Being the best. The most prestigious. The most seen. That’s what every race meeting in the world wants to be. But only one race can claim what is possibly the most sought after title of all – the world’s best race. And that title belongs to the Qatar Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.
The first weekend of October is the scene for what might be the biggest party in a city known for festivities. Summer holidays are long gone. Life is coming back to normal. But summer still hangs over Paris. The streets are still warm. Cafés still fill with people sipping 1647 or a glass of white. The trees in Paris’ enormous park – Bois de Boulogne – are still green.
The feeling is that of just-before-the-party. It’s all in the air.
Streets are being shut down and policed. Temporary bus stops are set up. Parking attendants in bright yellow vests go through their last training. It feels like a coronation is about to happen.
And it just might be. The ads for the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe spell it out:
”Plus qu’une victoire – Une sacre”
More than a victory – a coronation.
In a few days a new king – or queen – will carry the crown.
It’s 9 o’clock in the morning of Oct. 2, 2011, at Longchamp Racecourse. It’s hot. The feelings of rehearsal and preparation have transformed into one of countdown. Four hours until the first race and already the infield parking sports hundreds of cars.
Behind the 250 meters long grandstands, tables are being set. Decorations are put up. Food this way. Cash that way. The tricolour and the flag of Qatar are up. The hat-shop has sneak-opened. As have some of the champagne bars.
A glass? Sorry. Bucket and a bottle at €200 is the Arc-way of doing it. Moët or Dom Perignon – have your pick …
More than 20 000 Englishmen – and women – are about to invade. They do it every year. And they drink beer. Twenty or so of them will be completely sober though. They wear bearskin hats and play marching band music. An unexpected tradition.
As morning moves toward noon, more and more “Parisiennes” in hats show up – accompanied by men in well-tailored suits. Credit cards have been worn thin at the showrooms elite designers in the weeks leading up to the big day. Never mind the shoe stores. The concept of “high-heels” takes on a whole new meaning.
This is Paris, and the luxury hotels in the luxury capital of the world are 90% booked this weekend. They always are when it’s Arc-time. It is when the racing world gathers, and the entire luxury industry flourishes. Oh, and the best horse in the world is about to be crowned.
”As morning goes towards noon more and more “parisiennes” in hats show up—accompanied by men in well-tailored suits”
The Build up
The parade ring at Longchamp sits behind the grandstands. It looks a bit like an amphitheatre with a few thousand seats and a JumboTron TV-screen. Long before the horses show up for the first race every seat is taken.
A TV-camera on a boom keeps a watching eye over the crowd. A total of seven Group 1 races will take place – six for Thoroughbreds and one for Purebred Arabians. A total of €6.7 million in purses are at stake.
But this is no charity. Betting through the national pari-mutuel company PMU exceeds €50 million. Not counting the 25 or so other countries that have betting on this day.
As soon as the jockeys have mounted the runners in the first race and head for the track, the crowd pours towards the grandstands. A dozen escalators work hard to bring them all up. The view over the 35-acre racecourse is fantastic.
On the opposite side of it, the trees of Bois de Boulogne stand as to hide the fact that we are in the middle of a big city. The tip of the Eiffel Tower peeks up behind them, reminding us where we are. The infield is filled with cars, VIP lounges and four gigantic TV-screens.
When the first race is over, the flood of people reverses and heads back toward the parade ring and champagne bars by the thousands. First time visitors, looking for the escalators going down, are easily confused. There are no “up” or “down” escalators here. Before every race they all go up. And after, they all go down.
Time goes by and the temperature rises, aided by both sun and champagne. Or beer.
The Brits yell as they toast their jockey heroes with raised glasses of beer. The French kiss two times and wear expensive suits and hats. The Germans concentrate. The Arabs wear expensive sunglasses; some are in their national dress. The Emir of Qatar is here.
This is 2011, and history is about to be rewritten.
When only the remains of desserts and empty glasses are to be found on the beautifully set tables, when the party is about to have passed its peak, that is when the show starts. Time for the Arc.
In racing, a horse is considered to be in its “classic season” during its 3-year-old year. That’s when it can run in races such as the Derby, St. Leger, or 2000 Guineas. Should the horse be a filly, she would likely aim for the Oaks and 1000 Guineas instead.
That year – and never again.
But when autumn comes, the eternal question is asked. Where do the 3-year-olds of this generation stand compared to ones from the year before?
