished second on his first appearance in the race in 1852, and then won the next five renewals. He missed the race in 1858, but won a sixth renewal in 1859. On that occasion he was ridden by five-time Grand National winning jockey George Stevens, but his previous five successes were secured under his trainer Harry Lamplugh. In 1860 Franc Picard returned to Dieppe but was beaten by Surprise, who received three stone from the great champion.

This, though, was not the end of Franc Picard's involvement in the race. In 1861, aged fifteen, he went in search of one final moment of glory. Ridden again by Lamplugh, he registered an unlikely seventh victory. The win produced mixed emotions, as it later transpired that Franc Picard had broken down during the course of the race, making his victory even more epic.

Franc Picard made several journeys to Britain, but was unable to match his success in his homeland. He did win the Birmingham Grand Annual on two occasions, but twice failed in the Grand National.

Redpath (1877, Uncas-Maggie by Sunset), a member of the Half-bred Family B-11. Image courtesy Clarke Gallery.
Another Lamplugh trained horse, Jean Du Quense made three unsuccessful Grand National bids. His best effort came on his final appearance in the race when he finished second to Half Caste in 1859, three years before Lamplugh's Huntsman provided France with the first of two wins in the Aintree marathon. The second French National winner was another Lamplugh runner, Cortolvin, who triumphed under John Page in 1867.

After Franc Picard, the most famous French-trained jumper in the nineteenth century was Redpath. Astonishingly, like Franc Picard, he also won an individual race on seven occasions. His sequence of victories in Belgium's Steeplechase des Flanders spanned nine years. At the time of his final victory in the Waregem race he was nineteen years old.

Two of the most important figures in twentieth century French jump racing were Jean Stern and Arthur Veil-Picard. Both are remembered each year with their own races at Auteuil. Stern, who was born in 1875, was involved in racing as an owner, breeder and administrator for more than sixty years. He was a prominent member of the Société des Steeplechases for thirty-one years and at the time of his death in 1962, aged 88, he was the Chairman of Dieppe Racecourse. As a breeder he was enormously successful both on the Flat and over jumps, while as an owner, his white and blue starred silks were ridden to victory in the Grand Steeplechase de Paris on four occasions -- Canard (1905), Lindor (1946 and 1947), and Cousin Pons (1961). He also won Italy's most prestigious jumps race, the Gran Premio di Merano in 1950 with Le Radar. Stern was twice the leading jumping owner in France (1960 and 1961); he also headed the list of leading owners of the Flat in 1951. Stern also wrote seven books on racing history and was a member of France's gold medal winning fencing team at the 1908 London Olympics.

Arthur Veil-Picard was a banker from Besançon who financed the French absinthe industry during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. For forty years he was also the most important jumps owner in France, winning the Grand Steeple on a record six occasions between 1909 and 1939 with Saint Caradec (1909), Blagueur II (1911), Ultimatum (1913), Fleuret (1935), and the great Ingré (1937 and 1939). He also won the Grand Course de Haies d'Auteuil five times; the Prix Congress on three occasions; the Prix La Haye Jousselin twice; the Prix du Président de la République twice; and, like Stern, scored a victory in Italy's Grand Premio di Merano, with Empressor in 1938.

The frequency of British and Irish challengers for the leading French jumping contests diminished in the early twentieth century, leaving the sport in France in isolation. Nevertheless, it was not unknown for Grand National winners to travel over to Auteuil for the Grand Steeple. In 1910, Jerry M, who had finished second to Jenkinstown in the National, won the big French chase. However, he injured himself in the process and was out of action for the whole of the next season. He did return to the course prior to the 1912 National, which he duly won under 12st7lb.

Another future Grand National winner, Troytown, won the Grand Steeple in 1919; the 1922 Grand National winner Music Hall finished third in the 1923 Grand Steeple; Silvo, who came third in the 1924 National, won the Grand Steeple the following year. Trained by Percy Whittaker and ridden by Dick Rees, Silvo proved to be the last British-trained winner of the Grand Steeple for thirty-eight years.

