10/05/2012 4:50PM

Arc de Triomphe: St Nicholas Abbey has shot at upsetting stablemate Camelot

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St Nicholas Abbey excels at the 1 1/2-mile distance of the Arc.

The Group 1 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe is set for Sunday afternoon at Longchamp in Paris. A field of 18 passed the final scratch phase Friday morning. Here’s hoping they all make it to the gate.

The 2012 Arc already lacked the best middle-distance horse in the world – unbeaten Frankel is taking a pass on France in favor of the Champion Stakes at Ascot – and in the last 10 days top contenders Snow Fairy (injury), 2011 Arc winner Danedream (trapped by a German quarantine), and Nathaniel (fever) have dropped from the race.

It’s far from a mediocre group left to contest the 1 1/2-mile Arc, run around sweeping right-handed bends on a course expected to be no firmer than soft. Favoritism, following the withdrawals, has fallen to the Aidan O’Brien-trained Camelot, who last made headlines Sept. 16 when he finished second in the St. Leger Stakes, failing in his bid for an English Triple Crown. Camelot cuts back to a shorter distance Sunday, the trip over which he cruised in the Epsom Derby, but he is the leader of a decidedly mushy 3-year-old class and, even in a watered-down Arc, faces the strongest foes of his life.

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The other early betting favorite is the Japanese horse Orfevre, whose one-length Arc prep win in the Prix Foy came across as more workmanlike than inspiring, and who drew poorly for Sunday’s race, landing post 18. Given the holes in the top two, and the presence of many other capable runners, this year’s Arc is open to chaos.

The Arc is the sixth of eight Thoroughbred races on Longchamp’s Sunday program, and is one of seven Group 1’s on the card. Post time is scheduled for 10:25 a.m. Eastern, and North American bettors can, for the first time, wager directly into French pools.

Camelot is one of four O’Brien-trained runners in the Arc, though stablemates Robin Hood and Ernest Hemingway are mere pacemakers for Camelot and St Nicholas Abbey. The latter won the Breeders’ Cup Turf last year after finishing fifth in the Arc and may have a defense of that title as his ultimate fall agenda. But St Nicholas Abbey has maintained good form throughout 2012 and returns to a 12-furlong distance that probably is his best, though very testing conditions at Longchamp would work against him. Joseph O’Brien pilots St Nicholas Abbey, with Frankie Dettori riding Camelot for the first time.

Camelot’s St. Leger loss can’t totally be held against him, and he won the Irish Derby over soft going, but beating the likes of Born to Sea and Main Sequence does not make Camelot a wise investment at a short price Sunday.

It’s possible that French 3-year-olds have a better chance than Camelot, though horses like Saonois and Bayrir, both of whom were supplemented to the race this week, don’t appear good enough. Saonois emerged from obscurity to win the French Derby at 33-1 and made it two straight when he beat Secretariat Stakes winner Bayrir in the Prix Niel last month. The suspicion, however, is that neither race was especially strong. A third French 3-year-old, Masterstroke, can’t be ignored despite his lack of a Group 1 win since Andre Fabre, a seven-time Arc winner, trains the lightly raced winner of the Grand Prix de Deauville.

A Group 1 win has eluded talented 4-year-old Sea Moon, who was no match for St Nicholas Abbey in the BC Turf but probably is better suited to soft turf than that foe. Ryan Moore, just back from injury, has the mount on the Michael Stoute-trained colt.

Particularly interesting, provided the course is not especially soft, is Shareta, a surprise second to Danedream in the 2011 Arc. Shareta started her 2012 campaign a bit slowly but has come strongly to hand her last two races, winning the Prix Vermeille on Sept. 16 by two lengths. Shareta’s tactical speed should place her just behind the pacemakers and give her first run on the deeper closers.

Another horse with tactical pace is Great Heavens, the John Gosden-trained 3-year-old sister to Nathaniel who was supplemented to the Arc after Nathaniel came out. Great Heavens has won all four of her starts this year, including a three-length mop-up of the 12-furlong Irish Oaks in her Group 1 debut. And it was only one year ago that Danedream, another 3-year-old filly flying under the radar and coming off a sharp victory, won the Arc at long odds.