If it’s not always been the most romantic of contests, the Qatar Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe continues to be European racing’s most evocative occasion, a point likely to be underlined once again at Longchamp this weekend.
Whether it’s the idea of Paris in the fall – or simply a €5 million pot that makes it Europe’s most valuable race – the Arc is a racing ritual so redolent of history that even Parisians make a pilgrimage to the Bois de Boulogne and fill Longchamp for the only time of the year.
Local willingness to abandon insouciance for a day underlines a sense of exceptionalism that for decades has also made Arc-day an irresistible draw for thousands of other racegoers from Ireland and Britain.
Crucial to it is over a century’s worth of history although the Arc’s distinct glamour was quickly established.
Ksar won in both 1921 and 1922 leaving a distinct impression on one young American racegoer called Ernest Hemingway who described a “great big yellow horse that looks like just nothing but run. I never saw such a horse. He was being led around the paddocks with his head down and when he went by me, I felt all hollow inside he was so beautiful”.
‘Papa’ wasn’t the first to be enthralled by Longchamp’s spectacle and a race that after the War became one of the twin pillars of European racing prestige.
Bloodstock fashion’s fluctuating tastes mean the snappy old line about the Derby at Epsom identifying a champion and the Arc confirming doesn’t quite trip off the tongue anymore. But there’s still no greater glory in the game.
It’s why the rare accomplishment of winning both has such resonance. The last to do it was Golden Horn in 2015, a brilliant horse that still didn’t quite manage to attain the rarefied level of Sea The Stars, Mill Reef and Sea Bird who achieved indisputable greatness.
The fact that this year’s Derby hero Auguste Rodin will be safely tucked up at Aidan O’Brien’s Ballydoyle yard come 3.05 on Sunday underlines the Arc’s more modern context.
Fears of unromantic ground more akin to Cheltenham in winter than Paris in the sunshine has led O’Brien to skip the Arc with a horse that seemed tailor-made for Longchamp but is instead waiting for next month’s Breeders’ Cup in Los Angeles.
It’s ironic then that the fastest Arc going in six years is likely. But with Ascot’s Champions Day just three weeks away, and the Irish Champions festival only three weeks past, a slew of alternative options means Longchamp is no longer an automatic date for a top-class European middle-distance horse.
Bypassing the Arc like this is not new for O’Brien and the Coolmore team. Galileo, the sire of Auguste Rodin’s dam, skipped Paris in 2001 only to flop on dirt at the Breeders Cup. It confirmed him to be what he was, a top-class mile and a half turf horse.
Even two decades ago that status wasn’t being pushed in any stallion brochures and perhaps the ultimate irony is that, once Galileo went to stud, he quickly became the most prepotent sire of his or perhaps any other era.
The Arc’s prestige survived that commercial snub and retains its stature as Europe’s greatest prize, something that can’t mean it delivers in the greatness stakes every year.
Whether due to ground or the race being at the end of a long season, there have been plenty winners with little or no aspiration to legendary status, horses such as Solemia in 2012 or Marienbard a decade before that. But rare is the Arc without an absorbing storyline.
In Auguste Rodin’s absence, O’Brien’s hopes for a third victory rest on the Leger winner Continuous. In a year when France renewed its ability to keep its best prizes rather than have them easy pickings for overseas raiders it would be fitting if Ace Impact or Feed The Flame won the ultimate French race.
However, in terms of a vivid story to take its place in Arc history perhaps the ultimate outcome wouldn’t be victory for France, Ireland, Britain or Germany, but the country that might just value Europe’s greatest race most of all.
The first horse from Japan to run in the Arc was the unplaced Speed Symboli in 1969. Three decades later it took the exceptional Montjeu to deprive El Condor Pasa of a prize that has become a Holy Grail for Japanese racing.
In just a matter of decades Japan has transformed from a racing backwater into the world’s newest thoroughbred powerhouse. The latest and most spectacular confirmation of that came last spring in Dubai when Equinox catapulted himself to the status of the world’s highest rated racehorse.
The most desired prize of all though remains the Arc and the reality is that in 18 editions to date Japan has come up short. Even their very best champion, Deep Impact, couldn’t pull it off, memorably losing out in 2006.
Equinox has stayed at home but the mare that ran him to a neck on her last start, Through Seven Seas, is lining up. She’s not the best to ever come from Japan but should she win, it would earn her a singular slot in history and elicit a reaction from the other side of the world to confirm just how special the prize is.
SOMETHING FOR THE WEEKEND
A top-class field lines up for the Arc but if there is an exceptional horse among them it’s likely to be ACE IMPACT (3.05.) Unbeaten, including in a devastating French Derby performance, he hasn’t raced at a mile and a half but is bred to get it and drying ground can help him deliver a devastating final kick.
Closer to home, at Dundalk on Friday evening, a good start might see BOLD DISCOVERY (6.45) hard to peg back from a stall one draw.