By Liz Price
As SOTTSASS is getting ready to take on Enable in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, his trainer Jean-Claude Rouget only wishes for one outcome: that the best horse wins.
When Jean-Claude Rouget saddled Millkom in the 1994 edition of the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, he had every right to be confident. After all, Millkom was unbeaten in four starts and had already won the Group 1 Prix Jean Prat, as well as the Group 1 Grand Prix de Paris.
However, things went wrong from the start, first when he got kicked behind the stalls and then again when the race developed on the rail while he was trying to make his bid on the outside. In the end he finished only ninth behind the winner Carnegie, leaving a disappointed Jean-Claude Rouget standing in the parade ring.
“I really don’t like it when a good horse is beaten by circumstances,” he says with conviction. “If you are beaten by a better horse, then that is only fair enough. Being beaten by the way the race developed, by tactics or because your horse got kicked, that I really hate.”
Things did not go Rouget's way with Millkom in '94.
In the 25 years that have passed since that first Sunday in October 1994, the Pau-based trainer has had little cause to have any more regrets. He has broken records, for most wins in a season to most wins of a thoroughbred trainer in Europe and horses like Le Havre, Stacelita, Ervedya and Avenir Certain, to name just a few, have provided him with classic success, whilst the likes of Literato, Almanzor and Qemah have brought him international renown.
The Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe though, has continued to elude him over the years, but he says he is not governed by it. “If it is written that I finish my training career without having won the Arc, then so be it,” he chuckles.
“If it is written that I win it with Sottsass or another one in the years to come, then that’s great. I don’t think, apart from Millkom, that we ever had a favourite in this race. I think only Millkom was favourite. Although, Behkabad was quite fancied too and he finished fourth.”
Watch the 2019 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe live on Sky Sports Racing (Sky 415 | Virgin 535) on Sunday 6th October.
He pauses and then adds: “But with Sottsass we have another big chance. He does have the profile of a horse that could win this race.”
The Peter Brant-owned Sottsass certainly made a huge impression when he stormed home in the Group 1 Prix du Jockey Club to beat the Poule d’Essai des Poulains winner and massive favourite Persian King by two lengths. His victory came as a bit of a surprise, as the son of Siyouni and Starlet’s Sister had finished only fifth on his seasonal reappearance as a three-year-old and came into the French classic on the back of listed win.
The presence of his American owner that day at Chantilly should have probably been a bit of a giveaway, but as it was, Sottsass came in a winner at 13/1. That day, he not only gave Jean-Claude Rouget his fourth success in the French derby, he also broke the track record and announced himself a serious contender for the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.
With the autumn prize in mind, Sottsass was given a long pause over the summer and then made his mid-season reappearance in the Prix Niel, a trial that had already produced a certain Carnegie in 1994. “We wanted to give him a good break after the Prix du Jockey Club, as it was run in great heat and he did break the track record,” explains Rouget.
“So we opted for the Niel. He could have gone the other route and ran on the 15th of August at Deauville, like I have done with the others, but I really wanted him to have a proper break and to get him ready for the 15th of August, I would have had to start training him in mid-July and that would have been too early.”
Although Sottsass had never run over the mile and a half, he was the big favourite of the Prix Niel. Only five runners lined up at the start of this trial for three-year-olds only, but things nearly didn’t go to plan.
“All I can say is that I will be more relaxed this Sunday than three weeks ago. In the Prix Niel, he didn’t have the right to lose. And he nearly did lose it because of the way the race panned out. He was blocked in, but that wasn’t a bad thing. In fact, it was just as well, as he only made his effort in the final stage and he came back from that race in good form. The time of the Prix Niel was more or less the same as in the Prix Foy or the Vermeille, so it looks like it was a proper trial.”
For those who still have doubts about his stamina, his answer is: “I wouldn’t run him if I didn’t think he was good. And if I had doubts about his stamina, he would have gone the same route as Almanzor. I would have gone the mile and a quarter route. I think the way he finishes, he gets more from Galileo than from Siyouni. And apart from his seasonal reappearance, he has done absolutely nothing wrong.”
Sottsass proved in the Prix Niel that stamina was no issue, but he has never encountered the older generation and his trainer admits: “I am going into the Arc with confidence, but with a horse who has never encountered Enable, who has never encountered Japan, who has never really met anyone.
“So, I can’t invent anything. I have no reference. I can’t say he is going to take his revenge or anything. I don’t know. What I do know is that the horse is looking good, he is in good form. Everything is all right.”
Rouget concludes: “I always want the best horse of the race to win. I am very fair play and if it is Enable, Japan or another horse, if they are better than him, then that’s ok. I just hope that he can express himself, that the race will go well for him. We know he can quicken, we know he is good.
“If he wins it’s fabulous, if he is second or third, it’s still very good, if he is fourth or fifth, we will be a bit disappointed and so on. What else can I say? I will take the race as it comes. As I said, I want that the best horse wins, that’s all.”