Prix De L’Arc de Triomphe: Don’t disrespect bog standard maidens!

On an overcast Kilkenny afternoon about this time last year a seemingly bog standard two-year old maiden race was run at Gowran Park. Of the sixteen starters, most were unexposed types and although they represented many of our high profile training operations it didn’t quite feel like one of those golden maidens that hid unrevealed secrets for a sparkling future. Looks can sometimes deceive.

Prix De L’Arc de Triomphe: Don’t disrespect bog standard maidens!

The winner was Newsman, last seen competing off a rating of 85 in a Curragh handicap and the runner up, Mittersill, hasn’t been seen winning an early season Cork maiden off 82. In less bureaucratic language – these horses are about three stone short of classic ability.

But time has proved that were was indeed a secret in the race, a big fat one. It was the colt that finished a tenderly handled fifth, running on well in the last couple of furlongs from a slow start and was, as the formbook prosaically described it, ‘closest at finish.’

Owned by the Aga Khan and trained by Dermot Weld, the now world famous Harzand was beaten five lengths that day.

Although handsome looking and beautifully bred it wasn’t exactly the kind of promising racecourse debut that would leave his trainer with warm winter hopes that he’d found the hammer to shatter one of the few remaining glass ceilings in his remarkable career.

Weld has never won The Prix De L’Arc de Triomphe a fact that still mildly surprises considering the depth of his pioneering international triumphs over the last four decades.

Tomorrow this could change as the richest flat race in France moves one hour north from the ongoing renovations at its usual Longchamp home to ‘Hippodrome’ Chantilly.

This is a spectacularly beautiful location in which to make a little bit history and with Harzand, reportedly back to his midsummer prime, Weld has more than a little bit of a chance of doing just that.

For the colt’s owner it would represent another milestone victory. The Aga Khan IV, or Imam of Nizari Ismailism to give him his fully expanded title, is even more blue blooded than Dermot Weld as his ancestry traces back through forty-nine generations directly to the Prophet Muhammed.

He and his titular predecessors have already won the race seven times since its inception in 1920.

His Grandfather won with Migoli (1948) and Nuccio (1952), his father repeated with St Crespin (1959) and the current incumbent has succeeded with Akiyda (1982), Sinndar (2000) Dalakhani (2003) and most recently with the brilliant filly Zarkava in eight years ago.

This rich harvest of Arc’s has not occurred through good luck and happenstance. It is the ongoing culmination and continuance of a breeding and racing strategy that originated almost three centuries ago in Persia, continued into colonial India and is now firmly embedded in Northern Europe.

This strategy has stood the test of time and remains keenly differentiated from the modern trends of fashionable sires, glamourous sales and record foal prices.

The Aga Khan studs have always focused on nourishing, refreshing and persevering carefully selected bloodlines over the long term while ensuring the genetic diversity of the broodmare band by regularly and creatively introducing new sires to the mating schedules.

Their average ‘working capital’ amounts to one hundred and sixty five mares. It seems to be a strategy that works, for as well as winning seven Arcs there are already ten Epsom Derbies in the bag and an almost uncountable amount of global classic and group winners in the famous green colours with red shoulder epaulettes.

Although Vedvani will also carry his colours on Sunday, the real hopes rest with Harzand. Since that indescript maiden run he has gone from strength to strength to win the English and Irish Derbies before disappointing in our Champion Stakes at Leopardstown last month. There were mitigating circumstances.

The trip was too short and having been struck into early in the race it is safe to assume that the real Harzand never showed up that day and the form should be discounted.

Tomorrow’s race will be much more to his liking as it is back to a mile and a half on a galloping track which unusually for France has a long straight and a testing uphill finish. These factors will suit Weld’s colt who is much more oil tanker than speedboat.

At Epsom he won with a sustained and relentless gallop from the bend and seemed to relish the fight when he noticed US Army Ranger getting to him half a furlong out. His powers of recovery from injury are proven and his jockey Pat Smullen is very confident that he is fully over his Leopardstown knock and was brimming with optimism when he speaking earlier this week.

“He took a couple of days after the race at Leopardstown to recover from it” he said, “and he was obviously quite sore, but this horse has unbelievable healing powers. He recovered very quickly from his bruise in the Epsom Derby to win the Irish Derby and he’s recovered very well again from this mishap. Everything seems to be in place with him. It’s all systems go.”

While few would argue that this is the highest class Arc ever run, the threats to Harzand still run deep and plenty.

Perhaps the most serious is that the good weather in France has dried the course and if the forecast rain for Paris today and tomorrow doesn’t arrive the fast going would be a negative. All the other dangers have four legs.

Fresh from wins in the Coronation Cup and the Juddmonte, Postponed is an obvious favourite with an equally obvious chance. However, five year olds have a poor record in the race and are vulnerable to lightly raced, specifically prepared, improving three year olds such as Harzand and Makahiki.

Makahiki this year carries Japan’s annual hopes to win a race that their leading jockey, Yuichi Fukunaga declared, with some hyperbole that “victory in the Arc de Triomphe is the dream of Japan and goal of the Japanese people.”

Those Japanese people often descend on Paris on the first weekend of October in almost the same numbers that the Irish descend on Cheltenham on the second week in March and if Makahiki their first win they too will raise the roof, although probably with a lot less yelling and a bit more decorum than we tend to manage in Gloucestershire.

However, the race tomorrow could be well be a blend of old and new. The old began in Persia centuries ago, the new is the possibility of Weld and Smullen picking up their first Arc.

Harzand is sure to be staying on well and to be closest at the finish. Which just goes to show that even bog-standard Gowran maidens should never, ever be disrespected again.

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