Lutteur III
Lutteur III (1904, St. Damien-Lausaunne) and his jockey "George" Parfremont
While the country's jump racing was largely a domestic affair during much of the twentieth century, French-trained and bred horses played a significant role in the sport in Britain. Lutteur III, who won the 1909 Grand National, was bred in France and was trained there until moving to a British stable early in his National winning season. He was the third French-bred National winner after Alcibiade (1865) and Reugny (1874).

To add further to the Gallic celebrations, the horse was ridden to victory at Liverpool by Guillaume "George" Parfremont, a Belgian-born but French-based jockey. Parfremont's many British victories included the Scottish National, the Grand International Chase at Sandown, and the Imperial Cup Hurdle (Sandown). For good measure Parfremont also won the Grand Steeplechase de Paris on three occasions; he was killed when falling at a stone wall in a chase at Enghien in 1923.

During the 1930s French-born Georges Pellerin established himself as a top-class hurdle jockey in Britain. He was particularly successful aboard Free Fare, winning the Liverpool Hurdle in 1933 and the Champion Hurdle in 1937. French-trained runners in British jumps races became a rare commodity during the pre-Second World War period. Trianon, owned by M. de Mumm, finished second in the 1914 Grand National, eight lengths behind Sunloch. Twenty-four years later Chuchoteur was beaten one and a half lengths by Our Hope in the Champion Hurdle. Probably the best race for French-trained horses in this period was the Liverpool Hurdle. Three French runners were successful between 1913 and 1929. Fairbanks, winner of the French St Leger in 1926, won the 1929 renewal. He was trained by Jack Cunnington, who also saddled the runner-up, Kikimono.

French-trained Le Paillon (1942, Fastnet-Blue Bear by Blenheim), second in Cheltenham's Champion Hurdle and winner of the Arc on the flat in the same year.
Sir Ken
Champion hurdler Sir Ken (Laeken (Prix Royal Oak winner) - Carte Grise II by Take My Tip (Grand Prix de Paris winner)), the most brilliant and consistent hurdler of all time, was bred in France by M. Chenorio. He was purchased after unsuccessful races on the flat by M. Kingsley and trained by W. Stephenson at Royston in England.
In the post Second World War period, French-trained runners had moments of glory in the Champion Hurdle (Cheltenham). Le Paillon finished a length behind National Spirit in 1947. Amazingly, the Willie Head trained five-year-old then went on to win Europe's most prestigious all-age Flat race, the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. In 1951 French trained runners Pyrrhus and Prince Hindou finished second and third in the Champion Hurdle, while in 1957 Tout ou Rien came in third behind Merry Deal.

One race that French-trained horses dominated was the Triumph Hurdle. This race for four-year-old hurdlers was first run at Hurst Park in London in 1939. It was established as an international challenge, and the French duly accepted that challenge. They won six of the first seven renewals and then won a further two with horses bred in France, who were subsequently sold on to British owners.

The precocity of French jumpers was proving increasingly attractive to owners in Britain, who were starting to look for more immediate results than they had gained from the traditional slow maturing jumping types that had previously dominated the sport.

From the early 1940s French-bred horses began to appear in large numbers at British jumps courses. Almost immediately they began to have an impact. Medoc (1942), Fortina (1947), Mont Tremblant (1952) and Mandarin (1962) all won the Cheltenham Gold Cup, while French-breds won four successive Champion Hurdles with Sir Ken (1952, 1953 and 1954) and Clair Soleil (1955). Of these six champions, the most significant was Fortina. An entire, he went on to become a leading jumping sire in Britain. His offspring included two Cheltenham Gold Cup winners (Fort Leney and Glencaraig Lady) as well as the winners of four Irish Nationals. He was also the sire of Bampton Castle, who won the American Grand National in 1966 and again in 1968.

Ryan Price and Peter Cazalet were among the first British trainers to buy young jumpers from France. One of Cazalet's investments, Manicou, became the first horse to run in the colours of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. He won the 1950 King George VI Chase and helped establish his owner's deep affection for the sport which survived throughout her life.

The appeal and success of French-bred jumpers, which persists to this day, is due to their early introduction to fences. They are broken as yearlings and schooling begins at the age of two. With more than a quarter of all hurdle races in France open to three-year-olds and almost 40% of all chases open to four-year-olds, there is real incentive to start the training process as early as possible. The downside of this is that by the age of ten, most, but not all, French-breds are at the twilight of their careers; at the same age late developing British and Irish chasers are often at their peak.

