Updated on 10/05/2012 5:16PM

Hovdey: Arc de Triomphe thrives even without American involvement

Adam Coglianese/NYRA
Steve Cauthen signs autographs at Belmont in May. During his career, Cauthen regularly rode the Arc.

American racing fans don’t think too much about the Arc de Triomphe, if they think about it at all. Any race with “prix” in the name comes immediately under suspicion as strangely foreign, and what’s 4 million euros in real money anyway?

America’s owners and trainers haven’t been exactly wild about the French race either. Their idea of adventure is going for a milllion-dollar pot in West Virginia. International racing, for most American horsemen, means Woodbine.

LIVE FROM LONGCHAMP: Watch full Saturday card | Watch full Sunday card

Then again, the Arc de Triomphe, with its undulating 2,400 meters, has done okay since 1920 without much American meddling. You can count on a couple of hands the American-trained horses who have taken a shot. And don’t bother checking the field for Sunday’s running, either. Of the many flags that will fly over Longchamp, the Stars and Stripes will not be among them.

This year’s Arc lost defending champ Danedream to a quarantine scare in Germany and British favorite Nathaniel to a fever, but it still has Epsom Derby winner Camelot from Ireland and Triple Crown winner Orfevre from Japan. Both TVG and HRTV will carry the Arc live early Sunday morning.

Fact is, there always has been something better for the best North American grass horses to do this time of year. First there was the Washington, D.C. International, John D. Schapiro’s gift to the racing world. Then came the Oak Tree Invitational, inspired by Jimmy Kilroe, along with an invigorated Canadian International Championship at Woodbine and a new event, the Turf Classic, at Belmont Park.

Then along came the Breeders’ Cup Turf to blow them all out of the water. Most of the established races relocated to earlier dates to preserve a shred of dignity as BC Turf “preps.” Woodbine reinvented its race – now the Pattison Canadian International – as an alternative the week before. The Washington, D.C. International, which once came close to rivalling the Arc in prestige, disappeared completely.

Not surprisingly, the Arc has been Breeders’ Cup bomb proof, shrugging off any idea that it even remotely serves as a stepping-stone to the American prize. True enough, Arc runners and even Arc winners have come back to run in the Breeders’ Cup, but only as an afterthought. And if an Arc winner loses at the Breeders’ Cup – which all of them have so far – well, no one really cares back home.

American-bred horses win the Arc all the time, as long as they do their training and racing in Europe. The list includes Mill Reef, Dancing Brave, San San, Suave Dancer, Allez France, Urban Sea, Trempolino, Lammtarra, Peintre Celebre, Sakhee, and Alleged, who sold in California as a 2-year-old and won the Arc twice. Not bad.

Credit goes to the American owners and trainers who have given the Arc a shot, or have even seriously considered the possibility. Aaron Jones, the Oregon lumberman, sent his Eclipse champion Lemhi Gold to France early enough in 1983 to get a few races under his belt before the Arc, but he never made the race. More recently, Ken Ramsey with Kitten’s Joy, Jess Jackson with Curlin and even Dan Borislow with Toccet shared their dreams of running in the Arc, but nothing panned out.

There have been American owners try the Arc with their European-trained horses, among them Ogden L. Phipps, who won the 1928 running with Kantar. Forty-seven years later his nephew Ogden Phipps tried with Hollywood Derby winner Intrepid Hero, but was 10th to Star Appeal.

Tom Rolfe, winner of the 1965 Preakness, finished sixth to Bon Mot in the 1966 Arc de Triomphe. Carry Back, the 1961 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, was 10th in the 1962 Arc won by Soltikoff. In 1956, C.V. Whitney sent both Fisherman, winner of the 1955 D.C. International, and Career Boy, who beat Fisherman in the 1956 United Nations. Hall of Famer Sam Boulmetis Sr., 85 now and retired from the stewards stand, rode Fisherman, while Eddie Arcaro handled Career Boy.

“My dad remembers two things about that trip,” said Sam Boulmetis Jr., who followed in his father’s footsteps as both a jockey and racing steward. “First, that Arcaro fell off a horse earlier in the day. And second, there was a guy who spoke English who gave them advice on how to ride the race. Eddie said if they hadn’t listened to him they would have done a lot better.”

Maybe so. But they still wouldn’t have beaten Ribot, the defending champ, who won by six lengths. Career Boy was fourth, ahead of a bunch of good horses, while Fisherman pressed the pace and finished far back. Career Boy returned to France the following year with Boulmetis aboard and finished 18th.

“Dad said the hardest thing for the American horses and jockeys was the downhill part of the course,” Sam Jr. said. “The natural thing is to take a hold, but those jocks didn’t. They ride down the hill.”

No American jockey has ever won the Arc, but no one can say Steve Cauthen didn’t try. During the European part of his Hall of Fame career Cauthen rode the Arc often, and was heavily favored in 1987 aboard Reference Point, Europe’s best 3-year-old.

“French trainers really train their best horses specifically for the Arc,” Cauthen noted. “They want their horse fresh and 110 percent for the race, it’s that important. An English horse, especially a top 3-year-old like Reference Point, may have already gone through the classics and had a busy summer. He’d already won the Epsom Derby, the King George, and then the St. Leger. It’s tough to win the Arc that way.”

The free-running Reference Point gave it his best shot but had nothing left for the final furlong, fading to eighth behind Trempolino (co-owned by American Bruce McNallReference Point emerged from the race injured and was retired.

In addition to the American Triple Crown with Affirmed, Cauthen won 14 classic races in the British Isles. Still, he feels there is an empty spot in his trophy case where an Arc might have been.

“It’s almost like winning a classic,” he said. “I would have loved that feather in my cap.”

A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Dan Bordislew as the owner of Toccet and incorrectly included Wayne Gretzky as one of Trempolino's owners.