A lasting image from the Cheltenham Festival was the sight of an emotional Francois Doumen, tears in his eyes, pulling at Baracouda's tail in the unsaddling enclosure after the gelding's failed bid to land a third Stayers' Hurdle. Defeat for Baracouda was not something with which his connections were used to having to come to terms, and it says much for his outstanding record in the top staying hurdles over the last four seasons that this rare reverse should have had such an effect on his trainer.
Since going down to another outstanding French-trained hurdler Le Sauvignon at Auteuil in the autumn of 2000, Baracouda had been beaten only once in fifteen starts and three and a half years of competition at the top level prior to the latest Festival, a magnificent record. To say that Baracouda `lost nothing in defeat' at Cheltenham might sound a little hollow to those closest to him, but the truth was thatBaracouda's length and a half defeat at the hands of Iris's Gift ranks as one of the best performances of his career. He was simply beaten by another outstanding hurdler, one who had, after all, gone close to taking Baracouda's crown as a novice in a tremendous renewal of the same race twelve months earlier.
The 2003 Stayers' Hurdle had been widely regarded as not just the race of the Festival, but one of the best races of recent times, and if the third protagonist from the year before, Limestone Lad, was not around again this time, it still provided a fascinating rematch between champion Baracouda and challenger Iris's Gift. Sequels often fail to live up to the original, but this was one that didn't disappoint.
Whilst Iris's Gift had been favourite ahead of Baracouda in ante-post betting on the Stayers' Hurdle in the autumn, Baracouda had enjoyed much the smoother preparation through the winter and was sent off at odds on to become the first to win the stayers' championship three times -a landmark that he would surely have achieved already but for the loss of the 2001 Festival due to the foot and mouth outbreak.Baracouda ran a typical race, settled off the pace and hitting something of a `flat spot' at around halfway. Iris's Gift was sent for home earlier than he had been the year before, but the result looked all set to be the same as Baracouda came to join issue just after the last. But with the pair now well clear, Baracouda was never quite able to force his head in front as his younger rival pulled out a bit extra in the last hundred yards.
It had looked as though Baracouda might well be going chasing in the latest season, and before his reappearance in the autumn he had been installed as ante-post favourite for the Royal & SunAlliance Chase, and even as a 16/1-chance for the Gold Cup. However, his trainer announced a rethink. `The horse has schooled over our fences and is ready to switch whenever we feel like it, but for the moment...I prefer to stay in the discipline he has mastered so well. He has learned very pleasantly but I don't think I have enough invention to do something different.'
Conditions were too firm for Baracouda to attempt a third consecutive winning reappearance in the Ascot Hurdle in November, and he returned instead with a seven-length defeat of old rival Deano's Beeno in the Ballymore Properties Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury the following week. Ridden more handily than usual, Baracouda was soon in command after hitting the front two out and did not have to run anywhere near his best against a rival whose form and enthusiasm were at a low ebb in the latest season.
A month later, Baracouda and Deano's Beeno clashed again in the Cantor Sport Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot. Baracouda was making his fourth consecutive appearance in the race, his third against Deano's Beeno. In 2000, while still a novice, Baracouda made a spectacular British debut in the Long Walk when slamming Deano's Beeno (then at the height of his powers) by fourteen lengths. In Deano's Beeno's absence the following season, Baracouda strolled to a twenty-four length success, but in 2002, with his old rival back again, it had been a different story. Baracouda was sent off at 11/4-on to complete his hat-trick but, after being some twenty lengths behind Deano's Beeno at Swinley Bottom, he bridged the gap to draw upsides on the run-in but was unable to get his head in front and went down by a length. Until the latest Festival, that was Baracouda's only defeat on British soil.
With Iris's Gift still on the sidelines, Baracouda was made the 7/2-on favourite for the six-runner Long Walk, with Deano's Beeno at 7/1 and stable-companion Mr Cool at 10/1. The latter had failed only narrowly to inflict his own surprise defeat on Baracouda in the previous season's Ascot Hurdle, poaching a huge advantage which on that occasion Baracouda had managed to claw back to win by a neck. Tactics were clearly going to be important again, though it was obviously going to play straight into the hands of Thierry Doumen and Baracouda if the Pipe stable-companions both adopted their usual catch-me-if-you-can tactics, risking cutting each other's throats. Mr Cool was given the task of making the running, while surprisingly Deano's Beeno was ridden to stalk Baracouda, presumably with the intention of beating him for a turn of foot. It seemed an unlikely scenario, and as the Pipe battle-plan disintegrated (Mr Cool was picked off two out, while Deano's Beeno was unable to follow Baracouda's move),Baracouda won with complete authority, drawing thirty lengths clear of the tiring Mr Cool on the run-in to register what was, at least on form, another of his best performances.Deano's Beeno finished another five lengths back in third, with the remainder soundly beaten.
