The leaders of French racing decided a few years ago that one of the ways to keep up in the modern world of sport—which often seems to get tradition and commercialism confused—was to do a major rebuilding job on Longchamp, the magnificent old course in the middle of Paris' Bois de Boulogne. Opinion on this construction job is not unanimous, but Longchamp today looks like a cross between Orly Airport and New York's Aqueduct. Last Sunday, with no brickwork in progress to ruin the scene, Longchamp reverted for a few wonderful hours to its traditional past. Wine and whiskey flowed, and even the French aristocracy welcomed the sudden influx of racing fans from England, Ireland, Italy, Russia and the U.S. Well, not everyone was that mellow. One bristling due leered out from under his topper and remarked to his companion, "Mon Dieu, there haven't been as many infernal Americans in France since D-day."
These 1965 invaders of the Bois de Boulogne, a substantial segment of the crowd of 70,000, had turned up to watch some 20 runners compete in the 44th modern version of the classic mile-and-a-half Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. They had come to watch the best French 3-year-olds, Sea Bird, Reliance and Diatome, defend the honor of the Republic against such famous challengers as Canada's Meadow Court, Ireland's Ragazzo, England's Oncidium, Italy's Marco Visconti, and Anilin, the very best from Russia (which was sending a representative to the Arc for the first time). Finally, there was America's champion 3-year-old, Tom Rolfe, owned by U.S. Ambassador to Ireland Raymond Guest and ridden by Willie Shoemaker.
Rarely in the history of international racing has any field been so loaded with genuine class. And most of all, as French Trainer Alec Head put it, in class among the 3-year-olds. "In some years the season belongs to the older horses, but this isn't one of them," he said. "The best 3-year-olds in the world are in this race, and it wouldn't appear that any of the older horses can afford to give them 10 pounds [122 to 132 pounds] and manage to beat them."
How right Alec Head was. The first three to finish were all 3-year-olds, and the first four were all French. They were followed, surprisingly, by the Russian, in fifth place and, not so surprisingly, by Tom Rolfe in sixth, beaten by nearly 17 lengths. Meadow Court, in contention during the early running, faded to ninth.
The Arc was a glorious horse race and truly run. From the moment the spectacular field entered the walking ring a feeling of surging excitement swept the elegant audience. Sea Bird, the 6-to-5 favorite and a strapping chestnut who had lost only one start as a 2-year-old and then won four straight this season (including the Epsom Derby), acted like a tiger during the parade. He was so spirited that for a moment it appeared Australian Jockey Pat Glennon might have a runaway on his hands. There was no chance for such a mishap with Tom Rolfe, for right beside him galloped his own stable pony to lead him to the gate—a break with French tradition that brought mocking laughs from some in the crowd.
At the starting gate, situated at the foot of the old mill that faces a five-furlong straightaway entailing a climb of 33 feet, the Russian Anilin and Marcel Boussac's Emerald held up the show by refusing to enter the stalls. A split second after Emerald disappeared into his box, the gates flew open, and at the break it was Tom Rolfe's nose that showed in front. Shoe rolled him out perfectly. Then, as the huge field settled into the first quarter of a mile, in which all runners are required to hold to a straight course before cutting in for position, Shoe took a comfortable hold on his little (950-pound) colt and dropped back to about fifth place. He had broken from seventh position but went up the hill neatly tucked away on the inside and running smoothly.
At first the leader was Khalife, bought only the previous week from Mrs. Mary Hecht by Max Bell for $40,000, to act as a surefire pacemaker for Meadow Court. But before the crest of the rise was reached, the Italian Marco Visconti took over. Khalife faded as no $40,000 colt should, and the Italian led the parade into the important righthand downgrade. Suddenly, however, he had company. It was Moscow's Anilin, who a year ago finished third behind Kelso and Gun Bow in the Laurel International. Under a fine ride by Nikolai Nasibov, Anilin pressed up on the outside of Marco Visconti to make a race of it. Sea Bird and Meadow Court were saving ground behind them, and now it was Tom Rolfe's turn to show what he could do.
