Hardly any other Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe contender has made a louder splash in the French non-racing press these last few years than LONGINES Hong Kong Cup hope Saonois.
Every possible ingredient of a fairytale was in the back-story of the one-time claimer made Derby winner, conditioned by a modest, provincial trainer, for a baker who bought his first racehorse online. The fact that the three-year-old’s owners, Pascal Treyve and his trainer Jean-Pierre Gauvin, refused a multi-million Euro offer from the prominent Al-Thani family of Qatar further enthused the French racing mob, always happy to back Cinderella versus the Royals of the Turf.
No one would have bet a dollar – let alone 25,000 Euro – on Saonois’s chances of reaching such heights when he started unassumingly as a two-year-old in June 2011 at Lyon-Parilly racecourse, near the Chazey training centre where Jean-Pierre Gauvin’s stables stand. Yet the brave little bay began with a few places and then won at his fourth attempt on Deauville’s fibresand track in a modest claimer. Anybody there that day could have bought him for a minimum 25,000 Euro, but no one bothered to make an offer.
So the story is that Saonois really started to make a name for himself after that first victory. He spent the winter in Cagnes-sur-mer, on the French Riviera, and thrived to take one of the few Listed races at that meeting, the Prix Policeman, by no less than four lengths.
That race he won at Cagnes is named after a horse who went on from there to capture the French Derby, the Prix du Jockey Club, back in 1980. Since then however, no Derby winner had followed such a path and Saonois’s triumph seemed not good enough to make anybody think that it would be any different this season. Jean-Pierre Gauvin ignored that and took the colt to Longchamp for the first of the French Derby prep races. Saonois obliged in first, then came fourth, but his fighting spirit was such that he convinced his connections to enter him in the Prix du Jockey Club.
That day at Chantilly, from a terrible 16 draw, it looked as if the bet was lost with a furlong to go, as Saonois was boxed in near the rail in the depths of a 20-strong field. Yet in his characteristic way, the little horse pushed his way through rivals and snatched the 1.4 million Euro prize, owners’ premiums included, beating the collective might of Godolphin, the Wertheimers and the Aga Khan in a dash.
After a summer break came another win in Longchamp’s Arc prep race, the G2 Prix Niel, his first attempt over 2,400 metres; there was the Al-Thani offer, the refusal from Treyve and Gauvin, and the payment of 100,000 Euro to supplement the colt in the 2012 Qatar Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. On deep ground, Saonois was never going to give his best in Europe’s late season showpiece and our hero was eased to finish down the field.
Gauvin then announced that the LONGINES Hong Kong Cup was very much on the colt’s agenda. A last piece of work on Friday over Lyon-La Soie’s fibersand track boosted the connections’ confidence for the Hong Kong mission.
“It was a good gallop,” said Gauvin. We have opted for the Cup because 10 furlongs is his best trip. His rider Antoine Hamelin agrees with us on that. Saonois reminds me of 2009 HK Cup winner Vision d’Etat. The horse struggled a bit with the pace in the last bend but he came back on the other horses. All we need is a good pace and room for a fight.”
For the baker and the former claimer, Hong Kong could be that fairytale city where the dream journey reaches a golden reality.
Report and photo courtesy of Hong Kong Jockey Club.