Declan Rix

Declan Rix analyses the 2020 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe; this year's renewal won by Sottsass for White Birch Farms, Jean-Claude Rouget and Cristian Demuro.

  • Tuesday 06 October
  • Blog
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Sottsass survives Stewards’ Inquiry to win disappointing Arc

Well, that’s another Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe meeting over. Going forward, we’ll do well to top the drama that transpired over the week - both on and off the track - in the coming years.

I’m still not quite sure how I feel about the two-day meeting that was run at ParisLongchamp; there were some highs – like Princess Zoe winning the Prix du Cadran, but there were lows, too. That’s sport, I suppose.

The lowest lows sadly revolved around the week’s headline race, the Arc. Given so much focus is rightly put on Europe’s greatest middle-distance contest, I can’t help but feel unfulfilled by what transpired just off the River Seine on Sunday.

Portraying the race in a negative light is possibly an unfair way of assessing it all - and that is rarely my intention - as it was no one’s fault we had heavy ground to race on. “That’s racing”, as they say and the weather will always be part of the rich tapestry that is horse racing; flat and jumps.

The brilliance of the flat thoroughbred however, is speed and speed is obviously blunted by that type of going although, it can bring out true character in a horse when the chips are down. Resilience in the equine – just like in humans - is hugely admirable, but it’s that class, that pace – a horse quickening - we all desperately want to see on the flat.

We didn’t see much of that over the two days given conditions, but unlike the Ballydoyle horses on Sunday – along with those trained by Donnacha O’Brien and Joseph O’Brien - at least some were given the opportunity to race.

Coolmore and Aidan O’Brien chose to withdraw all their ParisLongchamp Sunday declarations at the eleventh hour on Saturday night – including their four runners in the Arc - Japan, Mogul, the supplemented Serpentine and Sovereign - due to receiving positive test results for an illegal substance. The substance in question is Zilpaterol. All this, on top of ante-post favourite Love missing the race.

Contaminated feed produced by Gain Equine Nutrition was to blame. While there was still a chance all affected horses could have raced fairly on Sunday, there were no guarantees, and Ballydoyle were in reality forced to declare their Sunday declarations non-runners – all nine of them - “to protect the integrity of racing”. This is a move Ballydoyle/Coolmore deserve huge credit for; I really can’t stress that enough.

The absence of the Aidan O’Brien-trained runners changed the entire complexion of the Arc, especially with Serpentine and Sovereign not lining up; two gallopers who are best served by front-running tactics and so, who would add pace to a race.

Ballydoyle get unfairly targeted with their use of pacemakers in racing, but the Arc was a farce of a race from a pace perspective due to their absence.

What transpired was a slow-run, heavy ground Arc; the worst renewal I can ever remember in truth and a race sadly to be remembered for all the wrong reasons; unless of course, you were associated with Sottsass. Did I mention this was a Covid-19-affected year with no fans in attendance where the darling of world racing – Enable – was beaten?

I take no joy in writing the above, but on a more positive note, in part, thank goodness a class horse in Sottsass won the great race, and not In Swoop (2nd) or Gold Trip (4th). Their close up presence – and indeed the third, Persian King, was obviously down to the ground but even more so, the desperate lack of pace.

I know the above sounds harsh on In Swoop and Gold Trip – and apologises to their connections; it is not a comment on them as horses, just their ability – but their pre-race levels heading into the Arc were so low, I, personally, would have been so disappointed for the race had one of them won, even in the on-day conditions we faced this year.

OK, to their credit, both have obviously improved since being beaten by Mogul in the Grand Prix de Paris, but that was hardly outstanding form with an Arc in mind, and, on that day, the O’Brien horse, for all he had a near perfect trip and race set-up, really did beat them convincingly on fast ground.

To In Swoop’s credit, at the line on Sunday, he and Sottsass were really starting to pull away from the rest of the field, but the winner was holding the runner-up readily, and did so by a neck; the pair nearly two lengths clear of the third. Understandably, in the immediate aftermath, much of the focus was on Enable’s disappointing run, but Sottsass and especially his trainer deserve great credit.

After finishing third in last season’s Arc, Jean-Claude Rouget said a crack at the 2020 renewal would be Sottsass’s ultimate aim. Mission accomplished; after a stewards' inquiry. Rouget has brought his stable star along slowly this season, because in truth, the White Birch Farm-owned chestnut has been disappointing in 2020, in the context of last year’s third to Waldgeist.

The son of Siyouni didn’t come close to replicating the level (122+) of his 2019 Arc run this year, for all he had still been competing to a good standard; and Sottsass likely didn’t even reach that level on Sunday, where I had him running to ‘only’ 119; a poor mark for a great race like the Arc.

