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The Epsom Derby in England may be the blue riband of European flat racing, but for many owners, jockeys and trainers the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in Paris remains something special.
When Frankie Dettori was due to ride Lammtarra in the Longchamp contest 10 years ago he was so charged up that he woke with his hair literally standing on end. Having won it, he did his biggest ever flying dismount and records in his autobiography that owner Sheikh Mohammed gave him his warmest hug ever when he reached the ground.
Founded after the first world war to celebrate the Allies’ victory and open to all ages, the Arc is Europe’s middle-distance championship, the perfect “told you so” race for late-maturing types, or horses like Dancing Brave that missed out on a Derby they should have won.
As ever, the 2005 race on Sunday presents a challenge to the punter. This year’s Derby winner, Motivator, is only third favourite, having twice been narrowly beaten since, in the Eclipse at Sandown and in the Irish Champion Stakes, by Oratorio’s sprint finish.
Motivator has been run with a refreshing openness and honesty for owner the Royal Ascot Racing Club by trainer Michael Bell and
syndicate manager Harry Herbert. Bell says: “He’s come out of his Irish race in great shape,” while Herbert insists: “It’s all systems go.” There is no Oratorio in the field this time and the race is over the Derby distance of 12 furlongs rather than 10.
Favourite is Hurricane Run, winner of the Irish Derby. Owned by the Coolmore stud operation in Ireland, though trained in France by André Fabre, he owes his position to the fact that his trainer has already won the Arc five times and to the presence in the saddle of Kieren Fallon.
Trainer Aidan O’Brien, yet to win the race, runs the St Leger winner Scorpion and he will miss Fallon, who has done so much for him this year. So who has been engaged instead? The big-race king Michael Kinane, just back after six weeks out with a broken wrist and the man whom the Coolmore team discarded two years ago in favour of Jamie Spencer. Kinane won the Arc in 1999 on Montjeu, sire of Scorpion and Hurricane Run.
Scorpion was beaten by only half a length by Hurricane Run in the Irish Derby. The 10/1 you can still get therefore makes him the each-way value for money. Fallon, who clearly has some regrets about not riding him, has been talking up Scorpion’s chances and has pointed out that the colt broke the track record when winning the Grand Prix de Paris over the Arc course in July. The only worry is that Scorpion’s St Leger victory at Doncaster in a quagmire might have taken too much out of him. No Leger winner has won the Arc since 1957.
Figures, rather than ability, make Shawanda’s price as 3/1 second favourite look ungenerous. Yes, the daughter of Arc winner Sinndar, owned by the Aga Khan, sparkled in winning the Irish Oaks and the Prix Vermeille. She is said to be thriving, still in her summer coat. But she has never before taken on the colts, and dozens of top fillies and mares have run in the Arc without success. Statistics are there to be overturned, but the last female to win was the four-year-old Urban Sea in 1993 and the last three-year-old filly to succeed was Akiyda in 1982.
Among those who could frustrate her is last year’s Arc winner Bago, trained in France by Jonathan Pease. Back problems restricted him earlier this season but the way he pounced late to beat Cherry Mix last year was impressive. and the filly Ouija Board, who does not run this year despite demonstrating at Newmarket last weekend that she retains her old ability.
Cherry Mix is an important ride on Sunday for Dettori, who needs a good one to emerge from under a cloud at the Godolphin stable. He rode a stinker, and admitted it, when he finished second on Dubawi to Starcraft in last weekend’s Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Newmarket. Disobeying the stable’s riding instructions is fine when you win. Doing it on Sheikh Mohammed’s favourite horse and losing is not recommended.
Dettori’s problem is that while Cherry Mix was second last year, the 33/1 shot has shown nothing since Godolphin bought him. It will take magic for this to be his redemption race, getting him back on hugging terms with Sheikh Mohammed.
Of the others, Norse Dancer, trained by David Elsworth, has been involved in tight finishes in a whole string of the 19 Group One races that he has contested, but is still without a Group One victory. The British contingent will happily cheer him home if this is to be the day, but few will be taking burned fingers out of their pockets to back him.
The biggest British roar, however, would be heard if Mubtaker were to triumph. Sheikh Hamdan’s old warrior, second two years ago, is now eight, but this honest character never runs a bad race and showed his well-being by winning the Cumberland Lodge Stakes at Newmarket last Sunday.