Victories with Almanzor in the Jockey Club, La Cressonniere in the Pouliches and Diane, Qemah in the Coronation Stakes and Zelzal in the Prix Jean Prat, have made summer 2016 the most successful of your career. What does it mean to be top of the training tree in Europe?
It is the reward for 45 years of hard work and perseverance. We have come from having a few jumpers and it has been a tough journey because racing in Europe is very competitive. I know this year has been quite exceptional, but we try every year to look for the top horses – it does not always work out. Last year I had only two Group horses and maybe next year I’ll have nothing, though of course I hope not.
You can go up in the racing world and then come down very easily. You always have to remember that. The memories that stand out are those first winners, particularly Millkom’s Group 1s in the 1994 Prix Jean Prat and Grand Prix de Paris, and my first Group 1 in England, the 2007 Champion Stakes with Literato.
While you are now recognised as an elite trainer, it was not always the case, despite saddling so many winners. Did Millkom, the horse that took you from the provinces to the Paris tracks, help change your image among the racing fraternity?
I think I can say I broke the system, thanks to Millkom. He set up a sequence of ten wins, starting with six in the provinces, and then came to Paris to win four Group races. He brought us to Paris and made such a big change in our lives because before Millkom we thought it was impossible to compete with the Chantilly trainers.
There was such a large ‘ditch’ between Paris and the provinces, but we showed that we could train a Classic horse in Pau. Before, all the good yearlings were going to Chantilly, but now more are coming to Pau. The change in the system was a big event for all the trainers in the provinces.
After that many of them were trying and realised that improving the quality of their horses was the way forward. In England you don’t have such a difference between Newmarket and the other training centres.
You have trained some big winners for the Aga Khan, including the ill-fated Valyra and Ervedya, both top-class fillies, and Behkabad. Has his support helped to take your career to a new level?
Of course when the Aga Khan decided to send horses to be trained in Pau it was big recognition for us. The last 20 years we have had between 180 and 250 horses and that hasn’t changed, but it is very important to have the big owner-breeders. The Aga Khan came to me after he had bought the Jean-Luc Lagardere bloodstock operation because I had been training some of the Lagardere horses.
The Aga Khan sent me some yearlings and that was the start. Since then we have received horses from Sheikh Joaan’s Al Shaqab Racing and the recent success with Qemah, Zelzal and Al Wathna in the sheikh’s colours has meant a lot to us.
Last year I had only two Group horses and maybe next year I’ll have nothing, though of course I hope not
Unlike many high-profile French trainers who are based in Chantilly, you are stationed in Pau, some 800 kilometres away. What benefits does your location offer and do they outweigh the travelling you must do to compete at the top level?
There is a very good climate in Pau, particularly for the horses. We have no wind; it is a quiet environment and a good ambience for the staff, which is very important. It is a long way to travel to Paris but the roads have improved so much with motorways all the way.
It is 12 hours with the big van to Chantilly and ten with the smaller van, Longchamp is about an hour and a half less. The trip to Deauville is 12 hours but we stay there for the meeting in August.
Starting horses’ careers in the provinces used to be an advantage and help in building their confidence, but nowadays racing in the provinces is more competitive than it used to be and a horse could have a harder introduction at Bordeaux than at, say, Chantilly or Saint-Cloud.
You had a satellite yard at Chantilly for two years in 1996 and 1997 but decided to move back to Pau. What made you return south?
It was very difficult for the staff to live in Chantilly for nine months of the year and it was also difficult to organise gallops for the horses because at the time we were limited to stabling just 25 horses there. So we moved back to Pau and started travelling regularly backwards and forwards again. However, we are considering having a satellite yard at Deauville next year from May to October, the Arc weekend.
Will we be seeing Almanzor in the Juddmonte International at York, or, later in the year, the Champion Stakes, a race you won in 2007 with the three-year-old Literato?
I am thinking of taking Almanzor to Deauville for the Prix Guillaume d’Ornano, then to Leopardstown for the Irish Champion Stakes and after that to Ascot for the Champion Stakes on Champions Day.
That’s the plan, but you know it can change! Literato was tough and so is Almanzor, both with good temperaments. Literato was a small horse with a big action; Almanzor has more scope and is bigger.
With some 250 horses, you train one of the biggest string in Europe. There must be a lot of pressure and stress with such large numbers. What is the secret of being able to oversee such a large stable so successfully?
