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Arc de Triomphe: Viewing the races through a Breeders' Cup lens
Timing-wise, the Arc meeting and the Breeders’ Cup always have meshed. Arc Day, Europe’s premier race day, falls on the first Sunday in October, roughly one month before the Breeders’ Cup, the Western Hemisphere’s best racing event since its establishment in 1984. And since the Arc meeting is upon us, with many of the best horses in Europe converging upon Paris this weekend for six Group 1 races, it means the Breeders’ Cup cannot be far below the horizon.
But, to paraphrase former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, what we know this week about the impact of the 2011 Arc on the 2011 Breeders’ Cup is that much is unknown. The “known known” is Goldikova, who starts for the third straight year in the Prix de la Foret and has had a fourth victory in the BC Mile on her agenda all season. The Foret has provided an ideal stepping-stone for Goldikova the last two years, and barring vast disappointment, this is one Longchamp race certain to produce a Breeders’ Cup starter.
As for the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, the day’s main event, who knows which horses might come out of Paris and over to Louisville, but it’s a good bet some will. In the 27 Breeders’ Cups, 56 horses who raced in the Arc shipped for a BC race. Eight of those horses won the BC Turf, and another Arc runner, Midday, won the Filly and Mare Turf. But if you are looking for Breeders’ Cup clues, the thing to do Sunday is to look behind the winner. The Arc winner rarely ventures to these shores, and the six times the hero came, he got conquered. Sakhee, 2001’s blowout Arc winner, came closest, losing by a nose to Tiznow in the Classic.
Deflating early-era BC Turf defeats by European stars such as Arc winners Dancing Brave (1986) and Trempolino (1987) belie the overall success Arc runners have found in the Turf: Arc losers are 8 for 50 in the BC Turf, a solid mark. What’s remarkable is that skill-sets required for a competent Arc performance and a win in the BC Turf seem so divergent. The Arc is contested around one sweeping turn on a huge right-handed course generally softened by fall weather. There’s a long, uphill backstretch climb before a sweeping quarter-mile turn. The turn gives way to a false straightaway sometimes mistaken for the true homestretch, which actually comes after another furlong and extends 2 1/2 furlongs to the finishing pole. By comparison, this year’s BC venue, Churchill Downs, has a flat, seven-furlong bandbox of a course. BC Turf runners whiz left-handed around three turns, just as they do at Santa Anita, and the Churchill homestretch is less than a quarter-mile.
“This is not meant as a criticism of American horses, but European horses, because of all the different racetracks they go over, they’re more versatile,” Cash Asmussen said, explaining Arc runners’ strike rate in the Breeders’ Cup.
Asmussen would know. A French champion jockey, Asmussen rode the BC Turf eight times, on several occasions piloting a horse who came out of the Arc. His best Turf finish was a third in 1987 on Village Star, who had run fourth in the Arc.
“I think it’s fairly amazing that you can ride a G1 horse over his optimum distance in four races over a four-month period, two right-handed and two left-handed, all undulating,” he said.
Tighter American tracks might be a disadvantage to a European horse, but trainers with an eye toward a trip to the States can plan for the experience. The All Along course at Chantilly, about 25 miles north of Paris, “is built along the lines of Aqueduct,” Asmussen said, and French trainers frequently use it to prepare an American-bound runner.
“You can breeze a horse a progressive mile there, and that will help,” he said, adding that he went there a couple of times when he was with trainer Francois Boutin.
It will take until sometime next week for the Arc meeting’s BC implications to take shape. Even then, European participation in the 2011 Breeders’ Cup stands on shaky ground because of the inaugural British Champions Day on Oct. 15 at Ascot. Many of the races on the card are longtime English fixtures, but purses have been significantly boosted, thanks to sponsorship from QIPCO, a Qatari investment group. The Champions Stakes purse of 1.3 million pounds ($2.02 million) makes it England’s richest race, and at 1 million pounds ($1.56 million), the Queen Elizabeth II is the richest one-mile race in Europe. It features the world’s top-ranked horse, Frankel, who in an earlier era might have faced Goldikova at Churchill. And while the turnaround from the Arc meeting to British Champions Day is too quick for most horses, an Arc Day-defector now could have one of the English races, not the Breeders’ Cup, as a rich backup.
“British horses can still go for the Breeders’ Cup if they want to, but the races we want are on dirt there, so why fly turf horses all the way over to America?” Henry Cecil, Frankel’s trainer, said last week.
A brief rundown of the Group 1’s Sunday at Longchamp.
Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe
(About 1 1/2 miles, one turn)
“What does it take to win at Longchamp? Well, the ground is going to be a bit soft,” said Asmussen, who won the Arc with Suave Dancer in 1991.
Soft ground is indeed a hallmark of French racing in general and of the Arc in particular, but strangeness is afoot this fall, with the Longchamp turf unusually fast and firm. The clerk of the course has set a watering regimen for the week, but the conditions have brought about the defection of Nathaniel and the likely inclusion of Snow Fairy. Nathaniel would have been among the Arc favorites, but the fast going has led trainer John Gosden to redirect Nathaniel to the Champion Stakes at Ascot. Another Gosden trainee, Masked Marvel, could take Nathaniel’s spot. Masked Marvel and the filly Danedream require a supplementary payment of 100,000 euros to run. If both start, the Arc could go with a field of 16.