Baracouda made one more appearance before the Festival, unexpectedly in a handicap, the Tote Scoop6 Sandown Hurdle in February. Top-class hurdlers are rarely asked to compete in handicaps nowadays, though Baracouda, who ran off a BHB mark of 170 at Sandown, was the first of several to do so in the weeks that followed, Rooster Booster (166) finishing second in the Tote Gold Trophy, Iris's Gift (167) making his reappearance in a Pertemps Handicap qualifier at Haydock and Rhinestone Cowboy (165) running third in the Coral Cup at Cheltenham. Baracouda's performance at Sandown was a far cry from his only other outing in a handicap. On that occasion, as a five-year-old at Auteuil, he had carried 9-13 to victory, his very first success on what was his third outing over hurdles. At Sandown he shouldered 11-12, with his eight rivals between 1 lb and 26 lb out of the handicap. Baracouda was sent off the 15/8-on favourite and, in the end, did not have to run anywhere near his best, moving up smoothly to lead on the bridle at the last, only to idle markedly on the run-in. The 25/1-shots Yogi and Alexanderthegreat filled the places, two lengths and half a length behind, from 13 lb and 26 lb out of the handicap respectively.
To recap briefly on the tall, leggy Baracouda's pedigree, his sire Alesso was a very smart stayer in France as a three-year-old. His dam Peche Aubar was only an ordinary maiden on the Flat, but she was a half-sister to Salmana, third in the Prix Marcel Boussac, and was out of a useful performer at up to a mile and a quarter in Ireland, Salto Mortale. As well as Baracouda, his dam has produced a Flat winner in France, Kerdrein (by Big John), and her final foal, a brother to Baracouda named Saint Aubar, has won over hurdles in the French Provinces for Guillaume Macaire.
Baracouda is one of several top-class jumpers Francois Doumen has handled over the years.`He's certainly my favourite among the hurdlers I've trained,' he said in the latest season, `but it's hard to compare him with Ubu, who won every big race in France, or The Fellow, who was two noses away from winning three Cheltenham Gold Cups.' Ubu III actually contested the Stayers' Hurdle himself, promoted to second behind Nomadic Way in 1992, but he had a terrific record at Auteuil, winning the Grande Course de Haies in 1992 and 1993, finishing runner-up in 1994, and then becoming the only horse to win the Grand Steeple-Chase de Paris as well the following year, a race that had a tragic outcome when he collapsed and died after crossing the line. Since being bought privately by J. P. McManus after his first success in the Long Walk Hurdle, Baracouda has been back to Auteuil just once, and then only to take up an alternative engagement following the abandonment of the Cheltenham Festival in 2001. It's hard to believe that Baracouda wouldn't have had at least a couple of Grande Course de Haies to his name by now if connections had wished to take that route with him. Instead, as his trainer puts it, `In France, he has disappeared off the map.' If Baracouda hasn't got the press he deserves in his own country, his tremendous record doesn't seem to have earned him a particularly exalted place in the affections of the British racing public either.`In England, it has taken time for him to be appreciated, although I think he is now,' observed his trainer. `If he'd been a grey, he'd have been a hero much earlier.' Perhaps making the staying hurdlers top of the bill on the Thursday of the new-look four-day Cheltenham Festival will raise the profile of a division which has tended to carry less prestige for its champion than those who dominate the best staying chases or the top two-mile hurdles.
With no hint of Baracouda's powers diminishing, and his chief rival Iris's Gift set to move on to novice chasing, it looks like Rhinestone Cowboy will now be the main obstacle to Baracouda's dominating the staying hurdles for another season. Both horses are produced late, so they could be involved in some fascinating encounters. That's assuming, of course, that Baracouda isn't switched to fences himself, though it now looks rather late in the day for such a move. Although Baracouda's early successes came in the mud, his performances on good ground at the last two Festivals have shown that he doesn't need soft or heavy. Baracouda is a fluent jumper and has an exceptional turn of foot for a stayer, and, if that goes along with a tendency to come off the bridle mid-race and idle at the finish, those are quirks that his regular partner Thierry Doumen was well used to. Doumen announced his retirement from the saddle in August following a shoulder operation, leaving open the interesting possibility of Tony McCoy, retained by Baracouda's owner, taking over in the next season.