The first Sunday of October is always the time for the top flat race in the European calendar, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp, nestling in Paris’ Bois de Boulogne. A mile and a half (or 2400 metres), and a testing one, because the ground at Longchamp is often soft. Nonetheless, it tends to bring the champions from all over Europe, and increasingly the world, to contest the prize. It is a race for all the years, from three onwards, and typically matches the Derby winners from France and Britain with battle-hardened four and five year olds from all over the place.
I have a soft spot for the race, having lived in Paris and enjoyed the sophistication of Longchamp on non-Arc days, when the crowds are small despite the low entry prices. On Arc day, it fills up with champagne swilling Brits and Irish, giving it a wonderful clash of racing cultures. Despite the clash, the vibe is good. In fact it’s great!
My soft spot is also because the Arc meeting of 1990 was a big part of my stag weekend in Paris. I lived in Paris at the time, and all my good mates from England came over, joined up with a few from Paris, and had a fine time. (My wife took the opposite trip and had her hen night in London). The Arc was one of the highlights; the race was won by Saumarez. I’m not sure any of us won any money. The previous year was similarly unsuccessful. On the bus down to Longchamp from Etoile there was a German extolling the virtues of an obscure runner, Carroll House. We politely ignored him. What would a German know about top quality flat racing?…
The dream sequence for a British horse as a three year old is to win the 2000 Guineas in May at Newmarket, over a mile, step up to a mile and a half to win the Derby at Epsom in June, step down to a mile and a quarter to win the Eclipse at Sandown, also in June (thus showing real speed and taking on the older horses for the first time) then the King George VI at Ascot in July. Then prepare for the Arc…
Not sure when a horse last did all of these, if one ever did, but Sea The Stars was a real hero in 2009, taking the Guineas, Derby, Eclipse, Irish champion and the Arc. In fact I think it was the first horse ever to win the Guineas, Derby and Arc. The brilliant Nashwan almost managed in 1989. Guineas, Derby, Eclipse, King George. Lost in an Arc trial, the Prix Niel, and was withdrawn from the Arc. Protecting the stud value – always an issue in flat racing. I saw Nashwan win that Derby. It was when it was still on a Wednesday, rather than Saturday as it is now. We’d take the day off work, have a fried breakfast in Smithfield, home of London’s meat market, washed down with Guinness and champagne, and then make our way down to Waterloo, as the city workers were arriving for the day’s slog. That always felt good!
On the day Nashwan won the Derby, my mate Smithy picked up £500, choosing first and second in what they called a dual forecast. Pick the winner and then put small bets on it with all the other horses. To come in the first two. Something like a £15 bet. A horse called Terimon came in second at 200-1 ! I think Smithy bought a round.
Another great horse was Lammtarra. In 1995, it won the Derby in its first race as a three year old. Then the King George, and finally the Arc. Brilliant, but gone in a flash. Retired to stud. That’s been the problem with the flat, compared with National Hunt, the fences, the winter game, where the horses stay on for years and the public really grow to love the stars – Desert Orchid, One Man, Best Mate, Denman, Kauto Star, to name a few.
Anyway, this year Camelot, trained by Aidan O’Brien in Ireland, took the Guineas, the Derby and the King George, before going for an even more heroic objective, the St Leger, at a mile and three-quarters. Not achieved since Nijinsky in 1970. The Triple Crown. (Nijinsky was then headed off in the Arc by a horse called Sassafrass). It was a brave move, because at stud these days they seem to favour a horse that has mile and a quarter speed, as well as mile and a half stamina. No distance runners required.
And in most seasons Camelot would have been hailed as a total superstar. But this season – and last – it has been all about the wonder horse, Frankel. Won everything at a mile in its third year. Carried on doing so as a four year old and stepped up to a mile and a quarter – still unbeaten. People speculated that it might just be put into the Arc, but the owners presumably thought that would be a risk too far. Instead it will win the Champion Stakes at Ascot later this month and retire to stud unbeaten. Generally regarded as the best horse ever. But what if he’d been put into the Arc and won… ? We can but dream.
