At about 2.55pm tomorrow, the starting gates on the mile-and-a-half pole at Longchamp racecourse will snap open and 18 choicely bred thoroughbreds will jostle for an early position in the opening moment of a contest that for one of them will end with their name embedded forever in racing history.
Set in the tree-lined opulence of the Bois de Boulogne on the Western edge of Paris and overlooked both by the modernity of high-rise glass tower blocks and the antique iron of the Eiffel Tower, Longchamp radiates this history like few other racecourses can. And through its emblematic annual highlight, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, tomorrow it could radiate stronger than ever.
First run in 1920, the Arc is long established as the end-of-term crescendo of the European Flat season, the race that sorts out the pecking order for the middle-distance champions. In reality it far more than that.
Win this race and you buy yourself a slice of that Longchamp history, win it twice and you are a big fat equine legend for eternity.
Win it three times and you are…well, that’s the thing.
Nobody is quite sure what this makes you — it’s never happened. Not yet, not until tomorrow at least.
Because among those 18 early positional jostlers will be the five-year-old French wonder-mare, Treve. The beautiful, elegant, charismatic Treve, who tomorrow will try to win the race for the third year running and although six others have also won it twice, the hat-trick is as yet unclaimed.
This is Flat racing as good as it gets. If she succeeds it will be extraordinary and Gallic happiness will flow through Paris like the Seine.
She follows in some heavy hoof prints.
The first dual winner, Ksar, 1921-22, was also unique for being the only Arc winner to show up in an Ernest Hemingway short story. The great man watched him race and was obviously impressed. He wrote that “this Kzar (sic) is a great big yellow horse that looks like just nothing but run. I never saw such a horse. He was being led around the paddocks with his head down and when he went by me I felt all hollow inside he was so beautiful.”
The next dual winner Motrico left no similar literary footprint, but was an equally brilliant horse. He won it as a five-year-old in 1930 then was retired to stud immediately afterwards but was unable to perform as expected. He returned to training in 1932 and won it again that year at age seven and remains the oldest winner of the race to date.
Corrida in 1936/37 was next up, the first filly to win. Her name translates as ‘bullfight’ and she was winning at the height of the Spanish Civil War so you could say she too enjoys a tenuous Hemingway connection. Retired to stud, Corrida came to an unfortunate end that could have made an adventure novel in its own right. Her only foal won the French Derby so she could have been a powerful broodmare before she happened to turn up in the wrong place at the wrong time. In the summer of 1944 the poor beast’s Normandy paddock stood directly between the D-Day beaches and the place the allies needed to be next. She vanished without trace, never to be seen again.
The brilliant colt Tantieme won 12 of his 15 lifetime starts, including seven Group Ones, was probably the best horse to do the double at the time he collected as a three-year-old in 1950 and again a year later. However his ‘best-ever’ title only lasted three years when he was supplanted by the imperious Italian colt Ribot who, it can still be plausibly argued, was the greatest racehorse to ever nibble on a blade of grass.
He was certainly the greatest ever to win the Arc. Unbeaten in 16 races, Ribot won in 54/55, the second of these by a very long-looking six lengths from a deep and stellar field.
It was to be almost a quarter of a century before the double was repeated and for Ireland to break its duck. Alleged was an unlikely champion. Originally bought by Robert Sangster from horse whisperer Monty Roberts for the dirt tracks of California, his gait was so weird and his frame so gangly that he was redirected to Vincent O’Brien to try his luck on European grass.
It was only when he won the Great Voltiguer Stakes by a street at York a couple of months before the Arc that the public began to realise that this was real racehorse. The beneficiary of a Lester Piggott masterclass from the front in 1977, he won it coming from behind a year later.
Vincent O’Brien never failed to mention him when asked about the greatest horses he ever trained.
These are the mighty ghosts that will canter to the starting post tomorrow afternoon alongside Treve. Only Motrico and Corrida contested the race three times, but they were beaten as three-year-olds in their first attempts, so this is the first ever attempt at a hat-trick. Can she do it? If the improbable treble is ever to be achieved it is likely it will be done by a mare.
When colts of the calibre of Hurricane Run or Sea The Stars win they tend to be whipped quickly off to stud and geldings are disqualified from running. It is no coincidence the two most notable Flat racing triples in recent years were achieved by Goldikova in the Breeders Cup and Makybe Diva in the Melbourne Cup — both females.
For the umpteenth time this season the debate in the lead up has been tiresomely dominated more by the projected state of the going than by the ability of horses themselves.
The opposition is as fearsome as it should be for this class of contest and includes New Bay, Found, and Dermot Weld’s unlucky Free Eagle, who was body-slammed into submission recently in the Champion Stakes at Leopardstown by another of tomorrow’s contenders, Golden Horn. If they all turn up they will present the sternest test she has faced to date.
Her performance in her recent prep race, the Prix Vermeille, looked to be as good as anything she has ever done and the vibes coming from her trainer, Criquette Head-Maarek, are strong and confident and her price has contracted close to even money.
But be clear, this is not about money — it is about history, legacy and heritage. Savour it richly.
As Hemingway might put it, it will make you feel hollow and beautiful inside.
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