Listen to this article
When the horses line up for the start of the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in Paris on Sunday, will they sense something special in the air, just a whiff of occasion? It is always tempting to anthropomorphise horseracing after all, it must be more than just a bunch of animals trying to get past each other and never more so than in the Arc, a race that succeeds in being historic and grand despite the French public's customary disregard for horseracing.
It succeeds through being quintessentially French, which horseracing in general is not, and a cultural icon in the manner of the Sorbonne, Le Bateau Ivre, foie gras or Gérard Depardieu.
Indeed, French racing began with a sort of equine exception culturelle; the delightfully named Société d'Encouragement, the governing body at the time, originally limited domestic racing to French-bred and raised horses, in an effort to promote the home-grown product. That all changed in 1863 with the inaugural running of the Grand Prix de Paris, a race open to horses of all nations which offered a then-huge purse of FFr100,000. The contest allowed France's finest three-year-old thoroughbreds to test their mettle against the best animals from abroad. Later known as the Prix du Conseil Municipal and opened to older horses, it proved hugely popular.
However, the race was run as a handicap and therefore did not qualify as a Classic the category of race used to determine the best of the breed, and therefore as a selection process for thoroughbred breeders.
The Arc was created, in the same mould as the Prix du Conseil Municipal but without the handicap system, just after the first world war. Its title speaks to the spirit in which it was conceived; the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe was named after the monument under which the victorious troops marched on July 14, 1919.
After the loss of so much of the country's bloodstock and the degradation of war, the race was designed to lift French racing and the thoroughbred itself back to magnificence.
It was first run on October 3 1920, and has been held on the first Sunday in October, over a mile and a half at Longchamp racecourse in Paris, every year since barring a two-year interruption during the second world war. The race is open to male and female horses of all ages, but not to geldings, who are of no use in improving the breed.
Has the Arc served its purpose? It is certainly one of the grand events on the international racing calendar, one that all Europeans, along with the Japanese, covet. (Americans respect the race tremendously, but the timing and different style of racing tend to put off American competition). Recently, though, it has become a questionable source of top-class breeding stock, at least from the male side of the equation.
From an innocent onlooker's view, this makes no sense. After all, the Arc field is consistently one of the best in the world, and the winner therefore equivalent to an Olympic gold medal winner. Why would anyone not want to perpetuate those genes?
It comes down to the fact that most Classic races are becoming something of an anachronism. Modern breeders want pure speed, and Classic races like the Derby, the Arc or the St Leger all run over at least a mile and a half test stamina as much as speed. Indeed, the undulating nature of the tracks at Longchamp and Epsom also test a less definable type of athleticism balance, the ability to handle inconsistency and adversity. These are fine attributes in a top athlete, but not ones that translate into sharp two-year-olds in the next generation, which is what the bloodstock market wants.
That is the sad reality for males, and several recent winners Helissio, Lammtarra, Carnegie and Tony Bin were packed off to Japan. The story is different for fillies, who have a fine Arc record. Six fillies won the race between 1974 and 1983, although just one has done it since the estimable Urban Sea in 1993. Just as importantly, they have a great record in the breeding shed, where an abundance of stamina seems to be nothing but an attribute for a mother. Six of the seven fillies to win the Arc in the last 30 years have gone on to produce Group stakes winners, and another is the grand-dam of a Group winner. The most successful of them may be Urban Sea, who produced the Epsom and Irish Derby winner Galileo. She has close competition from Detroit, whose son Carnegie won the Arc 14 years after her victory in 1980. With that in mind, the Société d'Encouragement and its ilk should all be rooting for the likely female competitors on Sunday Latice, Ouija Board, Pride, Quiff, Silverskaya and Vallée Enchantée. They are better positioned than their male counterparts to perpetuate the glory of thoroughbred racing.
The writer is bloodstock editor of Racing Post