HORSES AND THE NEED TO LOVE THEM
The author of a very rare ‘training’ double after landing consecutive editions of the Qatar Derby des Pur-sang Arabes de 4 ans (Gr. I PA) thanks to Nafees (2017) and Rodess du Loup (2018), the Pau-based Charles Gourdain again proved himself to be a dab hand when it comes to handling Purebred Arabians. He’s passionate about horses who also provide him with the ‘feel good’ factor.
The French Purebred Arabian. – What were your personal recollections of winning the Qatar Derby des Pur-sang Arabes de 4 ans for the second successive season?
Charles Gourdain. – It was a magical moment taking into account the support provided by my family and a number of friends on the day. It’s always very satisfying to win a big race on behalf of owners who have placed their trust in you for a number of years.
Can you elaborate on why Rodess du Loup disappointed on his return?
Rodess du Loup won the French Arabian Breeders’ Challenge pour Poulains (Gr. II PA) last year at Toulouse, but he was very disappointing on his seasonal debut. Despite wintering well, he wasn’t giving the same vibes in the lead-up to the race. He was sluggish and simply wasn’t giving of himself as he usually does. He clearly was in off mode. He normally gives generously of himself. However, his blood picture was excellent and, without doubt, he wasn’t quite in the same frame of mind mentally. This explains why he raced in blinkers which is a decision that I came to regret. Consequently, he finished fifth after pulling too hard and making too much use of himself. There aren’t many races for the four-year-old division. This was a race which the horse had been aimed at and we were clearly very disappointed by the outcome.
However, I believe that normal service was resumed in the Qatar Derby?
The horse had clearly perked up 24 hours after his race. He was on good terms with himself and had a good preparation. I was a bit harder on him and he did three consecutive bits of good work. He shone in the ‘Derby’ and, despite knowing that he would be competitive in these type of races, we hadn’t bargained for him winning so easily. To win a Group I race is never easy whatever the type of the horse. I told Christophe Soumillon to keep something up his ‘sleeve’ for the finish as he is a very hardy sort. One of his main attributes is that he loves a battle. On a light-hearted note, he has long, pointed ears which he tends to pin back in the heat of battle. He hit the front very early which gave us a bit of a scare, but the horses around him only served to spur him on. He won easily and Christophe never had to resort to the whip.
It must have been a win to savour for your training establishment after the 2017 success of Nafees?
It’s very uplifting to have found a successor. I hope that Nafees will continue to make a name for himself. It was disappointing that he got beaten [editor's note: second] at ParisLongchamp in The President of the UAE Cup - Coupe d’Europe des Chevaux Arabes (Gr. I PA), even if he emphasised yet again that he is a good horse.
What do you have in mind for Rodess du Loup now?
He’s a horse that we are going to keep under wraps so we won’t be heading to Goodwood to take on the older horses in the Qatar International Stakes (Gr. I PA). I’m thinking in terms of saving him for September and namely The President of the UAE Cup - UK Arabian Derby (Gr. I PA) at Doncaster: a race restricted to four-year-olds. He will then be aimed at the ParisLongchamp ‘showcase’ race (Qatar Arabian World Cup - Gr. I PA) on the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe card. He should get better with age.
And where will Nafees be heading?
He is being aimed at the Shadwell Dubai International Stakes (Gr. I PA) at Newbury.
How do your Derby winners Rodess du Loup and Nafees compare?
They are similar in the sense that both are champions. By the same token they are good natured and courageous horses. Both love to battle which isn’t a characteristic which you readily associate with Arabian horses, as there are many which shirk the issue. Rodess du Loup was bred at the Haras de Saint-Faust and he is cut from some very ‘good cloth’. He is also a very solid horse to boot. Bred at the Haras du Berlais on behalf of the Royal Stables of Oman, Nafees doesn’t have the best of confirmations but his courage and class enable him to overcome this. He’s docile in the mornings whereas Rodess du Loup is more hyped up, but the common thread linking them is a willingness to dig deep and battle.
Are these ‘fighting’ qualities the hallmark of the top horses?
Yes, for these type of horses can be held-up in a race and are able to deliver a wicked finishing kick.
What is your background as a trainer?
I’ve had the opportunity of working for some top ‘professionals’ far and wide as well as hailing from a family of race ‘riders’. My grandfather was a very good rider. My father, currently a France Galop steward, won the Prix Georges Courtois as a gentleman rider. I was therefore bitten by the racing bug when I was still very young. I completed the Irish National Stud course before working for His Highness The Aga Khan for several years. This was in a dual capacity which took in the breeding aspect before experiencing the training side under the aegis of John Oxx. Following that, I lived in the US for a number of years and worked for the Taylor Made Farm and Sales Agency – the biggest consignors at the US sales –, and then for Christophe Clément. Subsequent to this, I acted as assistant to Luca Cumani in England at a time when the stable won the Breeders’ Cup Mile (Gr. I) with Barathea and Only Royale ran fifth in the Arc de Triomphe (Gr. I). Both were very good horses. I then returned to France and acted as assistant to Alain de Royer Dupré before Jean-Claude Rouget took me on as trainee. Both the latter experiences preceded the issuing of my trainer’s licence.
Did working for Jean-Claude Rouget explain why you chose Pau as your training base?