It didn’t work out for Camelot in the Leger. Maybe a mile and three quarters was too far. A horse called Encke won the race, piloted by one of the future star jockeys, Mikael Barzelona. Speculation then began about whether Camelot would be fit for the Arc. But surely he had to run. Put the Leger and its excessive distance (for a top quality horse) behind him. To the credit of the trainer and owners they decided to go for it. And at the last it was announced that the great man, Frankie Dettori, would be in the saddle. Hope!
The main rival in the betting was a Japanese horse with a French name, Orfevre. The 2011 winner, Danedream, who had won the 2012 King George, was quarantined in Germany because of a disease that had broken out at its stables. Gutting! But as ever, most of the best horses were assembled and ready to battle it out. The ground was “holding”. Which I think means pretty soft.
So, before I went out for a cycle, I checked which channel the race was going to be on, so I could record it, in case I was late back. BBC? No. Channel 4? No. Eurosport? No. I had a look on-line. Maybe Pari-Mutuel, the French bookies. No. Didn’t bother looking at any of the digital TV racing channels as I don’t subscribe. (Later I discovered it was on The Racing Channel, which went free to air for this race – never mind).
It seemed like it would have to be a trip to the betting shop. Fortunately there is one just round the corner from where we live, so after a cycle and shower, I popped down to Betfred, before the weekly excursion to Waitrose. (Living close to the edge!).
The betting shop is a faintly depressing experience. A few blokes ensconced for the day. A few passers-by like me. A couple of people behind the counter looking pretty bored. The TV screens showing a succession of minor horse and greyhound races. There’s a little bit of chat, but it’s mostly people in their cocoons, with a couple of quid on No4 at the next dog race.
And then it’s the Arc, the top race in Europe! I felt it was incumbent on me to have a bet, just being there. Not too much. £5 to win on Camelot at 9-4. £2 each way on Sea Moon, trained by the maestro, Sir Michael Stoute, at 9-1. Each way meaning £2 on a win and £2 on a place (first to third) at a fifth of the odds.
It comes on to the screen just before the horses are ready to go. There is a commentary. The camera work isn’t great – it doesn’t look like a feed from TV coverage. The race proceeds, the pace relatively slow, a horse called Robin Hood making the pace. Camelot looks well placed on the rails, sixth or seventh. At around three furlongs to go, the race cranks into gear. At just after two, Orfevre accelerates incredibly. Camelot is nowhere. The race is won. But what’s this? Another horse is tracking Ofevere, reining it in. Orfevre seems to be slowing. It’s going to the wire! But the horses are disappearing off the left hand side of the screen! It is either dodgy camera work or rubbish screens, but I find myself straining to look inside a dimension of the screen that doesn’t exist. Like ducking when you go under a bridge in your car. We have to judge the winner by the position of the horses’ arses rather than their heads! It looks like the pursuing horse has just got up there and won. Who is it?
It’s Solemia, a filly that has never won a Group One race (the best ones). The odds are 41-1. Ridden by one of the great French jockeys, Olivier Peslier, though. Maybe not such a surprise then. It’s a French race, after all.
Just like Carroll House, all those years ago. A sense of bewilderment, disappointment. Apart from the few punters who bet on it at those odds!
There’s no analysis of the race on the bookie’s screens. About a minute after the end of the greatest race of the season, the commentator announces, “More important, the hare is off at Oxford!”
I accept that that comment may have been tongue in cheek. But what a descent. From the Arc to the dodgy dogs in a split second. Anything you can bet on. Pull in a few more shekels from the gullible punters. Come on No 4!
I check Twitter for some reaction. Lots of abuse as usual. Suggestions that the best horse didn’t win (the best horse being Orfevre, it seems). Of course the best horse won. It always does. On the day.
Camelot was a disappointing 7th. Frankie said the season had taken its toll. And I don’t think I ever heard Sea Moon mentioned! (A familiar feeling with the horses who carry my hopes). But the good news is that Camelot is going to stay in training as a four year old. That will presumably mean that it is aimed at the King George and the Arc, with not too many knackering diversions. It could yet consolidate its reputation and become one of the true greats.
Let’s hope so. We love our equine heroes.