YES­TER­DAY’S HERO

Gra­ham Bud­dry looks at the short but spec­tac­u­lar form burst en­joyed by top class French-bred First Gold

Racing Ahead - - CONTENTS -

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.

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