Another feature of French-bred jumpers is that unlike their British counterparts, many sires have been jumpers themselves. Around 10% of all male jumpers are entires. Thus it is possible to buy a young horse whose sire and dam have proven themselves over fences. In Britain this would be like searching for the holy-grail.

Traditionally, British buyers looked to Ireland for their jumping stock. But with the strong Irish economy in recent years, the best horses are staying with home-based-trainers. This has forced Britain to look elsewhere for new markets, and the most attractive and convenient was that offered by France. Recent French exports to shine in British jumping include: Kauto Star (2007 Cheltenham Gold Cup), Azertyuiop (2004 Champion Chase) and Edredon Bleu. During 2006, no fewer than thirteen British and Irish Group One NH races went the way of French-bred runners.

French-bred winners have been commonplace in Britain since 1945, but following the victory of L'Émpereur in the Somerset Chase at Wincanton in 1963, no horse officially trained in France, won a jumps race in Britain for twenty-five years. That long barren spell was brought to an end in December 1987 when Nupsala, a 25/1 outsider, caused an upset by winning the mid-season British staying chasers championship race, the King George VI Chase at Kempton. Nupsala beat crowd-pleaser and even money favourite Desert Orchid by an emphatic fifteen length margin.

The Fellow
Al Capone II
The Fellow (above) and Al Capone II (below), superior French-bred brothers by the Selle Française stallion Italic and out of L'Oranaise. ©APRH. Used with permission.
Nupsala's victory was initially seen as something of a one-off, but his trainer Francois Doumen has returned to Britain on a regular basis annexing many top prizes. His UK tally includes a further four King George VI Chases, two Racing Post Chases (Kempton), and two Stayers' Hurdles (now the World Hurdle, Cheltenham) with Baracouda. However, Doumen's finest moment arrived in 1994 when The Fellow finally won the Gold Cup. Twice previously, The Fellow had suffered the ultimate agony of finishing second in this race, beaten on both occasions by the narrowest possible margin, a short head.

Nupsala's victory was initially seen as something of a one-off, but his trainer Francois Doumen has returned to Britain on a regular basis annexing many top prizes. His UK tally includes a further four King George VI Chases, two Racing Post Chases (Kempton), and two Stayers' Hurdles (now the World Hurdle, Cheltenham) with Baracouda. However, Doumen's finest moment arrived in 1994 when The Fellow finally won the Gold Cup. Twice previously, The Fellow had suffered the ultimate agony of finishing second in this race, beaten on both occasions by the narrowest possible margin, a short head.

Encouraged by the victories of Doumen's runners, another leading French trainer, Guillaume Macaire is also now a frequent visitor to Britain. Macaire has yet to achieve the high level of success experienced by his compatriot, but, given the superb record he enjoys at home, big British prizes await.
One unfortunate feature of increased French involvement in British jumping has been a barrage of criticism from the press and media aimed at the riding styles of French jockeys. Much of this disparagement results from a failure to grasp the very different style of race riding that prevails in France. There, most races are run at a slow pace, until the final half mile or so, when the pace quickens dramatically into a sprint finish.

This is one of two major reasons why there has not been a regular stream of British and Irish horses competing in the big French chases and hurdles. The other is the style of fences and hurdles in France, which frequently catch British horses out. Hurdles are built like small steeplechase fences and the obstacles in chases are also more varied. In Britain, standard chase courses consist of plain fences and open ditches. Some courses still feature water jumps, but an increasing number have removed them as they are often regarded as dangerous hazards. In France a steeplechase course features a wide variety of obstacles. Many of the more formidable ones can actually be jumped through, which is not an option when negotiating a British steeplechasing fence.

It is probably significant that the only British-trained horse to win France's biggest chase, the Grand Steeple, since 1925 was bred in France. That horse was Mandarin and the circumstances surrounding his 1962 victory have rightly entered racing folklore.

