As everyone knows, Frenchmen always have pretty positive opinions on virtually everything, but none of their convictions for the last few years have been more solid than those that concern the sport of horse racing. Their line of reasoning, which they will pour out to you either over a Pernod or as they make their way through the beautiful Bois de Boulogne toward the course at Longchamp any Sunday afternoon, goes roughly as follows: French horses are the best in the world, and the proof is that in 45 runnings of that mile-and-a-half classic, the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, French horses have won 34 times.
A good deal of this may be true. But last Sunday, while a French horse named Topyo made the score 35 wins for the home team, the French succeeded in establishing still another point: as handicappers the majority of them are just as lousy as their international contemporaries at Newmarket, the Curragh, Baden-Baden or Aqueduct. Not one professional selector and precious few among the 50,000 or so smartly dressed patrons at Longchamp gave Topyo the faintest chance. This, despite the fact that he came from the famous stable of popular and successful Mme. Leon (Suzy) Volterra, is trained by well-known C. Bartholomew Jr. and was ridden by Australian Bill Pyers, who has been plying his trade with finesse around French tracks for half a dozen years or so. Topyo's record, to be fair, was somewhat less than brilliant. So much so that despite a win against not much opposition in the Prix de la C√¥te Normande in August, he went off in last week's 46th Arc at the astronomical price of 82 to 1.
Then, while nobody could really believe what was happening, Jockey Pyers and his little-known 3-year-old bay colt (a Volterra home-bred by Fine Top out of Deliriosa) proceeded to beat 29 rivals in a finish that saw the first five horses drive uphill across the wire only one length apart. It mattered little that Topyo's winning time of 2:38.2 was well behind the course record of 2:30.94, set by Soltikoff in 1962. What did matter was that the French had once again turned back the English, the Italians, the Russians and the Americans in a classic that now must be considered the most difficult race in the world.
There had been a good deal of speculation through the late summer and early fall concerning just which runners would, or could, make it to the Arc's starting gate. "The cough" struck many training centers at inopportune moments, causing havoc with galloping schedules. Then, 10 days before the race, a favorite, England's Busted, was forced into retirement by an injured leg.
Nonetheless, last Sunday, 30 horses showed up on a cloudy but warm afternoon, and as they kicked and pranced through the traditional single-file parade past the glistening new, modern Longchamp stands, the attentive audience gave voice and applause to many of the favorites. The first to come out, No. 1, was the 6-year-old Russian champion Anilin, fifth in the Arc two years ago behind Sea Bird, but ahead of sixth-place Tom Rolfe, and last year second to Behistoun in the Washington D.C. International at Laurel. Nelcius, an old favorite in Paris, was applauded, as was Taneb, his conqueror in this summer's Grand Prix de St. Cloud.
When Charles Engelhard's Ribocco came out with Lester Piggott up, so did a roar with an English accent. The 3-year-old son of two-time Arc Winner Ribot won the Irish Derby and was second in the Epsom Derby, and the English had more or less adopted him as their own—and as their main hope to turn back the French defenders. A nice gesture. But for the English to claim Ribocco makes as much sense as if the French were to adopt Bull Hancock, whose Claiborne Farm happens to be situated in Paris, Ky. For Ribocco is about as international as horses can get. His sire, Ribot, is Italian; his dam, Libra, is English. He was bred and sold in Kentucky to Engelhard who, when he is not in residence in New Jersey, Maine or Quebec, spends much of his time in South Africa.
Most of the prerace applause, however, came when another French horse went galloping down to the line. It was Roi Dagobert, and aboard him was national hero Yves Saint-Martin. This colt, a son of Sicambre, overcame surgery for a respiratory ailment as a yearling and is acknowledged one of the best 3-year-olds in France. His owner, Countess de la Vald√®ne, named him after one of the most popular kings in French folklore. "Legend has it," explained the Countess, "that Roi Dagobert was a sort of absent-minded-professor type, and there are countless limericks about his eccentric behavior. One of the most widely quoted has to do with his putting his pants on backward." There is nothing that Yves Saint-Martin does backward, and that is why the colt went off at 4 to 1 last Sunday, even though his trainer Etienne Pollet, admitted that a spell of coughing had left him one gallop short of top condition.
