Probably no horse race in the world presents a more demanding test of speed and stamina—and trickier questions of tactics—than France's traditional mile-and-a-half Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. And when a starting field of 24 finally showed up at Longchamp last week for the 45th running of this classic the number was something of a surprise, because for days and even weeks before the race so many of the leading candidates had eliminated themselves in one way or another. It had become a challenge for the Parisian experts to guess which horses might run, let alone which of them possessed the qualities associated with an Arc de Triomphe champion.
The French Derby winner, Nelcius, for example, was withdrawn when he came down with a cough, and another early favorite, Sea Hawk, was in the barn with a bowed tendon. The two American horses were no better off. Raymond Guest's 3-year-old Jolly Jet, narrowly beaten by Buckpasser in one Chicago race this summer, popped something in a knee while training in Ireland. And George Pope's Hill Rise, now a 5-year-old grass specialist who had been training and racing successfully in England for months, was declared out of the Arc only two days before the race under circumstances that seem bizarre, at least by American standards of racing ethics.
Still, the Arc usually winds up a first-class race, and last week's renewal on a gray and slightly damp afternoon was no exception. More than 40,000 fans turned up in the spectacular, modernized and still beautiful Longchamp stands (SI, June 6) to watch the French defenders of European Thoroughbred supremacy run away impressively from the English, Irish and Italian challengers. At the finish, to reward Owner Walter Burmann with the winner's purse of $223,645 and a solid gold objet d'art, was one of the favorites—a 3-year-old chestnut colt named Bon Mot. He took the lead barely a furlong from the wire and drew away slowly to win by half a length over Mme. Jean Stern's Sigebert. Next came Lionel, while behind him were A Tempo and Behistoun. England's 4-year-old filly champion and winner of the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, Aunt Edith, was never a prominent factor, finishing a soundly beaten eighth on turf that may not have been exactly to her liking but was not unduly soft. As the third choice among the bettors, Bon Mot started at 53 to 10.
The French have a way of handling large fields with remarkable efficiency. One reason is that the jockeys at Longchamp are basically better horsemen than those in the U.S. Therefore, despite the absence of lead ponies and outriders—who tend to convert our own post parades into unnecessary pageants—French jockeys seem to have absolute control over their mounts at all times. This is especially noticeable at the gate, where no assistant starters are permitted within the stalls and where absolute silence is the rule. A jockey who opens his mouth for any reason other than to inhale some Paris afternoon air is subject to an immediate fine levied by the starter and subsequent disciplinary action by the stewards.
Even on Arc day, when these little men are understandably on edge as they prepare to compete for the Continent's richest purse, it is amazing to observe the calm and quiet that precede the start. Indeed, when the last of the 24 Arc de Triomphe horses entered the gate last Sunday afternoon his 23 predecessors were standing silently and motionless in their stalls, and less than five seconds later the bulky field was away in a flawlessly even break. The group did not include a champion of the caliber of Ribot or Sea Bird, and to many foreigners in Paris the event also lacked the excitement that surrounded this classic when such American invaders as Career Boy, Fisherman, Carry Back and Tom Rolfe were running. But it was a rousing horse race.
After the start, as the field pounded its way from the Vieux Moulin up the long hill (the top of which is 33 feet above the gate), the lead was shared by Vasco de Gama, Sigebert, Ciacolesso and Carvin (Carvin will best be remembered in America for having lost in a photo finish to Diatome in last fall's Washington, D.C. International at Laurel). At this point Aunt Edith was in sixth position on the outside, while back in the middle of the tight pack were Bon Mot and Danseur.
Turning down the steep hill to the right, the Italian Marco Visconti took the lead, exactly as he had done a year ago. Less than half a mile farther, at the foot of the hill, and again exactly as he had done a year ago, Marco retired honorably from the competition and faded back into the bunch of also-rans. Now, as the stayers separated themselves from the middle-distance breed, it was Sigebert who took an open lead of a length or more into the wide three-furlong homestretch. For an instant it seemed as though this two-time loser was about to steal it all. But suddenly Bon Mot, who had been no better than eighth at the bottom of the hill, sprang to the challenge and gradually wore down the game Sigebert in the last of the 12 tough furlongs. His time was an unimpressive two minutes 39.80 seconds, a far cry from Soltikoff's 1962 record of two minutes 30.94 seconds.
