Graham Buddry looks at the short but spectacular form burst enjoyed by top class French-bred First Gold
Graham Buddry looks at the glorious season enjoyed by First Gold
It’s quite rare in National Hunt racing for a first class horse to have just one season at the top before his star is eclipsed, especially if it encompasses just a handful of races. It’s equally unusual for a horse to be considered one of the best we’ve seen when a scrutiny of their form shows that, in essence, they really achieved far less than they should have done.
Easily the best trainer of National Hunt horses in France, Francois Doumen, had a string of top equine stars together with an outstanding owner in the Marquesa de Moratalla. Although born in London in 1930 and living most of her life in France, the Marquesa was actually a Spanish noblewoman whose brother rode the third placed horse in the 1950 Cheltenham Gold Cup behind Cottage Rake.
With her funds and Doumen’s training expertise they had already won the King George three times with The Fellow, twice, and Algan, the former also winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup after twice being placed in the race. The Marquesa had also won races such as the Tingle Creek and Victor Chandler (now the Clarence House) with Sybillin through her Yorkshire- based trainer, Jimmy Fitzgerald, yet one horse was already considered the best she had ever had.
First Gold, like quite a few French breds, especially around that time, was not a thoroughbred, being by the stallion Shafoun, who also sired the bril- liant but ill-fated Gloria Victis.
Foaled in 1993, First Gold spent the early part of his racing career contesting events specifically for nonthorough breds, primarily at Pau where he won his first race on 31 January 1998 after twice going down by a neck or less. Doumen then switched his charge to Auteuil where his winning run continued in a higher grade non-thoroughbred event and then in a decent handicap, each time winning with ease. Top weight in a classier handicap was proving no burden until First Gold fell when well clear but Doumen had seen enough.
First Gold’s next race was to be France’s premier race, the Grand Steeple-Chase de Paris, an event Doumen and La Marquesa had already won four times together before. It was quickly five times each as their charge made short work of the opposition to land the prize as a five-year-old.
Due to injury First Gold was then not seen on a racecourse again for nearly two years and subsequently took another seven months to regain both full racing fitness and winning ways with three consecutive victories at Auteuil in increasingly better contests.
The canny Doumen now considered the time right to bring their star to England for the first time in Doumen’s favourite race, the King George VI Chase at Kempton Park on Boxing Day. This race alone would cement the legend and seal the esteem First Gold is still held in.
Nine runners went to post for the 2000 renewal, headed by See More Business, winner of both the 1997 and 1999 King George as well as the Cheltenham Gold Cup in the intervening season. First Gold, primarily due to the Doumen factor, was second favourite ahead of the likes of Edredon Bleu and the strong Irish fancy, Florida Pearl. A prolific winner and ultra consistent sort, Florida Pearl had twice been placed in the Cheltenham Gold Cup after winning the Sun Alliance Novice Chase the year before that and confidence couldn’t have been higher. Florida Pearl would win this race the following season and Edredon Bleu would be victorious in it two years after that.
From flag fall for a circuit and a half, Edredon Bleu set the pace from Beau with See More Business and First Gold racing side by side as Florida Pearl tracked them a few lengths away. Half way down the back straight on the final circuit Edredon Bleu came under pres-
sure and in an instant Thierry Doumen, the trainer’s son and regular jockey of First Gold, sent his charge into the lead, jumping in magnificent style. Before the home turn, See More Business had also cried enough and only Florida Pearl now looked happy behind the leading pair. Turning in and Beau soon beat the retreat while Bellator came storming out of the pack to take an eventual, and distant, third place. Up front First Gold still led as Florida Pearl closed to within a length on the rails yet that was as close as he would ever get. First Gold soared over the third last, opening up a four length lead, sprinted to the next, stood off almost outside the wings and suddenly he was six lengths clear, flew down towards the last now eight lengths ahead, pinged that at speed and passed the post ten clear of Florida Pearl who in turn put eleven lengths between himself and his nearest challenger. Without doubt this was an exhilarating performance and First Gold, the champion of France was now rightly hailed as a superstar in England too.
Into the new year and the Marquesa accepted a substantial offer for First Gold from the legendary JP McManus, ▲ brokered by Sir Peter O’Sullivan, long time friend of both parties. McManus also bought the exceptionally talented hurdler, Baracouda, at the same time, with both horses staying in France with Doumen.
First Gold’s second performance in England didn’t quite go to plan in a high quality Aon Chase at Newbury six weeks later. Thierry Doumen, like many other French jockeys over obstacles, wasn’t held in very high regard this side of the Channel and was roundly criticised for getting beaten close home by Shotgun Willy with the classy Kingsmark next best, be it nearly 30 lengths adrift of the front two.
In any language First Gold had the Cheltenham Gold Cup at his mercy and would only need to turn up to claim the crown and reinforce the exalted status he was already held in. Yet in exceptional circumstances he was robbed of the chance to add his name indelibly to the Blue Riband roll of honour as foot and mouth disease ruled out the entire meeting.
The obvious next step was therefore Aintree and the Martell Cup over 3m1f and another meeting with the second favourite, See More Business, and the King George third placed horse, Bellator. This time the See More Business tactics were to dictate the race from the front and all went well to start with, leading by a handful of lengths from First Gold over the first four fences. By the fifth First Gold had drawn alongside and a few fences later he had his head in front, continually taking a length out of See More Business at every obstacle. It was then just a case of keeping the pressure on as one by one the opposition faded away while First Gold jumped fast and clean out in front. By the home turn a challenger appeared on the scene, the McCoy ridden Legal Right, a strongly fancied 4/1 chance who had won his previous four races prior by a total of over 50 lengths. Going easily battle was joined, at least briefly.
First Gold never put a foot wrong the whole way round, his speed and accuracy taking two lengths out of Legal Right at the next and four more at the one after. Long before the final fence it was all over, First Gold coasting to a comfortable ten length success with Legal Right paying for his audacity a further eight lengths back in third. Although scant consolation for the cancelled
Cheltenham Gold Cup it was abundantly clear that First Gold was nothing short of a Goliath of the turf and the legend was sealed.
That at least is the mythical perception, yet the truth could hardly be more stark. It would be a full two years and nine races before First Gold would win again. The 2003 Martell Cup saw First Gold start at longer odds than all bar one of the field of seven but he rolled back the years in exemplary fashion. Leading from the second fence he ran and jumped a high class field into submission as the likes of Lady Cricket, Commanche Court, Valley Henry and Marlborough were put to the sword.
Proving this was no fluke, First Gold ran next in the Punchestown Gold Cup and repeated the feat, favourite this day as past exploits were remembered – and he didn’t let them down. Leading strongly from the moment the starter dropped his flag, First Gold jumped superbly and smashed Rince Ri, Native Upmanship, Florida Pearl and the rest into submission long before he crossed the line in splendid isolation. He would never win another race.
From 15 more starts a close third to Edredon Bleu in the 2003 King George and fifth to Best Mate in that season’s Gold Cup were the highlights.
First Gold ran his last race at the age of 13 before retirement to Ireland with all of JP McManus’ other old warriors. Less than five years later, in January 2011 First Gold contracted laminitis and had to be put down. It was a sad loss to the racing world.
A champion in France, First Gold captured the imagination of British racing in just two incredible races and his reputation was assured forever. To think he would only win twice more in 25 races is equally incredible, but what spectacular victories they were. His standing may exceed his lifetime achievements but no one can dispute that on his day First Gold was one of the best.