Gallic Glory in the King George VI Chase

24th December 2019

When the French trained 9 year old bay Nupsala completed the first circuit of the 1987 King George VI Chase few would have predicted the 25/1 shot would topple the even money favourite and reigning champion Desert Orchid.    Even fewer members of the racing circle would have foreseen the Gallic Glory in the King George VI Chase which trainer François Doumen would have over the next decade.

This week’s blog looks back at François Doumen success as a trainer in the King George VI, including his 5 victories between 1987 and 2000. Immediately after the race on television John Francome said “it will be great for racing this because there will be plenty of French trainers fancying their chances now.   They will be coming over in droves.”   Though as it turned out as François said “it was only me”.

Was the King George a race you had followed as a youngster and always wanted to win?

Not at all.  As a young amateur riding mostly on the flat, English National Hunt racing was not on my radar.  Even though I also worked with my dual purpose trainer father Jean, who first handled Mandarin when he arrived from the Hennessy stud farm.   Along with The Fellow he is the only horse to win the Englsh and French Gold Cups (Grand Steeplechase de Paris).

Then I went to South Africa and I was rather more keen to play Polo on ex racehorses..

Mandarin won the King George VI Chase in 1957 and 1959.

Nupsala on gallops Nupsala ridden by Xavier Doumen

Was Nupsala the first horse you sent over to the Britain and Ireland to run and had you planned to come over several months before?

I had trained Double Bed to finish 2nd behind Park Express in the  1986 Irish Champion Stakes but yes Nupsala was the first National Hunt horse I had sent over the Channel.

Nupsala hated the soft ground.  He was running very well in the spring at Auteuil and had finished 2nd In Grand Steeple-Chase de Paris but in October I had to find places he could run but my only concern was the ground.

Oliver Sherwood came to visit to buy the horse but when he saw his conformation he changed his mind.  Meanwhile, he told me that Kempton was a basic track with good ground unless it rains on the day.

Nupsala King George with QM The Queen Mother presenting the trophy to Francois after Nupsala's win in 1987

What did you think his chances were of beating the mighty Desert Orchid, who was going for a repeat victory in the race?

They were no comparison at that stage between the English and the French. They never met.  The English weren’t coming to France.  I had a bit of fight I remember with The Duke (David Nicholson) saying we had no jumps in France.  You jump through everything he said!

They went madly fast, the commentators kept on saying so.  Desert Orchid was such a big big champion at the time.  Nupsala was a very solid jumper who was a common looking horse transformed in movement.

5th after the first circuit Nupsala drew alongside the leader Desert Orchid as they entered the home straight. The French raider took the lead at the second last and went on to win by 15 lengths ahead of a very tired Dessie.

Nupsala became the first French trained chaser to win in England sine L’Empereur at Wincanton in 1963.

After that did you target the race and as well as other raids across the channel? 

I had to plan their runs in France and then arrive with them fresh for Kempton.  The weather gets very bad in France in December.  We normally get one meeting in early December but there is no jump racing again in Paris until March.

Did you come over on race day or a few days before?

I came over a week before and was invited to stay at Oliver Sherwood’s yard. We had good preparation.  We came over by ferry with the possibility that the Captain of the boat would say it was too rough.    One year that happened and we had to fly the next day with The Fellow.

The Fellow Remittance Man (left) leads The Fellow at the 2nd last in 1991.

Who do you think was the best of your 5 winners?

Without hesitation Francois said The Fellow and he proved it.  He was amazing. He was a very respectful jumper.

The Fellow won the King George VI Chase in 1991 (as a 6 year old) and 1992.  He was also 3rd in 1990 and 1993.   The Fellow won the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1994 after finishing 2nd in 1991 and 1992.

Francois also trained Algan (1994) and First Gold (2000) to success in the King George VI Chase.

You must miss coming over to Kempton at Christmas

Of course I do.  Though I usually end the year in South African sun  now.  What I have replaced it with is a four day trip to the Cheltenham Festival with Thierry and my grandson Jules, born the day his father rode Baracouda to victory in the Stayers Hurdle and now an amateur rider himself.  I love the irreplaceable ambience at Cheltenham.

We would like to thank François and Elizabeth for their help with this blog and for their photos.

Action photo of The Fellow courtesy of Ed Byrne.

Blog by Stephen Wallis

If you enjoyed this blog and would like to learn more about the fascinating history of horseracing, why not visit Palace House, Newmarket. Tickets here