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Exciting French chaser Il Est Francais looks set to cross the English Channel as he bids to collect further top-level honours in the Grade 1 Kauto Star Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day.
Trained by Noel George & Amanda Zetterholm just ten miles outside of Chantilly, the son of Karaktar landed the Grade 1 Prix Renaud du Vivier Hurdle under the name of his father Tom as a four-year-old and has made a smooth transition to the chasing game with back-to-back victories at Auteuil – including last-time-out in Listed company.
George is the son of Grade 1-winning trainer Tom, whose notable successes in England included God's Own's Ryanair victory in 2014 and Summerville Boy's Supreme Novices' Hurdle success at the Cheltenham Festival four years later.
Although not physically involved in the training regime at the Chantilly base in France, Noel George was keen to stress the role his father still has in the operation.
Speaking on a press conference call organised by the Jockey Club, Noel said: "I talk a lot to Dad; I talk to him every day. He gives me plenty of advice and he often tells me what he thinks I've done wrong! It's a big help though and we have a great relationship,"
"A lot of horses would have their holidays and pretraining at his and he's a real backburner of the set-up. He's definitely not to be forgotten. He worked for François Doumen at the stage he was sending horses like The Fellow over to England, so he was talking about how we thought we should approach coming to the UK."
Noel George is no stranger to being around top horses having played a huge part in the careers of God's Own, Summerville Boy and Black Op when based with his father in Gloucestershire, but the Chantilly-based handler was quick to put Il Est Francais right at the very top of the pecking order.
"He's the best horse I've ever had anything to do with. He's unbelievable. I mean Dad had some very good ones," said George.
"One of my old favourites who I used to ride every day got beaten a neck in the same race [Kauto Star] – Black Op. Black Op on his day was very good. However, you know those true champions that whatever the conditions are, whatever happens they get the job done – well I think Il Est Francais is that and definitely the best I've ever had anything to do with."
All eight of Il Est Francais's starts over obstacles have come at Auteuil, but George is confident that his champion five-year-old will have no issue racing away from the Parisian venue and will prove more than capable of meeting the demands of Kempton's fences.
He said: "France Galop have built us a made to measure set of three English fences the same as at Kempton on the grass. He's going to school over them next week. They were already there at Lamorlaye [near Chantilly] but they've been modified for us to make two plain fences and an open ditch."
"I would have been happy going without doing that but it's just a bonus that he's going to have seen it."
"When you have such a high quality of horse in France you can only really run at Auteuil but he's very straightforward and travelled a lot to go away for grass gallops. There's always a bit of a question mark but he's very professional and will have a companion, his neighbour from home, going with him to keep him nice and settled."
Kempton's Kauto Star Novices' Chase will see Il Est Francais encounter new challengers as he steps up to three miles for the first time on expected quicker ground, but once again George believes his contender has all the tools to deal with what he will face at the Sunbury-on-Thames venue come Boxing Day.
He added: "It was very soft last time at Auteuil. Having known Kempton from past experiences it never gets very very soft, but he's got a very high cruising speed and a slick jumping style which I think will definitely suit the track. I don't think the trip will prove an issue at all."
"I think he's very adaptable although I'd probably be even more confident if it were to be on heavy ground. Although I don't think good ground will be an issue at all."
With Il Est Francais owned in partnership between Richard Kelvin-Hughes & Haras De Saint-Voir, George is keen for his stable star to compete in both France and England, suggesting the trip across the Channel at this stage in his career would aid plans further down the line.
"Because he's owned by Richard Kelvin-Hughes, who has half of him, we are obviously going to want to compete in the UK at some stage," said George.
"I thought it would be best for him to run over English-style fences early on his career, so he's learnt before he has too much of a tendency to jump like a real French chaser.
Although neither George nor his partner Amanda is French-born, Noel was quick to point out that his horse would be representing France.
George added: "He's very much going there with a French flag. Even though we're not French, he's trained in France and he's a French horse.
"When we've got the level of horse that we think can compete on the big stage we'll definitely bring them over to the UK.
"We've had a couple of runners already, but this is our first proper big gun coming over, flying the flag. He's our best horse, so fingers crossed he can show us what he's made of."