Earlier in the week, after familiarizing himself with the course, Shoemaker had said: "From a positioning standpoint, the most important quarter of this race begins halfway up the hill and goes through at least half the run down it. I can see that you must get position before starting down the hill so you don't get left when the real running begins." Shoe followed his own advice to perfection, when he moved smartly after reaching the crest of the rise. He brought Tom Rolfe up with a rush, though slightly wide when the colt, acting on his own, experienced difficulty changing his leads on the turn. "He kept wanting to go to the left instead of to the right," said Shoe later. Even so, as the field neared the bottom of the hill, the American, the Italian and the Russian colts were running neck and neck, the three of them across the track. At this point, with nearly three-eighths of a mile to go and nothing in front of him but an exquisite wide expanse of soft and half-dry grass, Tom's chances looked mighty promising.
Behind the three leaders, Emerald held the rail position, but right with him were Sea Bird and Meadow Court. The stage was set for a thrilling finish as everyone but the track announcer seemed to be screaming with excitement. The latter's calls are piped across the vast expanse of Longchamp in quiet and totally unemotional tones. He was giving just such a call as the field turned into the final straight, when the partisan mob rose to its own cries of "Et voil√†—Sea Bird!"
And indeed it was voil√† Sea Bird. Moving with extreme looseness and accelerating apparently without effort, Sea Bird wrapped up his victory quickly and decisively. He roared by a tiring Emerald and then neatly charged between Marco Visconti on the rail and Anilin, leaving a fading Tom Rolfe in his wake.
Sea Bird flew away from everything, though he was bearing out badly at the wire. Reliance challenged him for an instant with a rush that brought him from the middle of the pack, but his run fell six lengths short. Nevertheless, Reliance had five additional lengths on third-place Diatome, who edged out Free Ride by a neck for fourth. The latter beat Anilin by half a length, and the Russian, spotting Tom Rolfe 10 pounds, still managed to beat him five lengths.
It has long been suggested in Europe that Sea Bird, a grandson of Native Dancer, may be a horse in the superclass of a Ribot. Soon these two may have a chance to compare notes, for Sea Bird quit racing this week and will take up residence as a stallion on a five-year lease at John Galbreath's Darby Dan Farm in Lexington, Ky. Galbreath leased him from his owner-breeder, Lille Textile Manufacturer Jean Ternynck, for $1.5 million, a little more than he paid for five years of Ribot's services in 1960. Though Ribot should be returning soon to his native Italy, where he has a full book for next year's breeding season, he may still be at Darby Dan when Sea Bird arrives. The reason for the delay is that Ribot is now dangerously fractious and nobody wants to get into a plane or even a boat with him. As much as the Italians want him to come home, the betting now is that Ribot's Kentucky home will be permanent.
And what about little Tom Rolfe, who gave the Arc such a good try? His defeat was no disgrace. He is a truly fine mile-and-a-quarter horse, who was virtually on the lead at this point in the Arc. He was running in an unfamiliar—clockwise—direction, up- and downhill, and his shoes were new and French. But the simple truth is that he was incapable of challenging the world's best at their familiar championship distance. Frank Whiteley had him perfectly trained, and Shoe gave him a spotless ride. After all their efforts, they watched Sea Bird bring home a check for $216,949 for owner Ternynck, while Tom Rolfe earned nothing more than respect.
Sea Bird's owner had said, when predicting that he would win the Epsom Derby last June, "My horse, he is a good one." Now it was the time for the owner of Tom Rolfe to say something. At Longchamp at dusk, Raymond Guest cradled his hat against his chest as he towered over the little horse. He looked around at his friends and then characteristically concluded, "Well, we took it on the nose today, but I don't think it hurt racing a bit. And besides, we'll live to run another day."