Japan raiders primed to smash Arc hoodoo
Some are already calling it the race of the decade. While 2013 might not go down as a vintage year in the Flat racing canon, the range of international galacticos descending on Paris a fortnight today for the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe might yet give it redemption. With the finest from UK, Germany, France, Ireland and Japan pencilled in for Europe's richest €4.8m prize, the Arc trials at Longchamp last weekend were simply a means for some of sharpening the nib.
Typically, the Arc trials raise more questions than answers accompanied by the over-riding feeling of a pit-stop en route to the chequered flag, but this year's triumvirate of Niel, Vermeille and Foy had a more clearly defining feel than is often the case.
Japan has had three near misses in its attempt to capture Europe's richest race: El Condor Pasa sprinted five lengths clear only to get collared on the line by the brilliance of Montjeu back in 2009; Deep Impact was famously supported into 1/10 by the patriotism of its countrymen before failing to live up to his name or reputation behind Rail Link in 2006; and last year, premature exhilaration was quickly overtaken by muted disbelief as Orfevre faltered unimaginably having swept clear of his field in the closing stages.
However, having captured two of the three trials last Sunday, there is a growing conviction that (20)13 will prove lucky for Japan to the extent that bookmakers are offering just 7/4 against an oriental winner.
The Prix Foy hasn't supplied the Arc winner since 1992 – and Subotica didn't even win the Foy that year – but there is a growing feeling that Orfevre is primed to undo the aberration of last year. He heads most ante-post lists after supplying a visual treat in the Foy – travelling and quickening like an entirely different species to the opposition on the day.
It was interesting to note the body language of jockey Christophe Soumillon afterwards (amongst other things he performed a lap of honour in the parade ring with the trophy as if he'd just won the Arc itself). The remarks of trainer Yasutoshi Ikee were equally interesting: "I think perhaps last year in the Arc Soumillon went too fast too early. He's learned his lesson. The other great thing today was the way Orfevre went away from his rivals. Last year his difficult character meant he would wait for the others. I think I've succeeded of curing him of that." He concluded portentously, "Orfevre's biggest danger is Orfevre".
So connections feel they've learned from last year when he was the moral winner of the race; and the horse is obviously in prime condition. What's not to like? Well, blind euphoria should be tempered by at least two things: Firstly, the time of the Foy was abysmally slow (about 11 seconds or 200 yards slower than standard) – by some way the slowest of the three trials. Moreover, however visually superior Orfevre appeared, his closing fractions were nothing extraordinary. In addition, the quality of the field was moderate. The other factor to consider is the very poor record of horses – including some exceptional ones like Montjeu – returning for a second bite at the Arc.
It used to be a simple formula to find the Arc winner – Cherchez le Niel! In the decade leading up to 2007, the Prix Niel had supplied eight of the previous 10 Arc winners. The monopoly has long since stopped. Not since Rail Link in 2006 has the colt's trial sold the winning Arc ticket.
This year's renewal had an unusual look of quality about it with two Derby winners in the field as well as (Arc favourite and Grand Prix de Paris winner) Flintshire. In the end the race developed into a sprint from the home turn after a moderate early pace that resulted in a blanket finish where just four lengths separated the first nine home.
The immediate impression is to dismiss the field as being "much of a muchness". However, there was high merit in the winner Kizuna's performance. The Japanese Derby hero was running off the back of a 112-day lay-off and was reckoned to be just 85 per cent fit by trainer Shozo Sazaki. "Before the race I thought that if he finished within five lengths of Ruler Of The World and Flintshire, he would have a chance in the Arc," Sazaki said afterwards.
Aidan O'Brien can take encouragement from Ruler Of The World which was undoubtedly unlucky not to win. He too will have left plenty to work on with his colt and can be justifiably optimistic of turning the tables. Add to that the fact that Pricewise saw fit to take Flintshire out of the race as his Arc selection (on Thursday) and we can reasonably conclude that there are many ways to interpret last Sunday's Niel.
As impressive as Orfevre was in the Foy, the filly Treve was at least as visually convincing in the Prix Vermeille. And whereas Orfevre was perfectly poised, Treve had to extract herself from a pocket and quicken twice off a sedentary pace to master Wild Coco. The success will at least persuade new owner Sheikh Joann to part with the hundred-grand fee to get her into the race. The supplement did the trick for another filly, Danedream, two years ago, and Treve bids to emulate the feat of Zarkava (2008) in becoming the latest unbeaten Vermeille winner to trump the colts in the Arc.
She will need luck in running and Frankie Dettori is adamant that an inside draw will be critical to her chances. In addition, a near two-length defeat of a 113-rated rival in receipt of 8lbs is not Arc-winning material. However, a Treve triumph would be a fairytale for Dettori. Victory would provide him with a record-equalling fourth Arc (last on Marienbard in 2002) and, competing in his 26th consecutive Arc, this one could be in the best field ever assembled.