Louisa Carberry interview on her triumph in France: 'I was terrified our chance had gone'

Marcus Armytage
·5 min read
Louisa CARBERRY during the Grand Steeple-Chase de Paris -  Icon Sport
Louisa CARBERRY during the Grand Steeple-Chase de Paris - Icon Sport

Glass ceilings seem to smash on an almost weekly basis in racing at the moment, but rather lost amid the frenzy surrounding Hollie Doyle's first Group One win on Champions Day last weekend was the sound of more tinkling glass from across the Channel.

Louisa Carberry's victory in the Grand Steeple de Paris - France's equivalent of the Cheltenham Gold Cup - was the first in the race's history by a foreign female trainer, and the first by a Briton since 1962, when Fulke Walwyn famously triumphed with Mandarin.

That win, and particularly the ride Fred Winter gave him, is still talked about with reverence by those old enough to remember it. 

The great horse’s bit broke jumping the Riviere Des Tribunes in front of the stands on the first circuit and, with his bridle dangling below Mandarin’s neck, Winter rode him over the remaining 22 obstacles effectively without steering or brakes to win by a neck. Docteur de Ballon’s victory for Carberry may not have been quite as hair-raising as that but it was certainly not without its problems, although Carberry is sufficiently steeped in the sport's ways that she was able to take such tribulations in her stride. 

She is the niece of former Lambourn trainer Kim Brasse, her grandmother had a leg in Professor Plum, a successful chaser in the 1980s for Tim Forster and she is married to Champion Hurdle-winning jockey Philip, brother of Paul and Nina.

“Though we weren’t involved Mum and Dad enjoyed following it and we always recorded the racing to watch after hunting on a Saturday,” she explained. “I remember going to Kim’s as a toddler to see his yard but he retired soon after.”

She evented to four-star level but she started riding out for Henrietta Knight and Tor Sturgis and, before studying Spanish and business at Bristol University, she spent her year out in Madrid working for vet-trainer Jose Simo who had ridden in the 1990 Grand National.

Auteuil meeting Original description: LESTRADE riding DOCTEUR DE BALLON and Louisa CARBERRY  - Getty Images
Auteuil meeting Original description: LESTRADE riding DOCTEUR DE BALLON and Louisa CARBERRY - Getty Images

In 2010 she decided the eventing was not going as well as she had hoped and thought she would go and "see the world." That did not go quite to plan either because she did not get a yard beyond Paris.

“I got a job in Chantilly with Alain de Royer-Dupree,” she recalled. “He was an incredible boss. But I met Philip there in my first year which prolonged my stay. We actually met at the Grand-Steeple on the day his two-time winner Princesse D’Anjou was retired.

“Though Alain trained on the Flat jumping was always my passion and when Philip’s main owner sold up and he was riding less we thought we’d give training a shot. We knew, because of the prize-money that France would be the best place and if we couldn’t make it here we wouldn’t make in England or Ireland.”

 They rented half a barn – eight boxes – in Senonnes, a training centre in North-west France, and started with five horses. “We’re still not big, just 25 horses,” she said. “But we’ve had some nice ones.”

Docteur de Ballon – not as Sky Racing assumed ‘the ball doctor – sounds better in French’ – is owned and bred by an elderly couple who live in Ballon and have bred thoroughbreds and trotters all their lives. He arrived at the Carberrys aged three and now, aged eight, is small but athletic with a tendency to do too much, resulting in a certain fragility.

He ran in last year’s Grand-Steeple but unseated at half-way and then got injured in his next start. “I was terrified that was our chance gone,” said Carberry. “He was still turned out though when the race should have been run in May so we’d never have run in it if it hadn’t been put back five months because of Covid.”

His preparations did not go faultlessly. “I thought I’d been very clever finding a small hurdle three weeks ago instead of giving him a hard race in a Group One for his first run back but he unseated at half way and I didn’t think I’d be able to have him ready to run three and a half miles in the heavy without a run.

“It didn’t help that the gallop at the training centre was being re-laid so we weren’t even on our usual gallop. But we took him for a racecourse gallop and Philip schooled him twice last week. He runs well fresh though which was a big help. I was beginning to think the gods were against us but sometimes things work out for the best.”

In the race Docteur de Ballon was very nearly brought down at the open ditch but his jockey Bernard Lestrade gave him a superb waiting ride, landing in second at the last before sprinting clear to win by five lengths.

Despite Carberry’s hopes to one day have a runner at the Cheltenham Festival it is, she explained, unlikely to be with the Docteur.

“For his owners Auteuil is the pinnacle and when you have a good Auteuil horse it is silly change the winning formula,” she said. His next start will be in the French King George back at Auteuil in five weeks. In the meantime, the Carberrys in Ireland may be taking a break from history-making at the moment but the French wing of the dynasty is flourishing.