All roads leading to coveted Arc for fancied trio
Showpiece finale to steal spotlight after summer of madness, writes Ian McClean
Perhaps it's the heatwave, but a cursory glance at the stories making the headlines this month would encourage the belief that racing has become more than a little touched by a bout of midsummer madness. Jockeys driving ambulances, while at another racecourse others take leave of their collective nous by gifting a competitor a furlong head start; Japanese software group Softbank disposing of its 10 per cent holding of Betfair shares at a 48 per cent loss; while at Perth racecourse a punter was reported to have commandeered an unmanned drone, equipped it with a camera and flown it remotely to a blind spot in the outfield so he could get a decisive in-running edge on the exchanges.
With 17 weeks gone and 17 weeks to go, we are halfway through the Flat season and, strange or not, there has been much talk about the Arc recently. While it is still nearly three months away, it is with just cause.
In contrast to the jumps season, whose narrative evolves throughout towards a clear and distinctive climax at the spring Festivals of Cheltenham, Aintree, Punchestown and Fairyhouse, the Flat season doesn't operate that way. As just one example, four of the five classics have been completed by the first weekend in June – less than a third of the way through the calendar.
As concentrated as the jumps dénouement is, so the finale of the Flat is diffuse – dispersed as it is across countries and continents spanning from the Curragh, Newmarket and Ascot to Longchamp, Santa Anita, Melbourne, Kranji and Sha Tin.
However, while there is no one defining fixture per se, if there is one race that has evolved into the thoroughbred's defining gold standard, it is the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. The French have always cherished it as such. Just look at serial champion trainer André Fabre's record in the race – seven wins in the last quarter century.
Fabre has always stuck to the principle that it is impossible to have a horse peak in midsummer, and be at their best again on the first Sunday in October.
When Manduro scorched away with the Prince of Wales' at Royal Ascot in 2007, Fabre quickly doused water on the idea of the King George at the same track at the end of July – after all, he scorned, this horse was being prepared for the Arc. 'The Fabre Principle' has begun to stick with others in recent years, to the detriment of the King George. Sea The Stars sidestepped the race as connections punctiliously chose their stepping stones to Arc glory in 2009.
By this stage of the campaign, Sea The Stars had won three Group Ones in quick succession, culminating in the Eclipse at Sandown. This year, the same statistics apply to current Arc favourite Al Kazeem, and it is telling that trainer Roger Charlton is prioritising the French race as the ultimate destination for his much-improved colt.
In plotting his way towards Gallic glory in October, the Beckhampton trainer is considering the path of York's Juddmonte or Leopardstown's Champion Stakes – both incidentally won by Sea The Stars. While Al Kazeem is charting a conventional course to the Arc, his main market rivals are adopting wildly different means.
Japan has found Arc glory elusive despite its many attempts in recent years. Orfevre looked home and hosed last October, only to falter in the final yards. His goose looked cooked for a repeat attempt after he bled and had to be withdrawn from last month's Group One Takarazuka Kinen.
However, it appears he has since made a full recovery and the plan is to ship him over to France at the end of August and compete first in the Prix Foy (which he won last year) before a second crack at the Arc.
The third market leader Intello (trained by André Fabre) followed his easy Feilden Stakes win at Newmarket in May with a dreadfully unlucky defeat in the French Guineas from a coffin 17 draw.
His subsequent victory in the French Derby was mysteriously followed by a drop back to a mile for a Group Three at Maisons-Laffitte. He is currently on a break and may well use the Group One Prix Jacques le Marois over a mile as a further unorthodox preparation for October 6.
So, besides simply avoiding the King George, it appears there are many alternative ways to find your way to the Arc in October. Madness perhaps – but with a method.