The field of 30 worked its way with amazing precision into the three starting gates spread out across the grass down by the Vieux Moulin to the left of the Longchamp stands. No sooner was the last horse, Sucaryl, shut in than away flew this dazzling blanket of color toward the long hill that takes the field momentarily out of view behind a patch of woods known as Le Petit Bois. Almost immediately the announcer began his call for the race, and for over 1¼ miles the name he was calling in first place sounded suspiciously like, "Heesrow." Hurried research divulged it was No. 29, Lionel Holliday's filly Heath Rose. And what an amazing race she ran! Breaking from the outside, she darted to the front and came very close to stealing the whole thing.
For most of the first part of the race, Anilin, Frontal, Sucaryl and Nelcius stayed closest to the leisurely fox-hunting pace set by Heath Rose. Roi Dagobert was in the middle of the pack, as was Ribocco, while Topyo dawdled along in the last third. When the field came down the tricky right-turning hill and into the final straight, Heath Rose still showed in front, but her closest rivals were beginning to fade.
Jockey Bill Pyers neatly drove Topyo through the mass of horseflesh all around him and took the lead with about a furlong to go. But before he had a chance to lengthen his lead and sew up the verdict, he was challenged by three horses. Saint-Martin had Roi Dagobert flying on the outside to the accompaniment of wild cries: "Allez Yves! Allez Yves!" Lester Piggott was driving Ribocco up on Topyo's right, while to the inside of him, so close to the rails that it seemed he had to be brushing them, came the 17-to-1 shot Salvo. This colt is a son of Right Royal, bred by Americans John Galbreath and Winston Guest and sold by them as a yearling at Saratoga in 1964 to dissolve a partnership. They let him get away for the skimpy price of $9,500 to run in the Arc for Owner Gerald Oldham.
These four runners, edging past game little Heath Rose, fought it out desperately for the last 100 yards. But at the wire, even though Salvo and Ribocco were gaining with every yard, they just missed on the yielding and demanding turf. Longshot Topyo triumphed by a neck over Salvo, who, in turn, was a head in front of Ribocco. It was only half a length back to Roi Dagobert, who edged Heath Rose by still another neck in one of the closest and most exciting Arcs ever. The victory in this $320,000 classic was worth some $220,000 to Suzy Volterra, who promptly announced that she might send Topyo to Laurel for the Nov. 11th International against Damascus.
A home victory in the Arc does nothing, of course, to downgrade France's position as the most progressive racing country in the world. The generous government participation in the sport, whereby large amounts of off-track betting money go back into racing to increase purses as well as to improve facilities for the patrons, is only one side of it. In sharp contrast to other countries, France is not really at war with the rest of the racing world. In fact, the very opposite seems to be true. The English, for example, who once believed that there was little to be learned from the French, are now benefiting a great deal. "Mostly," says Jean Romanet, the Director General of all organized French racing, "both the French and English remain at home for their major classics, but the English are now coming over for a race like the Arc with the best they have."
The British have been no less active on the sales front. Of 294 horses sold in France for export in 1966, some 80 went to Great Britain. Japan outbid the U.S. 23 horses to 15, while most of the others went to Italy, Ireland and Brazil. "Racing often tends to go in cycles," said French Trainer Jack Cunnington, whose stable includes many American horses. "This year the English may have more good horses than we do, and they are making good use of the advantage."
Director General Romanet does not want to discover that foreigners are dissatisfied with conditions and rules that apply to horses coming to France for major engagements. He heard it last summer when Assagai was not allowed to gallop the entire course at St. Cloud and had to confine his gallops to going up and down the five-eighths-of-a-mile backstretch. And he heard it again last week when Ribocco was limited to the same conditions at Longchamp. "We are building special barns for foreign horses at Lamorlaye, near Chantilly, and they will have a chance to do more extensive training there than they ever could at our tracks," says Romanet.
Another direction French racing is taking is toward more dependence on American bloodlines. "French breeders are more keen than ever about mixing and trying new blood," says Romanet. "We need speed, both from the United States and from England, to go with the natural French staying bloodlines. It is a necessity for us to experiment, because as soon as there is a good horse in France a rich American breeder comes along and buys it."
Some years ago, of course, the American-bred Relic exerted his influence on French breeding, and his success was quickly followed by Native Dancer, who has been far from a world-beater in his own country. Dark Star, the only horse ever to defeat Native Dancer—in the 1953 Kentucky Derby—arrives in France this month to take up permanent stud duties. "It seems," says one Parisian horseman, half jokingly, "that we have good luck with your bad stallions. This, you understand, is not a rule. It must be just a coincidence, but it is a happy coincidence for us."