I f sports fans find themselves conflicted this weekend, caught in crossfire between Stamford Bridge, Celtic Manor and Longchamp, can you imagine how it feels to be the Prix de Doha in Paris this afternoon? A pauper amongst princes.
Not only is racing fighting for attention on a crowded sporting catwalk this weekend, but some of the hautest couture Group One contests on Qatar Prix de l'Arc day are individually preening for attention on arguably the world's most illustrious one-day Flat racing stage anywhere in the world.
And relegated to the tail-end of the world's finest pageant at the conclusion of eight consecutive Group Ones (if you include the Arab race) is the Prix de Doha. A class B handicap for three-year-olds and over with a prize fund of just €65,000 it is dwarfed by each other race boasting a minimum of €250,000, whilst the Arc itself has a bounty of a cool €4m. The words "pork pie" and "bar mitzvah" spring to mind, as the only souls likely to be paying the slightest attention by 6.05 are those clearing the Longchamp litter.
Mind you, Arc day itself is struggling to find an audience in a Paris where, besides its habitual range of interests and diversions, has the additional layers of attraction provided by Fashion Week, the Russian Film Festival and the Nuits Blanches -- when most galleries and amenities stay open throughout the (last) night.
Still France Galop does its utmost. Billboards with a horse's head symmetrically adjacent and identical granite sculpture gives the feeling of grandiosity and the accompanying music on the TV ads gives it further Gladiatorial weight. 'You must confront a legend before you become a legend' the strap-line haughtily translates -- you just wonder how many of the locals are tuned in.
Never mind the locals, the Arc this year has been dogged by industry commentators pondering the value of its currency after a number of high-profile defections called into question its interest for even the racing fan. This is further exacerbated by the fact that in 2010 we have no Sea The Stars or Zarkava upon whose impending coronation racing could easily position an entire promotion campaign. So there's no Harbinger, or Midday or Snow Fairy. And there is no confirmed champion to crown.
However, assembled are the winners of this season's Irish, English and French Derbies alongside Sea The Stars' habitual 2009 understudy, as well as a range of other extremely talented older horses of both sexes. In their midst may lurk a performance that proclaims a new champion and, moreover, the race as a puzzle rates the most intriguing we have encountered for years.
When Behkabad defeated Planteur in the Grand Prix de Paris over Arc course and distance in mid-July in a race that has provided three previous Arc winners in recent years (Bago, Rail Link and Peintre Celebre), the Racing Post post-mortem was that "the form looks shy of Arc proportions". That comment would certainly reinforce the view of a substandard field this year given that both three-year-olds now head the market.
However, the comment was made without the benefit of knowing that the colts would subsequently fill the first two places in the premier Arc trial, the Prix Niel. The Niel has in the last decade provided the stepping stone to Arc glory for Sinndar, Bago, Dalakhani, Hurricane Run and Rail Link so therefore has somewhat of a history and given that the finish of this year's renewal looked like the conclusion of the "hands and heels" series, we can reasonably expect a surge of improvement from the protagonists.
Furthermore, in spite of the relative kindness shown in the finish the time of the Niel was a massive five seconds faster than the older horse (Prix Foy) trial the same day won by Duncan. Monsieur Rouget has declared himself well pleased with the draw for Behkabad and as a son of Cape Cross (like Sea The Stars) which has now won six of his eight starts and is likely still improving he looks nailed on to run a big race today.
Youmzain, unlike Behkabad which might just be the second coming, just has the habit of coming second. Although trainer Mick Channon is typically optimistic and jockey Richard Hughes is optimistic he'll handle the conditions, I am sure they would both settle for second again this year out of court.
The ground has also become a concern for Aidan O'Brien for his big two -- Fame And Glory and Cape Blanco. The horses have won the last two runnings of the Irish Derby, and Dylan Thomas already sets a stable precedent (particularly for Fame And Glory) as an
Irish Derby winner to subsequently succeed at Longchamp, although not in the same year. There must be a grave stamina doubt about Cape Blanco given the torrential rain while Fame And Glory has been dealt the rails draw that will need all of Johnny Murtagh's guileful navigation to overcome.
The inscrutable Michael Stoute finally announced the participation of Workforce on Thursday and the English Derby winner provides a fascinating dimension this afternoon. The horse received a very qualified nod from the trainer, who suggested: "I wouldn't be confident he'll reproduce the Epsom form." That Epsom form, whilst lauded as 24-carat at the time, has suffered some reverse alchemy in the meantime as the Derby field has managed only three wins in total since early June.
An outsider I like is Cavalryman which has shown only flickers of form since his switch to Godolphin this year. However, he has been running on the wrong ground all season and with Suroor's horses finally hitting top gear, the addition of blinkers might remind him he was good enough to finish third to Sea The Stars last year.
On a fantastic supporting card, the other highlight is the Prix de la Foret and it is only to be hoped that Goldikova is permitted to run in the ground. She is vulnerable in deep conditions but one who revels in them is Paco Boy and he looks poised to gain revenge for his narrow Queen Anne defeat on ground that favoured the filly.
And if you have to get out on the winner of the Prix de Doha after eight consecutive Group Ones, then spare a thought for the cleaners at Longchamp -- they're probably the only ones still watching.