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The St Leger, the last of the five Classics, is now a fading memory, and the vintage pecking order has been loosely formed. So that’s that for the flat, right? Wrong!
During the next six weeks, as the National Hunt beasts shrug off their aestivation, we’ll be treated to the very best end of season racing parties on the planet, courtesy of Longchamp’s Arc weekend; Ascot’s Champions Day; Santa Anita’s Breeders Cup; and Victoria State’s Melbourne Cup.
These jamborees may not be to everyone’s tastes. After all, three of them are overseas and the other is a mere three years young this time around. So, for traditionalist turfists, there is but a handful of backend Newmarket juvenile Group contests, and the Racing Post Trophy, to await.
Pity them, for the treats in store for those who embrace the increasingly global nature of our sport are manifold.
Let’s scan the menu for some sumptuous equine morsels.
For the hungry, the starter is always the most satisfying course on the carte. Famished fellows delight, then, at the rich and wholesome fare from across La Manche on the first weekend of October in gay Parree.
Longchamp doesn’t just plonk a single large terrine upon our punting plate. Oh no, those Gallic types are a good bit more sophisticated than that: they greet us with a veritable (pronounced vehr-ee-tah-bleu) assiette of compelling contests.
Saturday’s under-rated card features four Group races, including the Prix Daniel Wildenstein, the Prix de Royallieu, and the Prix Dollar. The last named event – run over ten furlongs or thereabouts – has been won twice by the brilliant Cirrus des Aigles in the last three years. And he will bid to make it a Prix Dollar three Dollar on 5th October, most likely as a prep for Champions Day. More on that anon.
The second half of this top class Parisian tasting plate is loaded with delicacies. No fewer than seven Group 1 races are set to tantalise the taste buds on Sunday, with the Prix de l’Opera, the Cadran, the Marcel Boussac, the Jean-Luc Lagardere, the Foret and, of most interest to us Brits, the Abbaye and the Arc.
The Abbaye is a five furlong sprint and it has been something of a British benefit in recent times, with nine of the last eleven renewals bagged by les Rosbifs. Last year was a notable exception, when Robert Collet’s Wizz Kid lived up to her name and took the fast-advancing British battalion by surprise. How well she did is highlighted by the fact that the next eight home were all British or Irish sprinters!
And then there’s the Arc, arguably the most important race in the European calendar. Indeed, arguably the most important race in the global racing calendar. This is a truly international contest, over a mile and a half, and never won by a bad horse.
Solemia was a rarity last year, in that she had not previously won a Group 1 contest. She was nominated on geegeez as a value play in the race nevertheless, and at 33/1 – having been available at double those odds earlier in the weekend – she was a very popular winner around these parts!
It is interesting to note that three of the last five Arc winners were fillies and, going back as far as another brilliant mare in Urban Sea in 1993 (mummy to both Galileo and Sea The Stars, himself a superb Arc winner; as well as Black Sam Bellamy; All Too Beautiful; 1.8 million guineas yearling, My Typhoon – won a Grade 1 in America; and, Born To Sea, second in the Irish Derby), fifteen of the last twenty winners of the race were three years old.
That’s potentially good news for the likes of Treve (French Oaks winner, so a filly too); Kizuna (Japanese Derby winner); Ruler Of The World (Epsom Derby winner); and Flintshire (Grand Prix de Paris – unofficial French Derby – winner)… and perhaps bad news for older horses such as Orfevre, so cruelly denied by his own kinky personality last year; and Novellist, a crack German with no such character defects.
And that, both literally and in this somewhat laboured metaphor, is just for starters.
With barely time to digest that fulsome first course, it’s fortunate that there’s something to cleanse the palate before the long haul that is the main course.
Ascot’s new Champions Day meeting sits – mercifully for racing fans – like an antacid tablet ‘twixt Arc and Breeders weekends. Its purpose is to reset our punting taste buds and ready us for the gorgefest to follow.
The Champion Stakes itself, moved from Newmarket just three years ago (to much huff and puff from those traditionalist turfists), provides a pure test of speed and stamina. It was the perfect race for Frankel to bow out, and he did that – unbeaten – on unfavoured soft ground over an (arguably) unfavoured distance.
