France has a long-established reputation for showcasing the very best of racing on Arc Day -- and Sunday’s captivating renewal was no exception.
The action at Chantilly, laced with seven Group One races, was spearheaded, of course, by the authoritative victory of ENABLE in the Qatar Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.
But John Gosden’s filly was not alone in making the hairs on the back of the neck stand up. BATTAASH, the fastest fruitcake in the west, unleashed a sparkling sprinting performance to run away with the Qatar Prix de l’Abbaye. RHODODENDRON made a remarkable return to her best in the Prix de l’Opera Longines only four months after being broken by Enable at Epsom and only 14 weeks after bleeding, pulling up and looking down and out in the French Oaks at this same track. If ever there was an advert for the training talents of Aidan O’Brien, that was it. ACLAIM claimed the first Group One successes of trainer Martyn Meade and a jockey who has few superiors in the weighing-room at present, Oisin Murphy. And a handful of invaluable 2018 Classic clues were provided by the two juvenile contests, via the victory of WILD ILLUSION in the Total Prix Marcel Boussac and via the first two home, HAPPILY and OLMEDO, in the Qatar Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere. Either Charlie Appleby’s filly or O’Brien’s charge could well succeed Enable in the Oaks winner’s enclosure at Epsom next June, while Jean-Claude Rouget’s colt must be on the shortlist for both the French Guineas and French Derby next year.
Once the riveting racing had closed, however, most of the attention focused on the latest Arc heroine, the seventh filly to land the great race in the last ten years. And most of it was based on emotion, rather than forensic evidence. After such major contests, I feel it’s important to take a dispassionate view. Falling to do so does a disservice to future generations who rely on accurate observations.
For what it’s worth, my view is that, while visually impressive, Enable achieved no more than she was entitled to. No more than the formbook and all previous evidence suggested she could, and should, achieve. It was a good, interesting Arc, but not a vintage, top-class one, mainly because of the unusually weak French challenge. Yes, Andre Fabre’s CLOTH OF STARS, in second, and Rouget’s BRAMETOT, in fifth, ran fine races, but both are better over 10f than the Arc trip of 12f. Similar stamina doubts also enveloped the other crack 3yo filly in the line-up, WINTER, while two of her stablemates, ORDER OF ST GEORGE and CAPRI, are staying types, never likely to have the pace required to win a race of this nature. On top of that, the likes of ULYSSES and IDAHO had little chance of reversing King George form with Enable, particularly on unsuitable ground, while the challenge from Germany and Japan was wildly sub-standard.
All of this did not make it a bad Arc which, according to TV presenter Nick Luck, has been suggested in some quarters. But Luck’s defence of the race that “nine of the first ten were Group Ones” doesn’t really wash either, given that most of the contenders, most years, have already landed such a prize. Palpably, Enable was the horse best suited to this year’s contest, particularly when the ground turned Soft and particularly when she was allotted such a handy inside draw, and she duly justified her cramped SP of 4-5. Compared to those previous six winning fillies since 2007, I would put her achievement just behind that of the deadly Danedream in 2011, but far behind the scintillating effort of Treve in 2013.
Where the wow factor comes in with Khalid Abdullah’s filly, and what allows us to sprinkle the stardust on her, is the exceptional durability that has enabled her to remain at the highest level for so long this season, producing performance after performance of ultimate pace and power. She has been on the go since way back on Friday, April 21, when beaten into third in a Conditions race at Newbury. Even though she was no match for stablemate Shutter Speed and Brian Meehan’s St Leger also-ran Raheen House that day, I noted her in this column as one to follow, but not even I could have dreamed that she’d develop into the filly she has. Oaks wins at Chester, Epsom, The Curragh and York all followed amid a flurry of five straight Group Ones that also included a taming of the colts in the King George at Ascot.
Conventional wisdom, which has its roots in France, says you cannot win an Arc without a mid-season break, and you certainly cannot win it if you take in the King George en route. Well, Enable has thoroughly debunked those myths, even though her style of racing, which always has her a shade too keen early on before winding up to a galloping crescendo that propels her clear in the final 2f, must take a lot out of her.
She has delivered every time and, of course, much of the credit for that must go to trainer John Gosden and jockey Frankie Dettori, whose goldmines of experience and knowhow similarly harnessed the ability of another brilliant horse, Golden Horn, to land the Arc of 2015. At 66, Gosden is at the peak of his powers and when you consider other magnificent horses he has handled in the last ten years, the likes of Kingman, Taghrooda, Raven’s Pass and Enable’s own sire, Nathaniel, it is clear he is fast developing into one of the best UK racing has ever seen. At 46, Dettori shows no sign of retreating into his Sardinian shell. His crowd-pleasing flamboyance belies a clinical coolness on the big occasions. As it was on Golden Horn, Dettori’s ride on Enable was perfection, particularly as he resisted the obvious tactic to make all. It earned him a record fifth Arc that, amazingly, would have been his seventh had he not been injured for Treve’s 2013 success and then controversially jocked off for her repeat victory 12 months later.
Whether we see Gosden, Dettori and Enable in tandem again next year is open to more doubt, in my opinion, than most seem to believe. As things stand, the filly’s value as a breeding proposition must be astronomical and given owner Abdullah’s business-like modus operandi, developed over many decades, the temptation might well be to whisk her off to the paddocks, particularly as he has won virtually everything there is to be realistically won with her on the track.
I hope I am wrong, and if so, the main target for Enable next year will be a second Arc, back at a revamped Longchamp. The return of the race to its rightful home will, hopefully, coincide also with better fortunes for the French after a blank in all Group One races on Sunday. There was a worrying whiff of triumphalism in the Chantilly air after the UK/Ireland whitewash, and even reports of flag-waving, tub-thumping singing among the visiting contingent, as if they were at a UKIP convention. But for the sake of the sport as a whole, and its richly attractive international appeal and competitiveness, French racing needs to flourish. Just as the domination of Ireland at the Cheltenham Festival underlines the fragile state of UK Jumps racing at the moment, a dearth of home-based winners on France’s showpiece day exposes a disturbing trend, and certainly not one to be celebrated.