09/29/2006 12:00AM

Arc shapes up as a race for the ages


PARIS - Is the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe the best race in the world?

While it certainly has a reputation as such, supporters of the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes, the Irish Champion Stakes, and the Breeders' Cup Classic can all make a case for their favorite race. But just which one is the best?

Some people rate races by the handicapping figures awarded the winners. Others determine the quality of a race, and the horses in it, by what its participants have accomplished both before and after the event in question.

Taking this tack, it appears that the Arc, which is having its 85th running at Longchamp on Sunday, is the world's best race, at least over the last 10 years.

Using the admittedly subjective criteria of the lifetime Group 1 or Grade 1 victories of the first three finishers of the four aforementioned races since 1996, we find that the Arc comes out on top.

During that period, the Arc's first three finishers have won a total of 95 Group 1 races. That comes to an average of 3.17 Group 1 scores for each of them.

By comparison, the first three finishers in Leopardstown's Irish Champion Stakes over the same period have each won an average of 2.83 Group 1 races. The figure for Ascot's King George is 2.67, while the Breeders' Cup Classic checks in at 2.47.

Reviewing the horses themselves involved in this otherwise purely statistical analysis lends credence to the idea that the Arc deserves its number one position. Its winners since 1996 include Peintre Celebre (1997), who in French circles at least is regarded as world's best horse over the last decade. The 1999 Arc winner, Montjeu, rates not far behind, while Sinndar (2000), Dalakhani (2003), and Hurricane Run (2005), are all absolutely first class.

The Arc seconds and thirds support this hypothesis. The rock-solid Pilsudski won the Breeders' Cup Turf, the Irish Champion Stakes, and the Japan Cup, but ran only second in the Arc. He did that twice, behind Helissio in 1996 and Peintre Celebre a year later.

Daylami won an Irish Champion, a King George, and a Breeders' Cup Turf, but was unplaced in his lone Arc try. High Chaparral, twice third in the Arc, won an Irish Champion and two Breeders' Cup Turfs, while Swain was a two-time King George winner and an Irish Champion winner, but managed to run only second in the 1995 Arc and a third in the 1996 Arc.

There are exceptions to this pattern, of course. Helissio, the 1996 Arc winner, was third behind Swain and Pilsudski in a 1997 King George that may rate as the world's best race in the last 10 years, especially since multiple Group 1 winner Singspiel was fourth that year.

Each of the big four races has also had its share of off years.

The Arc experienced that in 1998 with Sagamix, who never won another Group 1 contest, as well as in 2001 and 2002, when the Godolphin pair of Sakhee and Marienbard won.

Golan's King George in 2002 and Doyen's in 2004 were both subpar, while Grandera's 2002 Irish Champion doesn't measure up to those of Pilsudski, Daylami, Giant's Causeway, and Fantastic Light.

The Breeders' Cup Classic, meanwhile, has had more than its share of less-than-sterling winners of late in Alphabet Soup, Awesome Again, Cat Thief, and Volponi. Those four had only two Grade 1 triumphs among them outside of the Classic, with one each chalked up by Awesome Again and Cat Thief.

Sunday's Arc at Longchamp should only enhance the race's reputation. If, as expected, it is dominated by the big three of Deep Impact, Hurricane Run, and Shirocco, this Arc will rival the 1997 King George as the best race of the last decade.