As for Snow Fairy, she is nearly certain to run and be a possible Arc player if the ground stays fast. The horse who beat her by a half-length last out in the Irish Champion Stakes, So You Think, has a glittering resume, but three major Group 1 wins in 2011 have not lifted So You Think to the role of prerace Arc favorite. Four-year-old filly Sarafina has taken the most ante-post play among overseas betting shops. Third in the 2010 Arc, Sarafina has won her last three starts, including a course and distance prep in the Prix Foy.
So You Think is not out of the conversation for the BC Turf or Classic. Sarafina hadn’t been linked to the Breeders’ Cup until late this week, when trainer Alain de Royer-Dupre said a start in the BC Turf was a good possibility if Sarafina runs decently in the Arc. The high-class 3-year-old German filly Danedream also remains a possible runner in the Turf or the Filly and Mare Turf, and her trainer, Peter Schiergen, is a regular international traveler.
Workforce, the 2010 Arc winner, is getting relatively tepid support this year. Workforce has not looked quite himself losing two of three in 2011 and has dealt with niggling issues along the way. A year ago, he was the rare Arc winner to come to the U.S. for the BC Turf, only he didn’t actually run. Turf conditions displeased Workforce’s connections all Breeders’ Cup week, and he was scratched the morning of the race. One would think after that experience Workforce would be unlikely to return, especially if another Michael Stoute trainee, Sea Moon, is being pointed to the Turf. Stoute’s four BC Turf wins are twice what any other trainer has amassed. Two of the winners prepped in the Arc, two in other races.
Not to be overlooked is 3-year-old filly Galikova, Goldikova’s younger half-sister. Galikova started her 2011 campaign April 8, and the Arc marks her sixth race of the season, a schedule that could discourage participation in the Breeders’ Cup – even if a Goldikova-Galikova BC double has a sweet ring.
Prix de la Foret
About 7 furlongs, slight bend
It’s not like Goldikova’s connections decided at the onset of her career to win the Breeders’ Cup Mile every year. Things just have worked out that way.
Murmurs have been heard about a 2011 Goldikova decline. She is 6, after all, with 25 races behind her. She has lost twice this year, both in straight-course miles and both times by one length, first to Canford Cliffs and more recently to the 3-year-old filly Immortal Verse. With the turf condition Sunday expected to be in her favor, Goldikova should win the Foret. Canford Cliffs has been retired. Immortal Verse is off to face Frankel in the Queen Elizabeth II at Ascot. Second choice in the race’s early betting is the English sprinter Dream Ahead. Italian raider Worthadd is being considered for a run in the BC Mile, but let’s see first how he deals with Goldikova in the Foret.
Prix de l’Opera
About 1 1/4 miles, one turn
Just 10 horses have moved from a start in the Prix de l’Opera to the BC, and of those only Midday won a BC race, but the race most directly linked to the Opera, the Filly and Mare Turf, was added in 1999. This year, the Opera winner gets an automatic berth in the Filly and Mare Turf and $20,000 in travel expenses through the Breeders’ Cup Challenge program. At Wednesday’s second entry stage, 17 possible runners remained in the Opera, Arc possible Snow Fairy among them. Another entrant is Misty For Me, an Aidan O’Brien horse who already has won a BC Challenge race. Breeders' Cup Challenge schedule and results »
Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere;
Prix Marcel Boussac
About 7 furlongs, slight bend;
about 1 mile, one turn
The Boussac, for 2-year-old fillies, has produced three horses who raced in the Breeders’ Cup, none to any memorable effect, but the Lagardere, for 2-year-olds, yielded Juvenile legend Arazi and 2009 Juvenile Turf winner Pounced. None of the 12 likely runners in the 2011 Criterium made the BC racing officials’ most recent possible-starter list for the Juvenile Turf. The Aidan O’Brien-trained Power is a BC Challenge race winner, but perhaps more likely for the Juvenile Turf is Daddy Long Legs.
Pounced was trained by John Gosden, who has sent a horse for the last three editions of the Juvenile Turf and has had a runner in the Juvenile Fillies Turf. Gosden has the promising filly Elusive Kate entered to face top Aidan O’Brien filly Maybe (a BC Challenge winner) in the Boussac, but BC racing officials list Questing, not Elusive Kate, as Gosden’s possible Juvenile Fillies Turf starter.
That Euro trainers might turn away from their first string to find a 2-year-old BC starter should come as no surprise.
“They’re not sure to travel their best young horses,” Asmussen said. “Francois Boutin rarely traveled his best 2-year-old, because a lot of times he felt it left a mark on them at 3.”
Prix de l’Abbaye
About 5 furlongs, straight course
By Wednesday, there were 21 likely runners still in the Abbaye – including BC Turf Sprint possibility Prohibit – but it’s enough to know that, historically, the Abbaye has been a “Win and You’re Out” race for the Breeders’ Cup. Thirteen Abbaye horses have started in BC races, and the best finish from any of them was fourth. Abbaye horses have found a strange niche coming home eighth in the BC Sprint.
The BC future could hold more for Abbaye horses since the race menu now includes the Turf Sprint, but there remains the issue of a turning.
“Horses here are very, very programmed to run down to the turn at speed and with all that precision,” Asmussen said. “You’re going to go left-handed here as opposed to five furlongs straight. Huge difference.”
* Longchamp has a Saturday card, too. Arcangues finished fourth in the Prix Dollar the day before the Arc in 1993. A month later, he paid $267.20 winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Paris bears watching all weekend.