But Bon Mot's victory was a popular one for several reasons. Not the least important was the fact that he is trained by Willy Head and was ridden in the Arc by Willy's grandson, Freddy Head (son of trainer Alec Head), who is having such a successful season that he trails only Yves Saint-Martin in the 1966 jockey standings. Then, too, Bon Mot is by Worden II, the French horse who carried the late Ralph Strassburger's colors to victory in the 1953 Laurel race. Bon Mot's dam, Djebel Idra, is by Phil Drake, a winner of the Epsom Derby, and thus his victory in a race like the Arc can hardly come as a surprise when one considers the breeding, training and riding. As a matter of fact, on past form he appeared to have as good a chance as any horse in the race. A nonstarter as a 2-year-old in 1965, he had raced seven times this season before the Arc and never finished worse than third. Though he won only twice, he was second to Nelcius in the French Derby and third in the Grand Prix de Paris behind Danseur and Hauban.
Naturally, John Schapiro, president of Laurel, was in Paris last week for the Arc, and just as soon as Bon Mot's victory was official Schapiro beelined it over to Walter Burmann to invite the colt to the Nov. 11 International. Burmann, who has raced successful strings in England and France for many years, said he would think it over. So did Mme. Jean Stern on behalf of Sigebert. If neither of these owners accepts, Schapiro will start working down the list of also-rans until he can pick up a runner or two to join his field, which so far includes Ireland's Prominer, England's David Jack and something called Folio from Brazil.
It still is anybody's guess as to which pair of horses will represent The U.S. at Laurel, but certainly the best qualified are Charles Englehard's United Nations Handicap winner Assagai and George Pope's Hill Rise. And why wasn't Hill Rise brought from Trainer Noel Murless' Newmarket stables for the Arc? "I'm pretty shook up about it myself," said Pope when he arrived in Paris from a vacation in Madrid, just two days before the race—only to discover that his horse would not be joining him.
"Months ago, when I sent Hill Rise to Noel in England," said Pope, "I told him my main objective was to run in the Arc if everything went well. It has gone well. Two weeks ago we won the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes over Silly Season at a mile, which is not Hill Rise's best distance, and last week Noel told me the horse was in the best shape of his life and never looked better.
"Well, the first three days of Arc week in Paris there was nothing but rain, and this naturally turned Longchamp into very heavy going. Murless called Alec Head at Chantilly, and Head told him that Longchamp would surely be heavy on Arc day. When I talked to Noel from Madrid on Thursday he said he firmly believed that a long-striding horse like Hill Rise would do poorly over a heavy grass strip, and it was his opinion that it would be better to keep Hill Rise out of the Arc and reserve him for the Champion Stakes at Newmarket the following week. I didn't quite see it that way myself. For one thing, Paris weather cleared near the end of the week, and I figured that if Hill Rise was as good as we thought he had to be given a chance to win the Arc, especially since the competition this year was not outstanding. I also figured that no matter what Hill Rise might do in the Champion Stakes, in which he'll have to take on both Silly Season and Pieces Of Eight at a mile and a quarter, that race does not have the prestige of the Arc, even if some English trainers like to think so."
George Pope was so concerned about the absence of his horse that he phoned Murless from Paris on Friday afternoon. But before he could assert his owner's rights and insist that his horse be flown over immediately, Murless told him he had just called Longchamp to declare Hill Rise out of the race.
"I suppose," said a dejected Pope, "when you have a horse with one of the best trainers in the world you don't second-guess him. But I'm still upset about this whole business."
Were it not for the fact that Murless also trained the Arc favorite, Aunt Edith, for English Owner John Hornung, this would appear to be a simple case of a skillful trainer using his best judgment. But to many, including the large contingent of Americans in Paris, the Hill Rise incident looked like another example of the Prussian-style authoritarianism with which many top-flight European trainers treat their owners. Granted, Noel Murless is a fine trainer with a brilliant record. But last week, to the detriment of an American owner who had told him for months he wanted to run in the Arc no matter what, Murless took a gamble that should long weigh on his conscience.
Aunt Edith lost the Arc for his English owner, and now who is to say that long-striding Hill Rise will find either the going or the opposition to his liking in this week's Champion Stakes? It has, after all, been known to rain at Newmarket, too.