Yes. My wife was born in the South West of France and we have very strong ‘family’ ties to the area. I also like the ambiance and training centre – although I initially set up shop at La Teste-de-Buch as there were no openings at Pau at the time.
How did you get involved in training Purebred Arabians?
I got good results and consequently the bloodstock agents came calling and wanted to know if I was interested in training Purebred Arabians. For several years now, the stable has been winning around 50 races per season with Purebred Arabians, Anglo-Arabians and Thoroughbreds both on the flat and over jumps. We like all types of horses. We have a passion for the horse in broad terms and it is possible to train all types of horses if you take an interest in the specific characteristics of each breed.
Arabian horses are at the same time intelligent and sensitive. I am grateful to agents such as Jean-Pierre Deroubaix and Gérard Larrieu, who gave me the opportunity to train them by giving me a vote of confidence. Once you begin to achieve, people start knocking at your door. Victories gained abroad have added kudos as owners like seeing their horses racing at the top international tracks. That is what I have liked about training Purebred Arabians as they offer many opportunities including long distance travel. Over the course of several years now, I’ve been to Britain, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Italy…We’ve had winners in all those countries but, above all, in Britain and namely: Windsor, Goodwood and Doncaster. It’s a fantastic racing nation where the sport is very well showcased at the highest level. The horses are well turned out, the tracks are lovely and the women are elegant too. If you like all that, you will love the ‘British’ experience.
Nafees won The President of the UAE Cup - UK Arabian Derby (Gr. I PA) in front of a 40,000 crowd at Doncaster. The ambiance on course in Britain is a unique one and the racing there is spectacle orientated. Neglecting the ‘festival’ and ‘aesthetic’ aspects of the sport is a big mistake. I’m clearly getting a little sidetracked…
To what to do you attribute the success you have had with Arabian horses? Feeling? Quality?
Yes, of course. It’s the quality of the horses which makes the difference and this applies to Arabian horses as well as Thoroughbreds, as I also train winners in the latter category. We mustn’t delude ourselves as I have been lucky to be able to train Nafees and Rodess du Loup in recent times. Even if you work to the best of your ability you invariably accomplish nothing with bad horses. We have had two good horses who have laid down their markers and there is more to come; invariably you need to know to look after them, as well as being ‘savvy’ when it comes to exploiting and managing their careers. Regarding the Purebred Arabian, you must try to keep their spirits high. For they are a sensitive breed and keeping them motivated is an important factor. They are domineering types and it is necessary to develop a close rapport with them.
How many Purebred Arabians do you have in your stable?
Around fifteen. I’ve quite a number of backward types and have noticed that many horses pertaining to this breed mature at the age of four.
Can you explain who owns the Purebred Arabians?
I’ve a fair cross section of owners which comprises breeders from the South-West of France and those hailing from the United Arab Emirates. Numerically speaking, other owners have more horses in training such as Sheail Bin Khalifa Al Kuwari, who owns a number of three-year-olds, and the Royal Stables of Oman.
You are also heavily involved in the domain of shared ownership of horses thanks to the work undertaken by your wife. How important is this for you?
It’s difficult to attract owners in the current climate. So sharing the risks can act as an incentive regarding taking the plunge and getting involved in racing. It can also act as a pathway to those who are new to the sport. It is important to undertake this work which goes hand in hand with organised events, an internet site which is both up to date and subsequently updated, and which embraces the concept of stable visits on a regular basis. We’ve been able to attract many new owners by deploying this strategy but it takes time. We’ve had two multiple ownership ventures which have proved successful: notably those associated with the achievements of Prince d’Alienor and Tradigraphie. Of course, it’s a lot easier when it comes to having an owner who entrusts you with ten horses, and is already au fait with the sport, but it is also our role to attract newcomers to the sport.
Would it be appropriate to say that the stable is run on family lines?
Naturally. I live on the premises and, as a family, we are surrounded by horses. I have five children and both Solange, 21, and Hubert, 17, have race riding experience with several wins under their belts. My daughter, Solange, also runs the 'Aux courses les jeunes' Association and is very passionate about the sport. Antoine, 14, and Jeanne, 9, are also planning on taking up the baton. You could say it is a family orientated enterprise which provides real stimulation. They take a real interest in what is happening at all levels of the sport. They also like to share their thoughts with family members and friends. This explains the sizeable presence of family members, friends and those involved in the sport on a shared ownership basis on the Prix de Diane card.
Is this awareness one of the conduits which will facilitate the renaissance of the sport of horse racing?
Yes and it’s a course of action which requires much work. For example, Solange, my older daughter, is working to this end via the 'Aux courses les jeunes' Association. She brings young graduates to the races, fully aware of their profile as potential future owners or as those wishing to get involved in racing.
The number of young people taking an interest in the sport starts to assume impressive proportions when you take the trouble to explain what the sport is about and invite them to go racing. The concept consists of laying down the foundations of a passion for the sport. This is with a view to reaping the harvest at a later date by attracting owners to the sport. It’s all a matter of sustainability.
We need to believe in youth and the current generation is a quality one. So we are full of hope. We try to do our best with our current string of horses and are passionate about what we do. We are also in it for the long haul and to live out your passion is a great thing. The toughest aspect is to stay the course and we have been doing that for 20 years.
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