James Du Berlais takes role of ‘dark horse’ in intriguing Champion Hurdle storyline
The Willie Mullins-trained horse will race for the first time outside of France at Cheltenham
Willie Mullins (right) and Cheltenham clerk of the course Simon Claisse on the gallops on Monday. Photograph: David Davies/PA Wire
More than half the field for Tuesday’s Unibet Champion Hurdle were bred in France.
They include the reigning title-holder Epatante and other major contenders such as Goshen, Sharjah and Abacadabras, whose form lines are an open book to punters.
It only serves to make the curious case of James Du Berlais even curiouser
Because here is a horse that has never won a Grade One race, never run in either Ireland or Britain yet lines up in a championship event off an official mark of 160 that puts him right in the mix.
It slots James Du Berlais into the role of ‘dark horse’ for this Champion Hurdle, with perhaps the most significant element of all being Willie Mullins’s readiness to give him such a shot at glory in the first place.
Such speculative shots to nothing are not the champion trainer’s style.
Keeping himself in the best of company and his horses in the worst is a mantra that has paid off at the festival a record-breaking 72 times. But here he is anyway.
It’s not like James Du Berlais is a total rabbit out of the hat.
He has run 13 times in his native France with just four wins to show for it. His previous start at Auteuil in November saw him beaten a nose in a Grade One as an odds-on favourite.
“We’d been watching James Du Berlais in France for the last 18 months and trying to buy him. They wouldn’t sell and they were looking for a lot of money,” Mullins said.
“Then out of the blue Simon and Isaac stepped in and did a deal with the trainer in France.
“The deal was for the horse to come over to Ireland after his four-year-old season was finished and that’s what happened. They rang me and asked would I like to train him – a very pleasant surprise to get that call!
Horses in France start so much earlier and horses like Kauto Star come over here still young and they’re way ahead of ours maturity-wise
“I was surprised when I saw his rating. That really puts him in the Champion Hurdle picture. He jumps, he stays – he’s got everything you want,” he added.
The impact of the best French-bred horses is stamped all over the last two decades of Cheltenham, from Kauto Star to Mullins stars such as Douvan and Vautour.
Underpinning it all is a readiness in France to get to work early when it comes to young jumpers.
“I was looking at a French three-year-old hurdle race the other day; that’s the first week in March. They were only two a few months ago. But they’re racing them over hurdles this early. So when they come over here they seem far more developed,” Ireland’s National Hunt handicapper Sandy Shaw considered.
“Horses in France start so much earlier and horses like Kauto Star come over here still young and they’re way ahead of ours maturity-wise,” he added.
Kauto Star’s old ally Ruby Walsh has had a close eye on James Du Berlais since his arrival from France and has described him as a horse “with a big reputation and a very high rating”.
Theoretically at least that rating – 2lbs superior to Abacadabras – puts this unknown factor right in the mix of today’s big race.
“I would have thought he wasn’t a two miler. He looks to me like more of a two and a half mile horse and a chaser,” said Shaw, who also pointed how five-year-olds can find it tough in a Champion Hurdle.
Espoir d’Allen in 2019 was the first of that age-group to win in over a decade. Significantly though that ill-fated star was French-bred too. And the impact of French horses has been such that an adjustment of the weight for age scale is imminent.
“He has very good form in France and he’s a horse I’m really looking forward to,” said Mullins, who often gives his new arrivals from the continent plenty of time to acclimatise but hasn’t opted to do so with this one. “I think he could be in the shake-up if he adapts to English hurdles.”
That’s a big ‘if.’ The fact James Du Berlais is being asked the question at all, however, combined with big odds, will have some betting the dark horse hits the spotlight.