Given the ground, pace and the withdrawal of so many top-class horses, it’s maybe not a surprise a high figure wasn’t reached and focus should turn to Sottsass overcoming conditions that likely wouldn’t have showed him off at his best; under what was a competent ride by Cristian Demuro who always had his mount in good position.

It was a tough performance from a tough horse who improved on the back of an atypical French Arc trial in a brutal Irish Champion Stakes – run at a strong pace - where he shaped like a proper 12f horse.

Sottsass now retires to Coolmore, who bought a share in the horse last January. While potentially another blow to the French breeding industry, having lost Wootton Bassett to Coolmore earlier in the season, it is encouraging Arc third, Persian King, looks set to stand in France at Haras d'Etreham, the stud that just lost Wootton Bassett.

The training and riding performances of Persian King which saw him finish third deserve great credit, too. Pre-race, I couldn’t have Andre Fabre’s inmate on my mind in winning an Arc given it appeared he had developed into a proper miler this season, given how he travelled and the pace he was showing, but he ran a fine race.

Even on the ground, this year’s Arc was a test of speed over the trip and that’s one thing the son of Kingman has in abundance; pace. There is no doubt he was the main beneficiary of the Ballydoyle horses not running, as it allowed him to dictate the race at his own pace under a beautiful Pierre-Charles Boudot ride.

This was a fine training and riding job done by team Fabre and Boudot, especially. Mentally, Persian King looked a different horse to the one that won the Prix du Moulin a month earlier; he looked much more settled in the Arc despite going up in trip off a slow pace and got a ride from a man who is now Europe’s best and most in-form jockey. Boudot will only be 28 in December. What a talent.

Europe’s best and most in-form jockey last year was undoubtedly Frankie Dettori, but I was disappointed with the negative ride he gave Enable in this year’s race. Dettori drew criticism for his over-aggressive ride in last year’s Arc, and while Sunday’s renewal was a completely different type of race, I thought it was clear his 2019 Arc ride was still fresh in his memory. There was simply no way he was making the same mistake twice, by the looks.

While the ground was apparently most to blame, at least from Dettori’s point of view, the lack of pace I feel was just as big a factor. Either that, or Enable had a real off day, but she travelled like she was in fine order in the early part of the race, better than she did in last season’s renewal (run at a much stronger pace, to be fair) when second - also on bad ground - and this year, she had a near ideal prep in the lead-up.

Having looked a huge danger early in the straight, did Enable not pick up because of the ground or, because of the pace? Maybe both factors were at play? It’s hard not to believe any jockey that blamed the ground for bad Arc runs, but both physically and mentally, Enable was equipped to handle the prevailing conditions better than most, given her physical prowess and will to win.

Post-race, Dettori told John Gosden Enable “was never happy on the ground” and that he “didn’t feel Enable was travelling well on the ground in her action”. It’s obviously impossible for me to comment on Dettori talking about Enable’s action, but visually, it’s hard to agree with him on the first quote, given with how Enable travelled through the race, visually. For 85% of the Arc, Enable looked perfectly fine, if good enough late.

She wasn’t good enough in the closing stages, and while a bump at a very important juncture of the race didn’t do her any good, I can’t help but feel the pace was an important factor in her poor run. To my eye, she was the horse most inconvenienced by the lack of pace; it simply didn’t allow her to show her true ability and gave lesser horses a great opportunity to get close to her; something that consistently happens in slow-run races.

The level Enable ran to in both last year’s Arc (122+) and this year’s King George (121+), would have easily been good enough to win Sunday’s Arc. The common denominator about those two races? Strong gallops; the type of gallops good horses show their true worth off and lesser types crumble.

On the plus side, Enable didn’t have a tough race so, I can’t see any reason why she wouldn’t go to the Breeders’ Cup and run in the Turf.

Stradivarius also didn’t have a tough race and was another to get a poor ride. Quite how Olivier Peslier felt it wise to sit three-wide, in midfield, off a slow gallop on a strong stayer baffled. Again, on the plus side, the super tough Stradivarius may now run on British Champions Day. Hopefully anyway.

In wrapping up the Arc, I do hope the fifth horse home, Raabihah, stays in training next season. The form of her Prix Vermeille second to Tarnawa got a strong boosting over the weekend, a race that Jean-Claude Rouget clearly used as a prep for the Arc.

On Sunday, the daughter of Sea The Stars travelled much better than she did in the Vermeille, but came unstuck on the ground and was in a worse tactical position than most given the pace. Next season, it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if she improved passed the likes of In Swoop and Gold Trip; should all parties stay in training.

It was an Arc to forget in many ways, but good luck to both Sottsass and Enable in their new careers, if indeed it was the last time we see Enable, too. The mare will go down as one of the greats, despite not having a rating to match her CV, but ratings go out the window when you consider what she has achieved and what she has done for the sport.

Declan Rix
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