The closest challenger there was the inaugural Ascot winner, Cirrus des Aigles and, all being well after the Prix (three) Dollar, CdA will return with no Frankel to trouble him. His current odds of 12/1 with Coral are surely too big, despite a listless campaign prior to his recent first win. He’ll be rock hard fit on October 19th, and will surely make the frame at least, with an Autumn programme always having been on the agenda.
Many racing fans will be full by this point, and will choose to leave the table prior to the horses leaving the parade ring for the first of the late season Festivals held outside Europe. But what a pity for those small-bellied purists, as Santa Anita is a filthy burger of a main course with cordon bleu trimmings.
As Samuel L Jackson might say, “This is some serious gourmet shit!”
True, they’ve re-layed the old dirt track after the Euro’s ran riot on the synthetic tapeta during its short tenure on the West Coast (completely unrelated, of course. Ahem). And true – and much worse – the So Cal horsemen have reneged on their promises to rid their sport of raceday medication, a move The Guardian’s excellent Greg Wood described as a “spineless retreat” in this piece.
At least the juvies will be sans médicaments for the second time in 2013. And that will again give the Euros the best hand, especially in the turf races.
But if you can suspend your distaste for the means, the end may justify your faith. Although the flagship race, the Breeders Cup Classic, has lost a bit of its lustre in the last couple of years, it remains a race of deep fascination and complexity.
Declaration Of War, should he run in the Classic rather than the Champion Stakes, would be an extremely solid contender, with both tactical speed and stamina assured. He has a full on US dirt pedigree, too.
Across the two days, there will be many heroes and villains, and Europe – though not necessarily Britain – will enjoy its moments in the Californian sun.
I can’t help myself. As much as I love the French nouvelle cuisine of Arc weekend – and the new English gastro-gaff that is Champions Day – there’s just something tremendously titillating about this gourmet filthburger known more commonly as the Breeders Cup, and I am an unashamed fan of the meet(ing).
I do seriously wish they’d sort the race day medication issue, though. That’s a poor show. And perhaps move it somewhere other than Santa Anita for a change. Gulfstream Park, maybe? (NB I know there are logistical issues with that, but I still wish it would happen).
If you’re not stuffed by now, fair play/shame on you*. [*delete as applicable]
And fear not, for those with a truly hearty appetite have one last dish with which to sate their slavering jowels. It’s a tough race for us Northern Hemisphere chaps to accept as part of the late season menu, mainly because it sets off at about four in the morning, when most sane Europeans are in their pits deep in slumber.
But if you set the alarm clock – or, more sensibly, the video or Sky+ – it’s a cracking contest, with plenty of British and Irish interest… though normally in a ‘kick the dog’ sort of way.
It’s Australia’s race. “The race that stops a nation”, they call it. And fair enough.
Britain and Ireland are generally very well represented – last year, ‘we’ ran six. And the French ran two. And ‘we’ normally under-achieve. While the French have won twice in the last three years, Ireland hasn’t won since Dermot Weld grabbed the second of his pair in 2002. And Britain has yet to win the race. Ever!
It’s a proper pudding race too. It’s typically run as though the horses have been through the same series of plates (Cox Plate notwithstanding) as we fans: they spoon rapidly through the first quarter, before settling down to a bloated crawl, and finally make a desperate sprint to the bottom of the bowl – or the jam stick if you prefer.
This style of racing is well suited to French racing, and to some degree Irish racing too. It is generally unsuited to British racing and probably helps to explain the lack of success the home squad has had. Probably.
It never fails to allow the home press to indulge in a spot of dog-kicking, or pom bashing as they like to call it.
In any case, French form should be marked up, and the home guard is always the strongest. If you’ve still got room for pud – I generally haven’t, with a nasty bout of wagering indigestion setting in after the Breeders’ Cup – then this will fill you up all right.
So yes, a far from flat end to the season. Different challenges abound at this international all-you-can-eat buffet. And the sheer variety and depth of quality is something to behold, wherever you reside on the traditionalist/internationalist continuum.
It’s time to build up an appetite.
Enjoy the feast!