Vive La France!

Matthew Lips on his annual pilgrimage to Italy, France & Germany

Paris in the autumn can only mean one thing, at least if you’re a horsey sort of person.  The Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, now sponsored by the oil rich nation of Qatar.  As a result of that sponsorship it has become the world’s richest race on grass, and is arguably the most prestigious horse racing event on the planet.  Certainly the Japanese seem to think so.  They’ve been trying desperately to win it for years, going close a couple of times but not quite cracking it. Yet.

Accordingly, Paris in the autumn also means the biggest annual cross-channel invasion of France since D Day.  For every French speaking person one encounters at the Arc there seem to be at least ten who speak English.  It appears that the locals either shut up, or stay at home and watch the Arc on TV.  There are Yorkshire accents, Scottish accents, Cockney accents, and other indeterminate (to an ignorant visitor from South Africa) accents whose origins plainly lie somewhere on the wet island across the Pas de Calais.

Of course, the French and the Brits have revelled in pissing each other off for centuries.  Indeed, an English fellow named Stephen Clarke has penned an intriguing looking book entitled “1000 Years of Annoying The French.”  There is a copy in the store at Charles de Gaulle airport, brazenly positioned dead centre on the top shelf, just daring some brave soul to buy it.   I was sorely tempted, but the store clerk looked big enough to have tried out for the French rugby team in the not too distant past. My courage fails me, especially after the same clerk snaps none too subtly at another customer who had the temerity to ask for the price of something.   “The price is what it says,” he retorts, loud enough to be heard by the display of (probably) made-in-China miniature Eiffel Towers in the souvenir section three aisles over.   I’ll have to buy the book from Amazon instead.

So I left the airport minus book (and miniature Eiffel Tower) and, after a two weeks well-earned(?) vacation in Italy found myself back in Paris for the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.  First run under that name in 1920, the race was introduced on the resumption of racing after World War 1 to celebrate the Allies’ success in the Great War, in the blissful ignorance of the fact that the seeds of World War 2 had already been sown by the Treaty of Versailles.   Named after the principal symbol of French national pride, the Arc celebrated its 90th running this year and the first prize of almost 2.3 million Euros attracted a field of 16.  Two of them are from Japan and include Nakayama Festa, who went so close to crediting the Land of the Rising Sun with its first Arc success when beaten a head by Workforce in 2010.  Workforce was also back to try and become the first horse since Alleged in 1977/78 to win the race twice.

Workforce’s regular jockey Ryan Moore pushed himself to the limit to get fit in time to take the ride after suffering a crashing fall at Glorious Goodwood in July and was having only his third race mount since, but he needn’t have bothered.  Neither Workforce nor Nakayama Festa ever threatened to repeat their efforts from twelve months earlier and respectively finished 12th and 11th.  At least Nakayama Festa reversed the form with Sir Michael Stoute’s horse, but it’s worth stuff-all to anyone.

Climate change may be a myth to some, but there was no getting away from the fact that Paris was unseasonably warm for the first weekend of October.  Well known BBC racing presenter Claire Balding presumably attends the race every year and remarks in an interview that it was the hottest Arc day she could recall.  The ice-cream vendors were having a ball, and most of the various snack bars dotted around Longchamp’s lawns had run out of chilled white wine long before the last race.   One imagines that running out of wine in France is a crime worthy of hauling the guillotine out of retirement, but there’s still plenty of other booze on offer and that might just have been enough to keep the caterers’ heads connected to their necks.

The experts are agreed that there is no stand-out horse in this particular Arc and tip a wide array of horses to win.  The only thing they had in common is that not a single one actually tipped the winner, as things turned out.  Sarafina had been knocked sideways turning for home before finishing third in the 2010 Arc and was kept in training – contrary to HH The Aga Khan’s usual policy of retiring his best fillies at the end of their three-year-old season – to have another tilt.  She goes off as the 4.5 favourite on the Tote in bookie-less France, but those who ignored the dire warning that no four-year-old filly had won the Arc since Urban Sea in 1993 paid for their mistake when she made no show and finished seventh.  Her much less fancied stable companion Shareta fared a great deal better and carried the Aga Khan’s silks into second place, but she might as well have been on a different planet to the eventual winner.

Flying filly: Danedream spreadeagles the Arc de Triomphe field in record time

Much to the surprise of almost everybody including her connections, Danedream upholds the very good record of three-year-old fillies in the Arc by romping to a sensational five length win, breaking the race record held since 1997 by Peintre Celebre in the process.  Danedream was one of three horses supplemented to the race at virtually the last minute, an exercise which came with a cool price tag of 100 000 Euros.  Yep, that’s about a million Rand.  It’s cheap at the price, for some.  The other two late entries fare a good deal worse, and in fact one of them (the recent St Leger winner Masked Marvel) finishes dead last.  Racing at the highest level is not for the faint-hearted.

Winner of the Italian Oaks earlier this year before demolishing male rivals in two successive Gr 1 races in her native Germany, Danedream is bravely thrown in at the deep end in the Arc instead of taking the easier option of the Gr 1 Prix de l’Opera for females on the same card.  Even the small contingent of Danedream fans who make the trip to Paris from the Fatherland could scarcely believe their eyes as “their” filly made most of the best middle distance horses in Europe look like Dopey the beachfront donkey.  Most of the massive crowd was visibly scratching around in their programmes and newspapers, trying to work out who that rocket in the unfamiliar orange-black-and-white colours was that had just come past like a Concorde brought out of retirement.  The commentary was completely drowned out from the top of the straight and it would have made no difference if the commentator had been calling the race in French, English, or medieval Danish.

