ROMANTIC souls rave about the pleasures of Paris in the spring. Unless they’re into horse racing, of course, in which case the city’s delights are better enjoyed later in the calendar.
“Autumn is a second spring where every leaf is a flower,” suggested the Gallic novelist and philosopher Albert Camus. Plus, the one-time goalkeeper-turned-celebrated existentialist might have added, you’ve got one of the world’s greatest races. Perhaps the greatest, though doubtless the Derbys at Epsom and Kentucky and a Cup in Melbourne will have their supporters in that respect.
Be that as it may, for all the dazzling array of colour that drenches the French capital as the summer fades, autumn in Paris means just one thing to racing folk: the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.
Watch the 2019 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe live on Sky Sports Racing (Sky 415 | Virgin 535) on Sunday 6th October.
"Ce n'est pas une course, c'est un monument!” – "It's not a race, it's a monument” – claims a slogan first used on promotional posters in 2003 without any trace of exaggeration.
You can believe the hype. For decades, champions have clashed, been anointed and frequently dethroned on Longchamp’s Elysian Fields on the outer reaches of the Bois de Boulogne.
Inaugurated in 1920, what has long been Europe’s richest race was designed as a weight-for-age championship and, after a few prize-money boosts, did not waste much time fulfilling that ambition to the extent that no horse with serious claims to European champion middle-distance status can truly afford to miss the first Sunday in October. Well, not unless they’re called Frankel, that is. Or a gelding, as they’re not allowed to run.
Based on the Arc model, Ascot’s King George was created as a direct competitor to the race 31 years its senior; for all its glories, the midsummer showpiece may have sometimes rivalled its end-of-season counterpart. It has never surpassed it.
Just listen, for example, to the American industrialist Peter Brant, whose colours will be carried by French Derby winner Sottsass, one of the biggest threats to the magnificent mare Enable in Sunday’s €5 million contest. Brant, who also owns star US filly Sistercharlie, first visited Longchamp when he saw the majestic Mill Reef floor the crack French filly Pistol Packer in 1971, and has coveted the Arc ever since.
"The Arc always has been for me the ultimate race to win because it's one of the most challenging races in the world," Brant said, speaking to the Blood-Horse. “It’s difficult to win because you have the best horses of that year there. The three-year-olds, the four-year-olds, the five-year-olds, the six-year-olds. You have the best of the best, making it a very unusually difficult race to win.”
When Enable bids to complete her unprecedented hat-trick under Frankie Dettori, she will be attempting to add a new chapter to a history already overflowing with episodes that have gone down in the annals of the Turf.
We are talking about a veritable litany of greats, so many formidable names that to mention just a few is to risk obvious omission. Still let’s have a go: from Ribot and Sea-Bird via Allez France, Alleged and Dancing Brave to Sea The Stars and Treve – and, yes, not forgetting the defeats of Sir Ivor and Nijinsky – the Arc has been home to a multitude of the most memorable moments racing has ever seen. Peintre Celebre, Dalakhani, Zarkava… the list goes on.
For the sake of full disclosure, there has also been the occasional hint of the ridiculous to offset the sublime: the 1947 Arc was won by the jumper Le Paillon, an unlucky second to National Spirit in the Champion Hurdle earlier that year before romping home in the French equivalent.
For all that, however, the special atmosphere that always pervades Arc weekend is about more than just the horses, as brilliant as they are. Home to more than 50 per cent of France’s Group 1 races – seven of them over the Qatar-sponsored Arc weekend – Longchamp has always been a byword for racing elegance, sophistication and prestige. Immortalised on canvas by the likes of Manet and Degas, French racing’s flagship venue was opened in 1857 in front of Emperor Napoleon III and his wife Eugenie, who arrived on their private yacht having sailed down the Seine.
But let’s be honest about this: for all its prestige and aristocratic history, racing in France can often be a fairly dry experience, occasionally the wrong side of stuffy with racecourses often sparsely populated by professionals and a smattering of hardened aficionados clutching their Paris-Turf.
Not so on the first weekend in October, however, when Longchamp – rebranded ParisLongchamp after the recent €140m development, though nobody ever uses that name – is absolutely heaving with cross-Channel visitors arriving at the Gare du Nord via Eurostar for their annual pilgrimage.
On this subject, I am not going to try to outdo my esteemed former colleague Paul Haigh. “For a true racing fan,” wrote Haigh, “the sight of the great white wedding cake that is the stands has a quasi-religious impact.
“No doubt those lucky enough to enjoy the consolations of religion experience a similar frisson when first they clap eyes on the cathedral of Chartres or the gargoyles of Notre Dame.”
That incredible sense of awe still exists at Longchamp, even now the ‘wedding cake’ is no longer consigned to history in the two-year redevelopment that began after Golden Horn’s victory in 2015, leaving the next two Arcs to be run in front of the chateau at Chantilly before the new stand opened.
Jockey Stephane Pasquier laid the foundation stone for the new grandstand in March 2016. “A dream has become reality,” proclaimed France Galop president Edouard de Rothschild when the building was opened a couple of years later, the two old iconic grandstands replaced by a single entity designed by Dominique Perrault, the architect also responsible for the Francois Mitterand National Library.
But if some things have changed at Longchamp, some remain resolutely the same. There’s the windmill (hence the Prix du Moulin), the false straight, a bewildering number of winning posts and various circuits, a five-furlong track no one can see for the Prix de l’Abbaye and the bronze statue of Gladiateur, the ‘Avenger of Waterloo’ who won the British Triple Crown in 1865 before a 40-length success in the Ascot Gold Cup.
Also the same is the fact that you will be more likely to encounter a rosbif than a turfiste among the 60,000 at Longchamp on Sunday, when a unique atmosphere will doubtless be enhanced by the annual influx of hugely enthusiastic Japanese racefans.
After a series of agonising near-misses, the Arc – which they refer to as the ‘Gaisenmon-sho’ – has become something of a holy grail for the Japanese racing community. They certainly make their presence felt in the stands, as anyone who witnessed the 2006 edition will attest as over 5,000 visitors from the Far East were on course to support their Triple Crown hero Deep Impact. Thanks to the power of the yen, he was sent off a 1-10 chance in the Pari-Mutuel pool, before rather letting the side down in finishing a one-length third behind Rail Link (albeit under a questionable ride).
The Japanese are back again this weekend with a handful of runners, and while they deserve a bit of luck, they’ll certainly need it with Enable heading the field and odds-on to record a historic third success.
Not that anyone connected with her will be taking anything for granted in a race not won by a five-year-old since Marienbard in 2002. “She’s managed to win two Arcs, maybe it’s greedy to think of a third,” reflected her trainer John Gosden recently.
Let’s hope not, eh?