French hopes riding on runty racehorse

By Catherine Field

At just 1.56m, Saonois does not even make it to the average height for a racehorse.

His rider is a 21-year-old. His owner is Pascal Treyve, a village baker from "la France profonde" who stumped up a few thousand bucks to live the dream of being a racehorse owner.

Yet on Monday, Saonois will take on the cream of the thoroughbreds - 17 mounts owned by Arabian, Persian and European nobility, schooled by the top European trainers and ridden by celebrated jockeys - in one of the world's most prestigious races.

Just 2400m separates the horse with a big heart from snatching the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, Europe's premiere season-ending race.

At the start of this year, you would have been considered a mug to even think of betting on its chances, for the bookies gave the odds at 500-1. Now the chances of the bay colt bagging the €2.2 million (NZ$3.5 million) winners cheque have narrowed to 8-1.

Across France, an ember of hope has been fanned into a flame. The last time a horse which was bred, owned and trained in France won the Prix de l'Arc was way back in 1998. Can Saonois break the curse?

"I get the impression that the whole of France wants us to win, is hoping we win.

It could be a belle histoire," Treyve, 35, told the Weekend Herald.

Behind the fervour is an extraordinary account of a horse which was refused a place at bloodstock auctions because he was too small, and a rural baker who decided to put whatever money he had on at least trying to see a fairytale come true.

Saonois was bought privately by trainer Jean-Pierre Gauvin in 2011 for just €8000. Gauvin invited his baker friend Pascal Treyve to become a part owner and the partnership was sealed. The horse that stood no chance galloped towards glory, slithering between minute gaps in the closing stages of races to qualify for Monday's showdown. He has won seven of his 13 starts and been placed in the others.

His victories include the Prix de Jockey Club, which he followed by beating two big names owned by the Aga Khan in the prestigious Prix de l'Arc trial Prix Niel race last month. After being derided as "le petit provincial," Saonois is now feted as a Porsche of a Horse with €1.7 million in winnings to his name.

Local support for Saonois is fierce in Bellegarde-en-Forez, a village of 1833 souls in the Loire. So many people bet on the horse for the Jockey Club race that the local bookmakers ran out of cash when it came to the payout.

Emissaries of the Sheikh Joaan bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani of Qatar beat a path to Bellegarde-en-Forez to offer as much as €7 million if the colt would run in the royal colours. Treyve and Gauvin turned down the cash.

If Saonois claims the trophy on the fabled greensward of Longchamp, there will be millions to applaud the feat, and some of them will say the age of miracles is not yet past.

- NZ Herald

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