Mandarin, winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup that March, was partnered by Britain's finest jockey, Fred Winter. Winter, groggy from a stomach upset, struggled to contain the powerful Mandarin during the early stages of the four mile race, which was run over a bewildering course of twists and turns. At the fourth fence, Mandarin's bit snapped in two, which meant that Winter had no control of his mount's head. All he had to hold on to were the reins and neck strap. Pulling the horse up would have been the wisest course of action, but Winter rode on. What then transpired was little short of a miracle. Not only was Mandarin able to jump the remaining twenty-one obstacles, including the fearsome Riviere de la Tribune, a huge water jump in front of the stands, but he was able stay with the leaders throughout the race.

Rounding the last turn, Mandarin was fifth. But with a straight run to the line and two fences to jump, Winter threw himself forward in the saddle. Mandarin accelerated sensationally, passing his rivals as though they were motionless. Once in front, fatigue hit the horse like a brick wall. His nearest challenger, Lumino, closed with every stride, but somehow Mandarin hung on to record a famous victory.

The British racing daily, The Racing Post recently ran a poll to find the 100 Greatest Rides and Fred Winter's performance aboard Mandarin finished clear top, claiming almost a quarter of all votes cast.

As though intimidated by the brilliance and bravery of Winter and Mandarin on that sunny June afternoon in 1962, few British and Irish horses have since been sent over to Auteuil for the Grand Steeple. It has been a different story with the French equivalent of the Champion Hurdle, the Grand Course de Haies D'Auteuil with Irish-trained Dawn Run (1984), Nobody Told Me (2003) and Rule Supreme (2004) all winning.

After the Grand Steeple, the most valuable and important steeplechase in France is the Prix La Haye Jousselin. This race, run at Auteuil over 5,500m, is now the highlight of an International Weekend staged in November. Despite a valuable and attractively framed programme, featuring championship races for three-year-old hurdlers and four-year-old chasers as well as the autumn hurdling championship, the meeting has failed to live up to its name. In its first year the only non-French runner was Tidal Fury, a British-trained hurdler, who, through a series of impressive efforts at Auteuil that year, earned the title of French Hurdler of the Year.

During the 1990s, the Prix La Haye Jousselin was dominated by one horse, Al Capone II.2 A full brother to The Fellow, Al Capone II won the race seven times in succession between 1993 and 1999. He failed in his bid to establish a world record of eight wins in the same event when beaten by First Gold in 2000. He went into an honourable retirement after the race, having won 26 races, including the 1997 Grand Steeplechase de Paris.

Apart from his superb record in the Prix La Haye Jousselin, perhaps the most remarkable feature of Al Capone II's long career was that all but one of his 65 career starts was made at Auteuil. Given the frequency of meetings at the Paris course and the value of the races staged there, this is no surprise; virtually all the horses that run at the course are Auteuil specialists, with the exception of the odd visitor from nearby Enghien.

This parochialism is an important feature of French jumping and, despite attempts to entice outsiders, it seems destined to remain so. Paradoxically, the influence of French-bred runners in Britain and Ireland continues to grow with each passing season.


1 The Grand Steeplechase is sometimes erroneously referred to as the French Grand National. The race that should be accorded that honour is the Prix de la Président de la Repúblic, a handicap run at Auteuil in late April.

2 Al Capone and The Fellow were both non-thoroughbreds. They were able to race because France operates a system called Autres Que de Pur-Sang (AQPS) which literally means "other than thoroughbred". AQPS horses have their own programme of races, but they are also permitted to race against thoroughbreds, frequently with great success.

Further Resources

Chris Simpson maintains an informative website that provides an overview of European Jump Racing. Chris has also produced a site dedicated to the Czech Republic's famous Velka Pardubicka Chase.

The website of France-galop, the French Jockey Club is also an invaluable resource for anyone with an interest in that country's racing history. It features a section called Encyclopédie Des Courses, which examines the historical background of all French races of any importance, both over jumps and on the Flat. Thankfully, for non French speakers, the site is available in English.

Thoroughbreds that Jump Quick Links
Steeplechase Notes Jump Sires IndexRoots of Modern Show Jumpers
Steeplechase Race Index J.J. Maher: Irish BreederSteeplechasing in France
Horses for CoursesBirth of the Grand National Steeplechasing in Great Britain
Jump Contributors

Home   Historic Sires   Historic Dams   Portraits   Turf Hallmarks   Breeders   Genetics   Resources   Contributors   Search   Store   E-mail

©2007 Thoroughbred Heritage. All rights reserved.