Mid Dancer bids for Auteuil immortality
Preview: France, Sunday (2.15pm BST)
Auteuil: Gras Savoye Grand Steeple-Chase de Paris (Group 1 Chase) 3m5f, 5yo+
MID DANCER (Christophe Aubert/Sylvain Dehez) earned himself legendary status in these parts 12 months ago when joining Hyeres III and Katko as the only three-time winners of France's greatest steeplechase.
Aubert has followed exactly the same path this season with the 12-year-old, who won his first Grand-Steep' as far back as 2007 when trained by Arnaud Chaille-Chaille.
Apart from the horse himself, the only constant fixture throughout Mid Dancer's career has been Herve Barjot, who acted first as racing manager to Sean Mulryan and latterly director of owners Pegasus Stables.
It was announced earlier this week that Mid Dancer would be carrying the colours of Michel Delazun for the first time but Barjot remains intimately involved with the veteran star.
"He's 12 as everyone knows but he's very well," Barjot reported at Chantilly on Friday. "He ran very well on his comeback over hurdles and then we were a little disappointed with his return to chasing but, it transpired there was a reason as he had a minor virus, which he's now over. He's ready for the big day, which is always a very tough challenge but which we've been gearing him towards from way back. It's a high quality field with four or five really top opponents but I think he has a chance."
Those who witnessed last year's historic renewal will recall that Mid Dancer was a long way behind entering the back straight, before no fewer than five of the seven horses in front of him fell at the fearsome Rail Ditch fence.
It is therefore tempting to believe that a year later, the reigning champion could once again be struggling to keep tabs on those with younger legs.
Chief among the upstarts is Bel La Vie (Guillaume Macaire/Bertrand Lestrade), who was classy enough over hurdles to chase home Thousand Stars in the Grande Course de Haies two seasons ago.
The Papot family's seven-year-old has enjoyed a near-perfect preparation, winning two of the four major trails en route to Sunday's test.
"All the lights are green, now we need some luck," said Macaire, who has a sole victory to his name in the French Gold Cup courtesy of Arenice in 1996. "He's a very good jumper but he needs to avoid getting caught up with any incidents in a big field like this."
Like most of his rivals Bel La Vie will be facing the marathon trip for the first time but Macaire doesn't believe lack of stamina will be his undoing.
He said: "I don't see him having any trouble with the trip. It's the same for all of them except the two previous winners as well as Lagunak, who won the Prix Haye le Jousselin over a long distance, they're all trying 5,800m for the first time. But you should remember that we've already tested his stamina when he was second in the Grande Course de Haies two years ago."
While Bel La Vie took the Prix Troytown and Prix Ingre, the other two major prep races, the Prix Robert de Clermont Tonnerre and the Prix Murat, both fell to Farlow Des Mottes (Francois Nicolle/Benoit Gicquel).
The stats are against a five-year-old winning the race, with only two previous winners from that age group in the last 20 years, although few have come into the Grand Steeple-Chase with such a progressive profile.
Lagunak (Yannick Fouin/Jeremy da Silva) is likely to provide the strongest market opposition to Bel La Vie, having landed Auteuil's other all-age Group 1, the Prix Haye la Jousselin.
Having just got the better of Mid Dancer in his comeback over hurdles, he was given a noticeably easy time of it behind Bel La Vie in the Ingre
Trainer Jean-Paul Gallorini will set a modern-day record by saddling five of the sixteen runners, headed by last season's runner-up Shannon Rock, who will be ridden by David Cottin just ten days after the champion fractured a collar-bone.
Of his remaining quartet, Nathalie Desoutter has a fine record aboard ex-claimer Quarouso, while Kotkieglote (Thierry Majorcryk) would be dangerous to dismiss if putting in a clear round of jumping.
Philip Carberry will aim to add to his success in the race seven years ago and rides Pibrac, who was a brave second to Farlow Des Mottes in the Murat and is one of three representatives for Carberry's boss Francois Cottin.
2010 hero Polar Rochelais (Patrice Quinton/Jerome Zuliani) joins Mid Dancer as the only previous winner of the race.
Quinton had called time on his stable star's career last September but, after not taking to a quiet retirement, Polar Rochelais showed plenty of his old spark when beaten just three quarters of a length on his comeback.