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Monday, 21 January, 2019

What are the key themes and questions for the season ahead?

Cracksman lit up the grand reopening of the redeveloped Longchamp
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The Poules d’Essais marks the start of what might be considered the real heart of the Parisian racing season, with nine Group 1s on the Flat unfurling between now and the national Bastille Day holiday on July 14, as well as the richly endowed Grand Steeple-Chase de Paris jumping festival at Auteuil on May 19 and 20.

Here are a few key questions and themes that could underwrite the year ahead.

Will the return to Longchamp benefit French trainers?

It might seem an almost absurd conceit but the reopening of the re-christened ParisLongchamp can be likened to a football club returning to its home ground after several years of a ground share.

Trainers in France grow up having its unique contours and dimensions ingrained as the proving ground for their horses – 17 of the country's 27 Group 1s are staged there – and there will be plenty of observers who believe that there was more than mere coincidence at play when foreign raiders made off with 12 out of the 14 Group 1 prizes over the two Arc weekends relocated to Chantilly.

Longchamp lays several traps for inexperienced visiting jockeys and, with the exception perhaps of Frankie Dettori, few British or Irish-based riders approach a race in the Bois de Boulogne with the same degree of confidence as the local cracks. 

Who are the British and Irish trainers to watch on their French raids?

Martyn Meade is quickly emerging as a Francophile and his flag-bearers in 2017, Aclaim and Eminent, both enjoyed their finest days here, while Chilean wasted little time in cementing the relationship last month.

Richard Fahey (left) has enjoyed some of his biggest triumphs in France
Four of Richard Fahey’s seven Group 1 successes have come in France and he too struck early this year with Sands Of Mali, while Yorkshire-based neighbours Karl Burke and Kevin Ryan are also adept at targeting the top French prizes.

And then there are also those who know the France Galop programme book almost as well as the BHA’s and buy horses specifically to race here: think Harry Dunlop, Stan Moore and Gay Kelleway on the Flat, and Nick Williams over jumps.

Oh, and a certain Willie Mullins loves his spring trips to Auteuil...

Which women are profiting from the weight allowance for female jockeys?

The first thing to note is that, a year into the experiment, the blanket allowance for women was modified from 2kg (4.4lb) to 1.5kg (3.3lb) on March 1 this year.

Mickaelle Michel has emerged as a genuine star since the introduction of the measure and, having led the title race during the opening months of the year, remains fourth in the table behind messrs Soumillon, Boudot and Guyon.

Coralie Pacaut is also making a name for herself under the new regime, while Maryline Eon continues to enjoy the backing of trainer Alain Couetil and could add to her debut Group 1 appearance in last season’s Prix de Diane.

Maryline Eon rode in her first Classic in 2017
There are currently seven women among the top 50 in the championship and if you are watching or visiting a meeting in France, the allowance will have a big bearing on all races below Class 1, as well as the back form of any horses that have run below that level and are running in the feature events.

Will De Bon Coeur bring the Anglo-Irish hurdlers down to earth?

Francois Nicolle’s mare of a lifetime tasted defeat on her first try over an extended trip last month but will still be a formidable obstacle for L’Ami Serge, Yorkhill and company in the Grande Course de Haies (French Champion Hurdle), which this year is run on the same day as the Grand Steeple-Chase de Paris (May 20).

Up until her reverse at the hands of stablemate Alex De Larredya, the daughter of Vision D’Etat had looked unstoppable and it may be that the three miles of the Grande Course won’t be a problem on the day that really matters.

Should her stamina once again prove suspect, one intriguing thought is that Nicolle and the mare’s owners, Jacques Detre and the Haras de Saint-Voir, could be tempted by a crack at one of British racing’s Grade 1 prizes over a shorter trip.

Is there a French-trained horse to rival Saxon Warrior, Enable or Cracksman?

Time will tell but you don't need a particularly long memory to remember Almanzor or Treve dominating European racing over middle distances. 

Study Of Man and Stephane Pasquier return to the Saint-Cloud winners' enclosure after landing the Group 2 Prix Greffulhe
The cupboard might be a little bare among the older horses but Study Of Man already looks a fine prospect for whichever version of the Derby he tackles, while Wootton (or whichever horse beats him in the Poule d'Essai des Poulains) could have a major impact on the miling division.

Among the fillies, watch out for the Freddy Head-trained With You when she makes her seasonal reappearance, as well as the regally-bred Zarkamiya, who next week auditions for the Prix de Diane.

If you are interested in this, you should read:

After two years away it's time to get racing at renamed ParisLongchamp

The first real day of spring and French racing is back in its rightful home

'Professional' Cracksman saunters to easy Ganay success under Dettori


You don't need a particularly long memory to remember Almanzor or Treve dominating European racing over middle distances
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