Shareta, at 72/1 the second biggest outsider of the field, chased Danedream home to secure the 914 000 Euro second prize ahead of much-travelled Snow Fairy, who runs on well from off the pace under Frankie Dettori to grab third prize to make it a 1-2-3 finish for horses of the females persuasion.  Whoever still believes that “a good colt will always beat a good filly” is either a) stupid or b) stupid.  Unless you happen to think that multiple Gr 1 winning colts like So You Think, Treasure Beach, St Nicholas Abbey and Workforce are not any good at all, which would be c) even more stupid.

Danedream became only the second German-trained winner of the Arc after Star Appeal’s even more unexpected success in 1975, although her trainer Peter Schiergen finished third with Tiger Hill in 1998.  Needless to say, all of the winner’s connections are delighted and are plainly bursting with pride as the resplendent brass band broke into a rousing rendition of the German national anthem, a piece much more commonly heard after a Formula 1 race (Schumacher and Vettel have made sure of that) than a horse race.  If you were watching the Arc on Tellytrack you might have missed this for a stunningly important betting move on a 25/1 shot at Huntingdon, which is rather a pity.

The post race presentation was quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen, with the podium being pulled onto the racecourse proper by an impressive (and very well trained) team of horses and parked directly on the finishing line.

The winning connections were then transported to the podium in three horse-drawn carriages, with Danedream’s jockey Andrasch Starke having obviously taken lessons from Frankie Dettori in how to properly celebrate a big win.

Waving, blowing kisses, jumping up and down on the podium and basically smooching everyone in sight irrespective of their gender, Starke gives a display of public emotion not seen from a German since the Berlin Wall came down or since the Fuhrer finally got the message that the game was up and shot himself.

Danedream, who cost just 9000 Euros as a yearling, was described by Peter Schiergen in the most predictable sound bite of 2011 as “the best horse I have ever trained.”  Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?  The jockey would have described her as the best he’s ever ridden, if they could have dragged him away from his celebratory gymnastics.

Schiergen was himself a pretty good jockey and the 273 winners he rode in 1995 still remains the European record for a single season.  He hung up his saddle only two years later and turned his hand to training.  His previous stars have included the very well-travelled Quijano, a regular visitor to Dubai until a couple of seasons ago, but that first Sunday of October 2011 in Paris eclipsed anything that either Schiergen or the ebullient Starke have ever accomplished before.

The most common questions I had to answer when I returned home from this expedition were, “what was the Arc like?” (hot and crowded) and “what is Longchamp like?”  To be blunt, for the ordinary paying customer Longchamp is pretty shitty.  There are no benches, let alone seats, in the stands for racegoers to park their butts on.  Just empty steps, with their spilled drinks, cigarette butts, and melted ice creams.  On the other hand, the admission fee of 8 Euros is precisely equivalent to the price of 2 Cokes on course and for that you get seven Gr 1 races for thoroughbreds, the World Cup for purebred Arabians, and a competitive handicap which was won in resounding style by a son of the briefly SA-domiciled Daylami.  Who cares about dirty trousers?  That’s what washing machines were designed for, for pity’s sakes.

The balance of the card included the Prix du Cadran, a 4000m marathon which sees nine-year-old Kasbah Bliss finally record his first Gr 1 win at the age of nine.  A horse who is no mean jumper and who is equally at home at Cheltenham as at Longchamp, he stays like an unwanted house guest and relishes the fast ground to win comfortably.  On the other end of the scale is the Prix de l’Abbaye, probably the most important 1000m race in Europe.  The 1000m straight course at Longchamp is closer to the back straight than the grandstand and for all that most spectators can see of the race it might as well be taking place at Chantilly or Ascot, but Tangerine Trees leads them all a merry waltz to credit jockey Tom Eaves with his first Gr 1 success.  The horse apparently has 25 owners, but even if they’re all on course they’d get lost in the crowd.

Then there is Frankie Dettori.  He starts the day having ridden an almost unbelievable 499 Group or Graded winners during his stellar career.  He picks a great day to reach the obvious milestone, achieving his 500th success when he gives unbeaten two-year-old Dabirsim a phenomenal waiting ride to win the Gr 1 Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere (formerly the Grand Criterium).  The mob gathered around the winner’s circle is predictably treated to the trademark Dettori flying dismount, but he hasn’t finished yet.  Group race win number 501 came around later in the afternoon when Dettori captured the Prix de L’Opera (the very race which was spurned by Danedream) aboard Nahrain.  There is considerable sentimental value about this result as Nahrain is trained by Roger Varian, the former assistant to Michael Jarvis who took over the stable when Jarvis was forced to retire through ill health earlier this year.  Jarvis passed away just days before  Arc weekend and sadly didn’t live to see witness his pupil’s moment of glory in the blazing French sunshine.

Arc day also featured Goldikova’s last appearance on European soil before she bids to win the Breeders’ Cup Mile for what would be an almost surreal fourth time.  There would be no fairytale ending on home soil for Freddie Head’s wonder mare as she went down in a photo finish to English raider Dream Ahead after a ding-dong finish to the Gr 1 Prix de la Foret, a race which Goldikova  has won twice in her phenomenal career, but who can complain.  For an admission fee of 8 Euros you can’t have everything.  Not even chilled white wine after the last race. – Matthew Lips

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