It was one of more bizarre moments of the year, an incident that left an asterisk on one of the biggest Flat races of 2015.
As Pat Smullen came to launch his challenge on Free Eagle in the closing stages of last month’s Irish Champion Stakes, leader Golden Horn suddenly lurched to his right and into the Dermot Weld horse.
It was a momentum killer for Free Eagle. Instead of a possible victory he had to settle for third behind Golden Horn and Found after the inevitable subsequent stewards’ inquiry went the way of the Epsom Derby winner.
Would Golden Horn have won had he kept straight? Would Free Eagle have snatched it? Would Found have finished any higher than third? Did the stewards get it right?
How you interpret those events is key when it comes to assessing tomorrow’s mouthwatering Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe where the first three home at Leopardstown will meet again.
Bookmakers have clearly taken the view the best horse won last month with Golden Horn 9/2 for Longchamp glory while Free Eagle and Found both available as big at 14/1.
Smullen, though, is convinced Free Eagle can reverse the form with both Golden Horn and Found.
“Definitely, no question. I don’t really pay attention to the odds but I know that with a clear run at Leopardstown I’d have definitely given Golden Horn a good race. There’s no reason why he won’t do the same Sunday,” Smullen says.
“What happened was very frustrating and I think I was only hitting top gear when I received interference. We’ll never know if I would have beaten Golden Horn or not but there’s no doubt I’d have been giving him a good run for the race so obviously it’s frustrating that we didn’t get that opportunity.
“Found will probably have improved for Leopardstown but I’d like to think I’d have finished in front of her if I had a clear run.”
Smullen reports Free Eagle to be in flying form ahead of the biggest day of his career and believes his temperament will be a huge asset in the frenzied pre-race build-up.
“He seems to be in very good form. Everyone seems to be very happy with him. He’s a very laid back horse which is always a help, he takes the preliminaries very well. He’ll conserve his energy. He’s always had a tremendous temperament and that will hopefully stand him in good stead. I think the step up to a mile and a half won’t be an issue to him.”
Tomorrow will be just the seventh run of Free Eagle’s career but while he may have been seen rarely, when he has shown up at a racecourse he’s invariably performed.
“We’ve always held him in high regard, he always showed us he was a horse of the highest ability — I think he’s shown that on the few occasions he’s got to run,” Smullen asserts.
“He was very impressive at Leopardstown on Champions Day last year when he won the Group Three, he was very good in the Prince Of Wales, he was very impressive when he won his maiden and I thought his run in the English Champions Stakes last year (when third to Noble Mission) was a very good run on very soft ground, so he’s done very little wrong. He’s a horse who is well capable of holding his own at this level.”
Much of the pre-race focus has inevitably centred on the brilliant Treve who seeks to make history by becoming the first horse to win the Arc three times.
She was something of a surprise winner 12 months ago, romping to an emphatic victory on the back of a troubled campaign. However, this season she has been flawless and is, Smullen acknowledges, a very worthy favourite.
“Treve is obviously the reigning champion and looks to be the one we all have to beat. She’s an exceptionally good mare who has obviously been prepared excellently for this race and she’s going to be very, very difficult to beat on all known evidence. She seems to be even better than her previous two seasons.
“If you were to sit down and go through it all, the one horse you’d be fearing is Treve. She’s the real standout horse of the race.”
Treve’s odds suggest a procession lies in store but, as ever, this looks a deep Arc.
“They’re all very good horses,” Smullen agrees.
“New Bay is an exceptionally good three-year-old, he was very unlucky in the French Guineas (when second to Make Believe) and won the Prix du Jockey Club very well so he’s going to a difficult opponent.
“Flintshire is a very good horse and Found ran a very good race at Leopardstown. It’s a high-class Arc, a very high-class Arc.”
That being the case how special would it be to provide Ireland’s first Arc success since Mick Kinane steered the wonderful Sea The Stars to victory in 2009?
“It’s a race you’d love to win and we’ll be giving it our best shot on Sunday. If we’re lucky enough to achieve it, it will be the career highlight.”
By the time he gets the leg up on Free Eagle Smullen may already have enjoyed another big-race success.
The Hugo Palmer-trained Covert Love is a leading player in the Prix de l’Opera after a stellar season that includes victory in the Irish Oaks before she went down narrowly to Pleascach in the Yorkshire Oaks.
Smullen expects another bold show tomorrow.
“I’m looking forward to riding her. I think Longchamp will suit her, dropping back to a mile and a quarter won’t be an issue. She’s got early tactical speed so that should be fine. She was just unfortunate to get lamped on the line at York but personally I didn’t think she was just as good as she had been at the Curragh. Everybody seems to be happy that she’s back to her best and if she’s back to the form she was in at the Curragh, she’ll be hard to beat.”
Smullen teams up with Stepper Point in the Prix de l’Abbaye but acknowledges he’ll have to improve on his two most recent showings to be in the shake-up.
“I won the Group Two (Sapphire Stakes) on him at the Curragh, he’s had two disappointing runs since but if he comes back to his form from the Curragh, he’ll be there with a fighting chance.”
However tomorrow unfolds Smullen can reflect with satisfaction on another hugely successful season that looks certain to end with him Ireland’s champion Flat jockey for an eighth time.
“I have to be very pleased with the way things have gone. I had a good Royal Ascot, the horses have been running consistently well all year, I won the Irish Oaks so I’d have to be very pleased. It looks like all going well and no mishaps I’ll be champion again this year and that’s obviously always a goal I set at the beginning of the year.”
Smullen has enjoyed a lot of good days. If Free Eagle can soar tomorrow could be the greatest of them all.
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