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Fastest, fittest, bravest. Racing is all about excellence, being first, the best. At Longchamp on Sunday we could at last discover a champion worthy of being hailed as the racehorse of the year. A maximum field of 20 for the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe includes the winners of the English, Irish and French Derbies, respectively North Light, Grey Swallow and Blue Canari, together with Ouija Board, the impressive filly who won both the English and the Irish Oaks.
Another exciting potential participant is Bago, the Nashwan colt who was the champion two-year-old in Europe last year. Chantilly trainer Jonathan Pease reckons him the best horse he has ever handled and Bago was unbeaten until he tackled the Juddmonte International at York last month and could only finish third behind Godolphin's Sulamani. Then there is the canny veteran Warrsan, winner of the Grosser Preis von Baden this month, who is in his best form ever this season at the age of six.
It should be a great middle-distance finale. The only problem for the punter is that the likely runners in Sunday's big race have more provisos attached to their participation than the small print clauses in a contract from a dodgy car insurer. North Light won't run if the ground is too quick. Ouija Board won't go if it is soft, although trainer Ed Dunlop seems confident that the filly will take her chance alongside the colts. Bago won't leave his home stable if the ground turns heavy.
Grey Swallow and Blue Canari were supplemented for a fee of £60,000 at yesterday's acceptance stage, but Mubtaker, second in the race last year, failed to convince owner Hamdan Al Maktoum and trainer Marcus Tregoning that he should take his chance after flopping behind Warrsan in Germany last month. That left a field of 21, which means one horse will be forced out before Sunday's race.
Even when they start there will be question marks. North Light, trained by Sir Michael Stoute and to be ridden by Kieren Fallon, has not contested a race since he returned from the Irish Derby with a leg injury. Ouija Board, whom Fallon has partnered to her two Classic victories, will be partnered in France by big race specialist Johnny Murtagh. She has stamped herself as a filly of real class but no three-year-old filly has triumphed at Longchamp since 1982.
Another fascinating entry, the Japan Cup winner Tap Dance City, was nearly scratched after the plane due to bring him broke down in Mexico. Then his owners insisted he must take his chance and an alternative flight was found. But he will have faced a marathon journey close to the race.
With the Boys in Blue carrying all before them this season punters are taking a good look too at the Godolphin entry Mamool, who is in effect stepping off the equine substitutes' bench. Doyen was to have been Godolphin's Arc contender but he was ruled out after failing to produce anything like his top form in the Irish Champion Stakes.
Then their Juddmonte International victor Sulamani was promoted to Godolphin standard-bearer and race favourite, only to disappoint in his home gallops and be ruled out of the race in turn. But in Mamool, who was so badly injured in last year's Melbourne Cup that they thought he might never race again, they have a truly worthy substitute. Those of us who saw his sparkling win in the September Stakes at Kempton were mightily impressed and coincidence backers have not forgotten that Marienbard, another strong stayer who matured late, was in exactly the same category two years ago. He stepped in as Godolphin's substitute for the classier Sakhee and Grandera. And he won.
Mamool, I believe, can equal that feat with Warrsan, who beat Doyen in the Coronation Cup, the each way value.
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