10/03/2014 2:12PM

Hovdey: An Arc victory bestows immortality


Ten years ago, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe was won by Bago, a son of Nashwan who carried the colors of the Niarchos family to a narrow victory over Cherry Mix in France’s greatest race, the same colors now flown by America’s top distance turf horse, Main Sequence.

Twenty years ago, Carnegie, a son of Arc de Triomphe winner Detroit, gave Sheikh Mohammed his first and only Arc victory under his own colors by defeating Prix du Jockey Club winner Hernando in a thriller. At the end of the 2,400 meters, or about 1 1/2 miles, the first five were separated by a head, two necks, and a half.

Thirty years ago, the results of the 1984 Arc de Triomphe looked a lot like the finish of 1983, when the filly All Along scored for owner Daniel Wildenstein and trainer Patrick Biancone. In ’84 it was their 4-year-old colt Sagace who turned back a stellar field that included Strawberry Road, Time Charter, and Sun Princess, as well as All Along. Sagace came back to win the 1985 Arc but was disqualified for interference. To get even, he later sired Arcangues, the winner of the 1993 Breeders’ Cup Classic at odds of 133-1.

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Forty years ago, the Arc belonged to Allez France, bred in Kentucky, trained by Argentina’s Angel Penna, and owned by Wildenstein. Her narrow Arc win over Comtesse de Loir was the highest of a career full of high points, during which she was a French champion for four straight years. Allez France made her final start in the National Thoroughbred Championship during the 1975 Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita. She finished up the track, but so what? It was a privilege just to see her there.

Other racing countries wish they had an Arc de Triomphe. Some of them come close – the Melbourne Cup, Epsom Derby, Japan Cup, Kentucky Derby – and yet Arc winners carry with them an air of superiority, no matter what their odds when they win, or the condition of the ground on the day, or the depth of quality behind them in the field. What they have done before or do after rarely makes much of a difference in the long run, for an Arc winner always will be in the company of Tantieme, Ribot, Sea-Bird, Mill Reef, Alleged, Dancing Brave, Sea The Stars, and whichever of the 20 runners gets there first on Sunday.

Fifty years ago, maverick Thoroughbred owner Rex Ellsworth already was having a good season with Olden Times, his horse-of-all-trades, who added the 1964 Met Mile and San Pasqual to earlier wins in the 1960 Charles S. Howard Stakes at five furlongs and the 1962 San Juan Capistrano Handicap at 1 3/4 miles.

(There will be a brief pause while the congregation wonders, once again, why they don’t make ’em like they used to.)

Always on the hustle for more prime stock, Ellsworth set his sights upon a 3-year-old colt of some promise named Prince Royal, a son of Ribot who was bred in England by an American, sold as a weanling, and raced in Italy. The price tag was about $400,000.

Prince Royal raced exactly once in Ellsworth’s colors, but he made it count. Off at 16-1 in the 1964 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, Prince Royal defeated Epsom Derby winner Santa Claus by three-quarters of a length. Ellsworth wanted Bill Shoemaker to ride Prince Royal, but Shoe demurred, suggesting the owner hire French champion Roger Poincelet instead.

“I don’t remember that, but I do remember my father did not get the share of the winning purse he expected,” said Michel Poincelet, a former exercise rider and current valet for Corey Nakatani in Southern California. “He was riding at a much higher percentage than the other riders at the time.”

With good reason. By the autumn of 1964, Roger Poincelet was 43, a multiple French champion and two-time winner of the Arc. He retired in 1969 with more than 2,500 winners – including an Epsom Derby aboard Psidium – and began a training career cut short by his death in 1977.

“I started riding in the early ‘70s, but I did not have a distinguished career,” Michel Poincelet said. “Of course, my father was a hard act to follow, and I realized quickly I was not that good, which was probably a good thing. When he became a successful trainer, I worked with him as an assistant for several years before coming to this country. We had some very good horses.”

Being thoroughly familiar with the Arc course at Longchamp, Poincelet noted that familiarity with the layout is almost essential.

“The topography of the track is so different. Most of the European jockeys who ride in the Arc know where to make their moves,” he said.

Poincelet had yet to study this year’s Arc field – which includes the top fillies Tapestry, Taghrooda, Treve, and Harp Star – but he has a firm opinion about the headline race on Arc eve, the Prix Dollar. His younger brother, Jean-Jacques Poincelet, is assistant to trainer Corine Barande-Barbe, and their stable star, Cirrus des Aigles – the John Henry of France – will be going for his fourth win in the race.

“He’s eight years old and doing as good as ever,” Poincelet said. “I was in France two weeks ago and watched him working a mile and a quarter on the grass at Chantilly. I saw him every day, but no, I did not get on him. I’m too old for that. But I did get to pet him.”