French-trained winners on Boxing Day at Kempton Park were once a reasonably frequent occurrence. This was largely thanks to Francois Doumen, who saddled five winners of the feature King George VI Chase between 1987 and 2000.
Doumen also saddled a winner of the contest what is now run as the Grade One Ladbrokes Kauto Star Novices’ Chase in 1996 with Djeddah, while the same race was also won by the Guillaume Macaire-trained Jair du Cochet in 2002.
This year the French flag is set to be flown in the contest by Il Est Francais. The five-year-old is trained at Chantilly jointly by Noel George, son of Grade One-winning UK-based trainer Tom George and Swedish-born Amanda Zetterholm.
The five-year-old has quickly established himself as a performer of rare ability. A Grade One winner over hurdles, the son of Karaktar has been very impressive in winning his two starts to date over fences, most recently scoring by 11 lengths at Auteuil on November 12th.
Explaining the decision to come to Britain with their stable star, Noel George said: “As he is part-owned by Richard Kelvin-Hughes, we were always looking to compete with him in the UK at some stage.
“We thought it would be best for him early on in his chase career to compete over English-style fences, so he has learned it before he has developed the tendency to jump like a real French chaser.
“You ask any trainer if they buy a French-trained horse and bring it to Britain, a lot of them can flick through the top of the fences quite a bit - that is what they are taught to do as in France they are racing obstacles that have to jumped like that.
“I therefore wanted him to learn to back off and jump an English-type fence. France-Galop has provided us with three made-to-measure fences like those at Kempton. They are two plain fences and a ditch and are situated about seven minutes away from us. He is going to school over them next week.
“I think Kempton Park will suit him very well and this race looks a nice opportunity.
“It was very soft when he won last time but knowing Kempton, it never gets very, very soft. He has got a high cruising speed and has a slick jumping style which I think will definitely suit the track at Kempton. The step up to three miles should not be an issue at all for him.
“When you have a certain class of horse in France, you can only really run at Auteuil. He is a very straightforward horse who has travelled a lot to go away for grass gallops. He is very professional and will travel over with a companion, his neighbour at home, so he should be nice and settled.
“I don’t see travelling being an issue and Kempton I think is the closest track to the Channel Tunnel so he doesn’t have to go too far!
“I think he is very adaptable. I would be more confident on heavy ground but good ground would not be an issue at all.
“James Reveley will ride him. He knows the horse very well and know Kempton well. He was second in this race on Tazbar (2009, behind Long Run) who was trained by his father Keith.”
Despite being jointly-owned by a British person and trained by a pair of non-French people, George insists Il Est Francais will very be representing France on Boxing Day.
He continued: “It would be a complete dream to win. His main target this year is the French Gold Cup (Grand Steeple-Chase de Paris) in May but to win a race at Kempton Park on Boxing Day, which is one of the biggest days of the year, would be very special.
“He has English (Richard Kelvin-Hughes) and French (Haras De Saint-Voir) owners and I think he is hopefully capable of performing at the highest level in both countries.
“He will by flying the French flag at Kempton, we are not French but he is a French-bred horse and trained in France. He is our best horse and fingers crossed he can show us what he is made of.”
George also makes no secret of the regard is which he holds Il Est Francais.
He continued: “He is the best horse I’ve ever had anything to do with. He is unbelievable. Dad has had some very good ones including Black Op who was beaten a neck when second in this race (in 2019) but Il Est Francais is something very special.
“I talk to dad every day. He gives me his advice and we chat away. A lot of the horses have holidays and pre-training with dad and he is a real backbone of our operation and heavily involved.
“He worked for Francois Doumen at the time when he was bringing over horses like The Fellow for the King George and has given advice on how to train him for a race in the UK. We feel it’s the right time for the horse.”
George also revealed that recent Fontainebleau winner All In You would be likely to head to Kempton Park on December 27th for the ladbrokeslive.co.uk To Win Free Music Tickets 'Introductory' Juvenile Hurdle while the J P McManus-owned Milan Tino could head to Festival Trials Day at Cheltenham next month.