09/16/2004 11:00PM

Tinkering with French races a bad idea


NEW YORK - With a Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe that was turned upside down with the defection of longtime favorite Doyen last weekend, can the lords of French racing be feeling a bit skittish these days?

Wednesday, Baron Edouard de Rothschild, the president of France-Galop, French racing's ruling body, announced a radical series of proposals that would change the face of racing in France and have a major impact on breeding throughout the world.

Rothschild is proposing that the French Derby, or Prix du Jockey-Club, should be reduced in distance from 1 1/2 miles to 1 5/16 miles, the same distance as the French Oaks.

At the same time, he is proposing that the Grand Prix de Paris, currently a late June 1 1/4-mile event run at Longchamp for 3-year-olds, be upped to 1 1/2 miles and run at Saint-Cloud on Bastille Day, July 14. Moreover, he wants to move the 1 1/2-mile Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud from early July to a late June date at Longchamp.

Other proposals include reducing the distance of the 1 1/8-mile Prix Jean Prat for older horses to a mile and moving it from Chantilly to Saint-Cloud, reducing the distances of three of the major French Derby trials, the Prix Hocquart, Prix Noailles, and Prix Greffulhe, and to scrap altogether the other French Derby trial, the 1 5/16-mile Group 1 Prix Lupin.

The reductions in distances for so many 3-year-old races would bring the French classic season, which currently climaxes for colts with the French Derby at Chantilly on the first Sunday in June, into line with the American season, where all spring races point to the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby. The big 12-furlong race for 3-year-olds would then become a renamed Grand Prix de Paris at Saint-Cloud on July 14.

Apparently, the French are no longer sure of the quality of their 12-furlong horses, although five of the last eight French Derby winners, Dalakhani, Sulamani, Montjeu, Dream Well, and Peintre Celebre, were top class at that distance. It may be that the French breeding industry, not nearly as commercially viable as its American counterpart, feels that it is being left out of the million-dollar yearling prizes that accrue to breeders in Kentucky, where speed carries the day.

These ideas will be formally put to the France-Galop board on Monday, after which Rothschild hopes that as many racing professionals as possible will lend their voices to a debate he hopes will win over the entire European racing community.

Peter Savill, former chairman of the British Horse Racing Board, has already expressed his support for the changes. On the face of it, British racing should be pleased with a 1 5/16-mile French Derby as it would not conflict with its 1 1/2-mile Epsom Derby, a race usually run the day before the French event. Savill, however, went a step further by suggesting that the Epsom Derby should be reduced to 1 1/4 miles. The bones of Eclipse must be spinning in their grave!

Would such changes have an impact on Europe's championship race, the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe? Not as long as there is a 1 1/2-mile test such as the renamed Grand Prix de Paris on Bastille Day. The danger lies in the overall reduction of distances for 3-year-olds. That may appeal to commercially minded breeders, but would set a dangerous precedent. One need only look at the state of American racing, which France-Galop is apparently seeking to replicate, where horses running in the Kentucky Derby are rarely bred to get beyond 1 1/8 miles. Lowering the bar for the Europe's greatest classics will reverberate around the world in ways Monsieur le Baron may not fully appreciate.

As for this year's Arc, it has become a wide-open affair. Doyen is out and will probably not run again this year. Epsom Derby winner North Light's participation is dependent upon a series of works over the next two weeks. His conqueror in the Irish Derby, Grey Swallow, is now only a possible for the Arc, as trainer Dermot Weld thinks he had a very hard race when fourth in the Irish Champion Stakes.

Last year's Arc runner-up, Mubtaker, a flop in the Grosser Preis von Baden, is now an iffy Arc runner. As Hamdan Al Maktoum's racing manager, Angus Gold, put it so obscurely, "He would not definitely run in the Arc, though it is very much a possibility."

The ground is good to soft this weekend at Longchamp, which means that even a modest amount of rain between now and Arc Day, Oct. 3, would leave the course no better than soft. One who would revel in those conditions is Japanese invader Tap Dance City. A Pleasant Tap Kentucky-bred, Tap Dance City won the Japan Cup last November on very soft ground and has won his only two starts this year, the 1 1/4-mile, Grade 2 Kinko Sho on May 29 and the 1 3/8-mile, Grade 1 Takarazuka Kinen on June 27. He will, however, be going in the Arc off a 15-week absence.

Frenchmen who are bored with 1 1/2-mile turf races can gather at the Stade de France in Paris on Saturday night. France's national soccer stadium will host a pair of Thoroughbred handicaps, with offtrack parimutuel wagering available, at distances of 1 1/8 miles and 1 3/8 miles on a dirt track that measures all of two furlongs in circumference. All of France's top riders, Christophe Soumillon, Olivier Peslier, Thierry Jarnet, Thierry Thulliez and Dominique Boeuf, will be there. Looks like good practice for Lone Star Park on Oct. 30 if they don't break their necks in the process.