In Europe, the first big bout between 3-year-olds and their older counterparts comes in the King George the sixth and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot in July. In the United States, many regard the Woodward Stakes at Saratoga in August as the major challenge. But the first weekend in October, the 3-year-olds have matured and are fully ready to face their older opponents. All the best horses gather for the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. There is room for almost all -– if you are good enough. Gender, nationality, and age do not matter. As long as your horse is not a gelding, you just enter and declare. If your horse’s rating is high enough and you have the money, you are welcome.
May the best horse win. No invitations. No special back doors for VIPs.
This has made the Arc the best race in the world, objectively speaking. When the average rating of the first horses of all Group 1 races in one year is compared, the Arc comes out on top. Always. It is the highest rated race in the world, and the hardest to win. According to the record books, 3-year-olds have won 56 times, 4-year-olds 25 times, and 5-year-olds and up have taken eight wins. Eighteen winners have been fillies. One has been German.
But this is 2011 and history is about to be rewritten.
Everybody thinks they know what is about happen. The Aga Khan’s horse, Sarafina, will go out and bring home the €2 million prize. The trainer is confident. This is his best horse ever.
But racing is racing and history is about to be rewritten.
The horses parade out onto the turf. Close ups of their faces appear on the JumboTrons. Andrasch Starke from Germany wears orange silks in the saddle of Danedream, a 3-year-old filly born at Gestüt Brümmerhof outside Hamburg. Few pay attention to her.
Danedream’s sire was Lomitas, and he was known to have been “a monster” in the starting gates. But in the hands of Monty Roberts (the man who listens to horses), he came to ease and showed what he was made of.
“I rarely use the word magnificent,” said Roberts. “But when it comes to Lomitas he was just that – magnificent!”
Danedream remained at her stud until she was 2-years-old, when she was sold for about €9,000. As evidence of the fact that miracles do happen, she broke her maiden in spite of her lowly price tag. She was placed in “black type” races. And then before the Arc, she won the Group 1 ”Großer Preis von Berlin” at Hoppegarten Racecourse in the German capital.
But here – at the Arc – she is just “a small horse from Germany” and hardly worth mentioning in the pre-race tipping.
Because she was not originally entered in the Arc, Danedream’s owners had to put up €100,000 just to get her in. Not even that caught any attention. The very idea that someone not coming from France, Ireland or Great Britain could have anything to do with the outcome of the race did not strike the racing nobility.
So in the 89th running of the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe she is just an upstart. At most. They’re in the gate. Silence. Not a sound. Time stands still.
For half a second.
As the gates open, the two speakers hammer away like machine guns. Danedream travels in the middle of the field, but as they enter the stretch you can see that Starke discovers he has so much more horse in his hands than any of the others.
A few quick slalom turns between horses and suddenly the pair of them are all alone. There is no one in front, and with 200 metres to go they just fly away effortlessly. One length. Two lengths. And as they pass the finish line, Danedream wins the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe by five lengths.
Not only that, she does it in the fastest time ever – 2:24.49. And at 20 times the money. This is the second time ever the race is won by a German horse.
The French love ceremonies, and they are good at them. Even a republic needs a coronation. And this is the one.
After the races, the grandstands pour out their load of people. The roads leading through the forest/park into the city are full of a never-ending stream of cars and busses. Women are walking barefoot, high heels in hand.
The sun is setting. The party is over. Summer is over. Tomorrow it is going to be Monday. And autumn.
But today history was rewritten, as it has been so many times before during the first weekend of October in Paris.
And on Oct. 7, 2012, it starts all over again.
The first running of the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe was on Sunday October 3, 1920. The winner’s (Comrade) prize was 150,000 Francs.
For many years the race was financed by a lottery.
The total prize money for the race day (Oct. 2011) is about $10 million.
The Qatar Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe is the highest rated horse race in the world, with a rating of 122,5.
Qatar’s sponsorship covers the runnings until 2023.
Of the 89 runnings, 18 have been won by fillies.
Only two German bred-horse have won the race. In 2011, the German-Bred filly Danedream also set the new Arc record of 2:24.49.
Trainer Andrè Fabre has won seven Arcs, The latest being with Rail Link in 2006.
Jockeys Jacques Doyasbère, Freddy Head, Yves Saint-Maryin and Pat Eddery have each ridden four Arc winners.
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