MAIN ARC PROTAGONISTS ALL HAVE QUESTIONS TO ANSWER
Despite being just a week away from the 2018 Qatar Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe at ParisLongchamp, I can’t help but feel so many of this year’s leading contenders have questions to answer from a whole host of different perspectives.
Last year’s winner, the brilliant Enable, looks set to defend her Arc crown despite a less than ideal season which has seen John Gosden’s four-year-old race only once. Back in May, connections reported her to be side-lined due to filling in her knee and at the time, and as the season progressed, one wondered would we see the daughter of Nathaniel again.
She was given plenty of time to recover as connections ducked early touted return targets of the Juddmonte International and the Yorkshire Oaks. Instead, the Khalid Abdullah-owned filly returned on the all-weather at Kempton in the easier Group 3 September Stakes.
I say easier, and it was in comparison to the Juddmonte over 10f but to be victorious she had to beat a Hardwicke Stakes winner and a King George VI And Queen Elizabeth Stakes runner-up in the improving and classy Crystal Ocean.
In receipt of 8lb, she was the most likely winner, as her starting price of 8/15 suggested, but off a lengthy layoff nagging worries pre-race remained. In the end, she got the job done nicely. The fact she got an uncontested lead aided her cause, but she could do no more than win as she did (by 3½ lengths). More importantly, visually, she looked in great order travelling sweetly, pricking her ears before quickening to win.
Where potential question marks now lay, are, will Enable be as good again 29 days later after what has been an interrupted season? Some will say she will likely improve for the run, and she may do, but I don’t think it’s always that simple. She will need to step forward, that I’m certain of, because the field she will face this year will potentially be stronger than the 2017 Arc line up.
Other factors to note are, Enable will tackle a different right-handed course and likely different ground this year. Last season she won at Chantilly on good to soft, next Sunday she will compete at ParisLonchamp for the first time on what could be much faster terrain.
All the above are just observations of the current 5/4 favourite. That price may likely be another potential negative for some, and for me, a 44% chance may overplay her probability of winning, for all she the obviously the most likely winner.
If the current betting is a guide, the still to be supplemented Sea Of Class (5/1) looks set to go off second favourite and appears the main danger to Enable. William Haggas’s daughter of Sea The Stars is a latecomer in nearly every sense of the word.
She came into the world as a late May foal and didn’t see the racetrack as a juvenile. Her hold-up style of racing further adds to her laid-back personality, but so far, in four of her five races Sea Of Class has arrived at the winning line on time. In truth, her scale up the ladder from an April maiden to a dual Group 1-winning filly by August is a testament to her natural ability and her trainer’s steady handling of her.
In Sea Of Class’s short career, it’s looked a case of the better the field, the better she performs, but in the Arc, she will face a much stronger group of horses than she has beaten in her Irish and Yorkshire Oaks successes.
At this moment in time, the three-year-old’s form doesn’t look good enough in black and white, but while the case, even after five starts, she’s still a hard filly to get a true handle on given the style of her victories. Substance should always be favoured over style, but style can be hard to get away from. I think this filly has a nice blend of both.
Come Sunday, Sea Of Class must also prove she can unleash her wicked turn of foot in a likely strongly-run contest, but with the ground shaping to come up decent at ParisLongchamp conditions look set to help show herself off at her best. Will she be good enough to win? I still find that hard to answer, but prevailing conditions certainly mean I wouldn’t be a layer.
Fast sod on the other hand, does deter the chance of John Gosden’s other runner, Cracksman, who in truth has been a disappointment this season. Such was the impression he made when winning last year’s Champion Stakes by 7 lengths, the opening sentence about him seems a tad harsh given he’s won two Group 1s in 2018.
Having started the campaign perfectly in France over an inadequate 10f in the Group 1 Prix Ganay, he barely clambered over the winning line at 2/7 when beating the then 110-rated Salouen at Epsom in the Coronation Cup on his favoured soft ground. Connections blamed the undulating track for the lacklustre success, a believable alibi for a horse of his stature, while also reporting the son of Frankel banged his head leaving the stalls, dazing him and thus, seemingly explaining why he never travelled at any stage.
After having such a hard race, it’s debatable whether connections should’ve backed him up 19 days later at Royal Ascot in the Prince Of Wales's Stakes on fast ground over a trip short of his best under quick conditions. There, he was well beaten by the improving, Ascot-loving Poet's Word - when proving coltish pre-race - never looking to travel. Why didn’t he travel this time? He didn’t bang his head again. Was the ground too fast? Did he have his mind on the fairer sex?
Quick ground meant Cracksman missed the King George and the Juddmonte subsequently, meaning Anthony Oppenheimer’s colt has been out of action for 109 days. John Gosden seems confident he has his charge in good form going to ParisLongchamp and if he returns to the level of his Champion Stakes win, the best-priced 14/1 on offer would look huge.
Getting back to that level on fast Autumn ground seems unlikely however, for all the step up to 12f will suit. Currently, Cracksman looks enigma-ridden which makes him tough to weigh up. I suspect soft ground – a surface his dam Rhadegunda excelled in - is the key and it looks like he won’t get that on Sunday.
Depending on where you look, Andre Fabre’s Waldgeist (9/1) is third favourite ahead of Cracksman, but of all the main contenders, at the prices, this is one horse I certainly can’t have despite him looking an improved horse when winning the Group 2 Prix Foy.
His overall form is quite some way below Enable’s best in my mind, and that’s before you factor in the 3lb fillies’ allowance the favourite will receive. I’d have him down as a horse of similar ability to Sea Of Class but wouldn’t fancy him to give 10lb to the Haggas filly over 12f and beat her. Even on good or faster ground, Cracksman may well finish ahead of him. As short as 7/1, he is one horse I’m happy to avoid at the prices. His form just doesn’t warrant him being that short.
Elsewhere, Crystal Ocean and St Leger winner Kew Gardens are worthy of mentions. The former looks an incredibly big price at 20/1 (best priced) given his progressive profile this season. Sir Michael Stoute’s inmate looks tailormade for this race and would be of each-way interest if he was supplemented and ran, but his participation is seemingly in doubt after a French racing news agency deleted a tweet saying he would not run. His price of 20/1 looks too good to be true.
On the other hand, the best priced 16/1 about Kew Gardens doesn’t look like it will last long given he is an intended runner. Aidan O’Brien’s son of Galileo will be at home on the likely quick ground and he’s as good a St Leger winner we’ve seen in recent seasons. While there must be some doubts about him producing his best just 22 days after Doncaster, and the drop back to 12f not likely to play to his strengths, he holds an obvious each-way chance with the Ballydoyle team in red-hot form.