Classic generation put reputations on line
The Arc favours youth but are they up to it this year, asks Ian McClean
If the race itself matches up even remotely to the drama of the build-up this last week, then the 91st outing of the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe this afternoon will be an outstanding renewal.
The withdrawal of three of the market principals (Danedream, Snow Fairy and Nathaniel) in wildly different circumstances was offset at least partially by the confirmation that Camelot would attempt to redeem his tarnished reputation. The booking of Frankie Dettori for the Coolmore colt -- he informed his retainer and rival empire Godolphin of his decision only by text it appears -- is worthy of a piece all on its own, perhaps another day. Whilst the eleventh-hour supplementing of three individual three year-olds (Saonois, Great Heavens and Bayrir) -- all with a chance of sorts -- has somewhat re-inflated an Arc balloon in danger of becoming flaccid.
Eighteen runners on soft ground almost certainly ensures that luck in running will be as paramount as if you were driving your car around the fearsome eponymous roundabout at Paris' most famous monument itself. We have to return just two years ago to a replica 18-runner soft-ground affair -- and if the race proves as rough as Workforce's year when Sarafina got all but bowled over, twice, then the draw and the jockey's navigational guile may have as much to do with the eventual outcome as the horse's raw ability.
Connections of fancied runners Sea Moon, Orfevre and Masterstroke must have cursed their luck when the draw was announced, dealt (as they were) the coffin boxes of 16, 17 and 18. It may prove significant that the closest any double-figure drawn runner got in the race under parallel conditions two years ago was ninth, a full 15 lengths adrift of the winner.
As against that, the only two other soft-ground Arcs this century both interestingly fell to horses with a double-digit draw. However, perhaps the most pertinent fact in both cases is that Dalakhani (drawn 14 in 2003) and Sakhee (15 in 2001) were infinitely superior to their opponents on the day and could have probably given their peers a half-furlong start and still won.
Whether any of those drawn in the car park this year has that level of dominance is questionable -- and what we can say with certainty is that their chance has been at the very least compromised. What is perhaps most surprising is how little influence the announcement of the draw has had on the market, at least for now.
The most fascinating of the "car park" trio is undoubtedly Orfevre, mount of poster boy Christophe Soumillon. The Japanese have developed something of an obsession with Europe's premier race in recent years, much in the way the Aussies have locked onto Royal Ascot sprints. Orfevre, domestic Triple Crown winner last year, will be the nation's eleventh runner in the Arc and while Japan has come close (El Condor Pasa, second in 1999; Nakayama Festa, second in 2010 and Deep Impact, third in 2006), it is still looking for that elusive first Arc cigar.
Perhaps the strongest Arc trend of recent years has been the dominance of the three-year-old generation. Eight of the last nine renewals has gone to the classic generation so it is hardly surprising that the booking of Frankie Dettori (riding in his 25th consecutive Arc) and a handy draw in stall five has seen this year's dominant classic standard-bearer Camelot harden his position at the head of the market.
More significant still is to reflect on events since the weight-for-age allowance was increased to the advantage of three-year-olds to 8lbs (11lbs for fillies) in 1995. Three-year-old Lammtara won the Arc that year in 1995 and since then that generation has won 14 of the intervening 17. Interestingly, in the years 1980-1995, the ratio was a more closely-matched eight-seven in favour of the older horses.
All of which suggests the current weight allowance grossly favours the three-year-olds. What gives this theory even greater currency is the fact that of the five three-year-olds which have attempted to repeat their victory the following season -- some of them great champions (Hurricane Run, Bago, Helissio, Montjeu and Workforce) -- all five failed.
So of the three-year-olds with a decent draw and a big chance, the profiles of Camelot, Saonois and Great Heavens could hardly be more contrasting. Fillies, interestingly, have a particularly fine record in the Arc. The fairer sex finished one-two in last year's race with the younger filly (Danedream) beating her elder (Shareta). Great Heavens wouldn't even be at the races but for the poor blood results of her elder brother Nathaniel, which had been mapped out for this race all year. However, following his withdrawal and an impressive piece of work this week at home, the De Rothschild filly has been re-routed from her intended engagement at Ascot in two weeks' time and fast-forwarded to Longchamp. Victory for her would be particularly sweet for those who availed of the 999/1 on Betfair prior to the GUBU events of this week.
Even before Camelot ever stepped into a sales ring, the word about him was out. Knocked down for over half a million to Coolmore in the sales ring, his aura has only ever grown and grown since. To paraphrase Shakespeare, if greatness is expected of a horse, he will be great. And ever since he was labelled with the magical moniker Camelot -- a name kept in seclusion by Sue Magnier for a decade until the right one came along -- the colt moved effortlessly from one victory to the next taking in three classics along the way.
Coming mysteriously unstuck in the St Leger in a bid for Triple Crown immortality has thrust an Arc bid unexpectedly onto the radar this afternoon. Fellow classic winner from across the pond, Saonois, could hardly have a more different profile. Unfashionably bred and bought as part of a job-lot for just €13,000, he was competing on the all-weather during the winter and
was actually beaten in a three-horse race at Cagnes-sur-Mer in February. However, victories in the Prix du Jockey Club and the usually sharply informative Prix Niel mark his credentials as very serious this afternoon.
The one element that unites this triumvirate of three-year-olds is that none of them has ever faced an older rival in all the 24 races they have run collectively. We know that youth is favoured by the conditions of the Arc. We just don't know the value of the current crop of youth but have a gnawing suspicion that it might be counterfeit. More than the clash of nations, the Arc represents the ultimate clash of generations.
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