By Samantha Martin (@sam_angelina22)
The prize money situation in Britain is one that everyone has their own opinion on and the Sophie Leech team decided to do something about it, acknowledging the much higher levels in France compared to England. Over the past twelve months, National Hunt trainer Sophie has been having massive amounts of success with sending horses from her Gloucestershire base over the channel to France.
I spoke over the phone to Christian Leech, Sophie’s husband, about their French success. He was in France on the eve of Zurekin’s race at Auteuil in the grade two Prix la Barka.
Christian explained that the decision to race their horses in France was “primarily prize money based. James Finch, who is a big owner of ours now, bought a horse a few years ago and he was quite keen to come over here [France] and it has sort of snowballed from there, really. It was an immediate success. Even though, his name was Ghost Serge and he was only a 110 maybe 115 rated juvenile hurdler in England, but he won over €20,000 in prize money having finished second twice so it became apparent to us quite quickly that you didn’t need very high rated horses to win good prize money because of the way the conditions are set out in races over here.”
For three months in 2020, they had a satellite yard but, other than that, they travelled each horse to and from Gloucestershire. They had to negotiate both Covid-19 and Brexit restrictions, “Covid and Brexit have made it a lot more difficult. Probably more so Brexit than anything because, with Covid, you know what you have to do whereas with Brexit the veterinary checks at Calais take quite a long time. It takes a lot of time and expense taking horses too and from France but, with the prize money being so good it is still worth doing.”
The team have won about €550,000 in the last twelve months from roughly seventy-seven runners. “We look at averages and how much per runner they win and ours are on about, in the past year, something like seven or eight thousand, I think, maybe a bit more and, like Nicholls and Henderson at the very top were averaging at about three or four thousand per runners. It has given us an opportunity to be able to earn the same sort of levels of prizemoney like the top trainers in England but with much less horses.”
There has been a mixed response from the French racing community, “Paris-Turf and Jour de Galop have done features on us and they’re really interested. France Galop have been really helpful and I’m not sure French trainers have much liked us to have as much success as we’ve had. I don’t think they liked that very much!”
Two horses have really been stable stars for Sophie and Christian – Zurekin and Enfant Roi. Zurekin was bought for about £14,000 from a claiming race at Clairefontaine in August 2020. Since then, he has won €140,000 in prize money and he’s never been worse than fifth in eight starts. When I spoke to Christian, Zurekin was about to run the next day in a grade two at Auteuil. The horse went on to be third, beaten six and a half lengths under James Reveley for James Finch, earning €19,151. “If he does [run well], it’ll give us autumn campaigns for grade one hurdles as well.”
Enfant Roi was bought from another claiming chase in October 2020 when he beat the yard’s own Henryville at Auteuil by eighteen lengths. He was entered in both the Silver Cup Handicap Chase at Ascot and the Challow Hurdle at Newbury but the ground turned against them both times. He has raced four times for them and has been second, fourth, first and second in a €90,000 handicap chase where he won €44,196. To put this into perspective, the prize money for the aforementioned English races were £34,170 for the listed chase and £24,848 for the grade one hurdle. They have big aspirations for this horse, “He’s got a series of races back here hopefully culminating in a crack at the Grand National in 2022.”
The decision to race their horses in France has helped the horses themselves, “We’ve always liked buying older horses with proven form who have probably lost their way a bit and we try to rejuvenate them and try and do things for them individually. The big difference for them has been the pace in the races in France is so much slower so they’ve actually gone from racing at 100mph all the time in England. They’ve really enjoyed the slower races in France. It has rekindled a lot of their enthusiasm. An older horse like Clondaw Cian, Vaniteux, Applesandpierres – there are quite a few older ones who looked like they were coming to the end of their tether in England. It has rekindled their enthusiasm for racing.”
Ten-year-old ex-Nigel Twiston-Davies runner Two Taffs and six-year-old ex-Willie Mullins runner Tiger Tap Tap are both set to make their debuts for Leech Racing at Compeigne on 21st June. If Tiger Tap Tap wins and Two Taffs comes second, they have already paid back what the yard paid for them.
The majority of Sophie and Christian’s runners are in France these days, “There is an appetite for English trainers to go and have runners on certain occasions but I think we are just a bit more willing to go. For example, we’ve got a runner tomorrow at Auteuil, which is obviously a big track, but, on Sunday [13th June], we’ve got one at Limoges, which is quite far away. We’ll go anywhere really.” Their runner at Limoges, which is over six hours from Calais, Mcgroarty, was a non-runner and instead made his third start in France at Dieppe on 18th June, finishing third.
With prize money levels as they are in France, it is surprising that more trainers don’t send runners, “We wouldn’t want too many of them coming over to make it more competitive but I don’t really understand why an awful lot more don’t. Most of races over here are worth maybe four times as much as racing in England. It’s not like it’s even close – there’s a massive gulf between the two.”
I was keen to know what Christian thought could be done to sort the prize money in Britain, “Personally I think the racecourses should be a lot more accountable in terms of just specifically their media rights and how much they make from that. It needs to be clear how much they make to show the product and whether the prize money that they put on is a fair reflection of that because if racecourses say, look we’re not making any money at all then that’s absolutely fine and everyone has to be understanding of that and levels have to be as they are. If it transpires that they are making an awful lot of money and just choosing not to put it into prize money then that becomes an issue. The racecourses have to be accountable.”
He continued, “When it’s directly related to the horsemen, if you like, in terms of races themselves, then, with regards to media rights income, I think there has to be transparency because it’s not necessarily just their money.”
However, Christian believes that “the structure of racing in England is fantastic” but there’s “definitely scope for a more interesting programme in England.” He explained, “I suppose I would like to see, having it experienced it in France, a bit more of a variation in the race programme. In England, we are obsessed, which is bookmaker driven, with having as many handicaps as we possibly can. Whereas, in France, handicaps are few and far between. They’re geared towards horses’ levels of prize money they’ve won.”
Christian went on to relate this concept to Mcgroarty, “Because he’s not won much prize money, he was eligible for quite a weak race. Whereas, in England, that sort of race doesn’t exist and he’d have been banging his head off a really high mark and weight in a handicap.”
Conditions races are something Christian would like to see more of, “They had a series of confined races they had in England, I don’t think they did it on the flat but I think they did it for jumpers and to run in a confined race you couldn’t have won in the last year or something. Unfortunately, a lot of trainers didn’t read the race conditions and entered the wrong horses but that sort of thing just to make trainers’ jobs a bit more secure opposed to handicaps, which are great for bookmakers but it’s very hard to win them.”
Something I found fascinating when talking to Christian was about the situation with crowds in France, as it has been a huge talking point lately with the restrictions reducing, “France has nothing like the crowds that English racing would have. They’d get a lot of people for Arc weekend but other than that it’s dead. Even the French Gold Cup meeting is very very quiet so everything over here [England] is completely and utterly betting driven. It’s sad really because you go to fantastic meetings and there’s nobody there so that’s a big advantage that English racing has over France.” France currently has restrictions of 5000 people on track but Christian described that as “plenty”.
It has been fascinating to speak to Christian about Leech Racing’s French runners and their reasoning behind targeting races across the channel. They have some brilliant horses and it is excellent to see the older runners, who have been finding life in handicaps tough, loving the game again over in France. I wish them the best of luck with their stable stars Zurekin, Enfant Roi and Clondaw Cian in the future and hopefully Enfant Roi can take part in the Grand National in 2022!
Massive thank you to Christian for speaking to me!
Sophie Leech’s France Galop page – France Galop (france-galop.com)