It is all a question of organisation and I love to organise everything. I have built up a strong and serious team of staff. It is a pleasure to work with them all.
The lads love their horses and are a big part of the success. I have three yards with a head lad in each, two assistants who started with me as 17-year-olds and have been with me ever since.
One is Millkom’s former jockey, Jean Rene Dubosc and the other Jean-Bernard Roth, who has been my travelling head lad for a long time. I feel the pressure less and less, but of course it is difficult when you are faced with horses’ physical problems and injuries. But thankfully we don’t have too many, partly because of the way we train – not too slow and not too fast, just in the middle.
Prize-money in France is far better than in England and attracts strong raiding parties from the British Isles and Ireland. Will the weaker pound, as a result of the recent ‘Brexit’ referendum, mean even more runners from the UK competing in France?
I don’t think so. Your horses always come over for Deauville and the other big races here and I can’t see there being much change, also we will continue to compete for your top prizes.
When there is a strong pound it can be better for us to buy in euros at the sales in Ireland, but some owners just prefer to buy at Newmarket and maybe more will come to the Deauville sales if there is a weaker pound. At the moment I don’t think we can anticipate any noticeable difference as a result of your referendum vote.
Your father managed a Normandy stud and later was training in Brittany at the time you were working for Paul Cole and Ian Balding. Did the training side always appeal to you more than the breeding?
The breeding side had been all that I knew, but when my father Claude started to train in 1967 it was a new life for me. He went to Pau every winter for the big jump meetings and I went down there with him and I discovered it was better to be in the south of France than staying in England in winter!
That was the beginning of my association with Pau. Sadly, my father died in 2009, which had been my best year up to then, winning three Paris Classics.
I have built up a strong and serious team of staff. It is a pleasure to work with them all
My grandmother on my father’s side was Scottish and I used to go to Bournemouth and Brighton with her on vacation. Then I spent time with Paul Cole and Ian Balding and every time you go to a new place you learn something else. I was always keeping an eye on what was going on at their stables and trying to anticipate what the trainers would do in certain situations. It is difficult to explain in detail, but I always find it is important to watch out for everything around you so you are learning all the time.
Do you see a big cultural difference between racing in France, where crowds are so sparse, and England, where attendances are much higher?
We always go racing to the big meetings in England in summer so I don’t know what it’s like at other meetings, particularly in winter. Some of our smaller meetings, like in Brittany, can be very enjoyable. But I do prefer to race in England.
I did say after Qemah won the Coronation Stakes that Royal Ascot has the best racing in the world, and it does, because it attracts horses from all round the world. French and English racing have a greater variety than American racing, which I don’t like very much because it is always the same, similar tracks and galloping left-handed – a bit monotonous.
If I have to name my favourite racecourse it would be Deauville; I always think of it as my garden! Also my horses seem to run well there, I don’t know why.
You started with ten jumpers in 1978 in Pau and switched to the Flat in 1992. Why did you forsake jumpers for Flat horses?
I did train some Flat horses at the beginning but I stopped training jumpers in 1992 because I had only 15, whereas there were 100-plus Flat horses in the yard. My jockey had suffered a knee injury, decided to train and so I passed the jumpers on to him. Another reason was the jumpers are always prone to injury, more so than Flat horses, particularly with tendon problems.
You are known as a good judge of a horse, buying stars like Literato for £40,000 and Le Havre and Almanzor for £100,000. Can you explain what you look for in a horse at the sales?
Some horses are ‘speaking’ to you and others are not. It is a question of having a feeling about certain horses. I don’t want to explain because there are secrets I want to keep for myself!
I prefer to look at the conformation and see if the make-up of the animal suits what I want, rather than going through the pedigree. My maximum price is usually £100,000; I don’t like to go any more and I don’t use any vetting.
At this stage what are your plans for the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe?
La Cressonniere has the Arc as her target, but first she runs in the Prix de la Nonette and we’ll see after Deauville. Mekhtaal is another Arc possible.
Mekhtaal is very quiet, but a good horse and I am not anxious about his disappointing eighth in the Prix du Jockey Club because there was something wrong at the last minute and he just did not run his race.
You have won countless big races, French trainers’ titles, hold the record for victories in a season, and passed 6,000 winners with Zelzal in April. What else would you like to achieve in this sport?
To continue being sent top yearlings, and to continue training a string as good as I have this year. I would also like to enter the ‘big circle’ alongside Aidan O’Brien, John Gosden and Andre Fabre.