Few spectacles in sport match the elegance of an afternoon of racing on a lovely October day in Paris, and nothing—even in sophisticated Paris—comes close to the excitement that is generated by the running of the Prix del'Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp. It is a time when racing history is likely to be made; crowds of more than 60,000 know it and relish the opportunity to dress up and celebrate a traditional classic. Visitors come to the Arc from all over, and the colorful pageant moves gracefully up and down the Longchamp escalators, awaiting the running of the mile-and-a-half grass test that is undoubtedly the most difficult race in the world to win.
Long before the 17 horses lined up last week for the 47th running of the Arc, it was agreed that this field was one of the finest ever, drawing together classic winners from England, Ireland, Germany and Russia to challenge French supremacy. Not since Sea-Bird whipped a field that included Reliance, Diatome, Anilin and Tom Rolfe in 1965 had the Arc been so star-studded. There was Epsom Derby winner Sir Ivor, the American-bred owned by Raymond Guest, and his conqueror in the Irish Sweeps Derby, Charles Engelhard's Ribero. And there, too, were the German champion Luciano, the Russian star Zbor, the best French distance-runner Dhaudevi and the two leading French 3-year-old fillies, Roseliere and La Lagune.
There was also, in this handsome and impressive field, a bay 3-year-old named Vaguely Noble who, although he could not list a classic victory among his accomplishments, had other major credits. He was the colt bought last December for the record price of $342,720 by a Los Angeles plastic surgeon, Dr. Robert Alan Franklyn (SI, Feb. 19), a man so confident that his agent, Albert Yank, had gotten him a real bargain at the Newmarket Sales in England that he was proclaiming his colt the champion of the world weil before shipping him to France to Trainer Etienne Pollet. As he strolled into Longchamp last Sunday afternoon—decked out in a brown gabardine suit and a colored tie of the psychedelic school—the doctor's opinion of Vaguely Noble had not changed. "What the hell do I know about horse racing?" he cracked. "My trainer says we have the best horse and that we will win. And I believe him." Dr. Franklyn had gone so far as to let me know a week ahead of Arc day that I could save myself a lot of last-minute deadline worries by writing this story even before I left New York. I did not take his advice.
Well, wouldn't you know. The doctor, who has performed more than 15,000 operations to beautify the American woman, was perfectly correct. Just as Trainer Pollet had told him, Vaguely Noble won the 47th Arc by three lengths over Sir Ivor, in a performance so brilliant that it amazed even those in the huge throng who had sent him to the gate as the 3-to-1 favorite.
October 13, 1968
Shortly after the start the Russian Zbor took a quick lead, but by the time the field had emerged from Le Petit Bois, midway up the long, demanding hill leading to the steep right-handed slope home, the pace was being set by Luthier and Roseliere. Jockey Bill Williamson had Vaguely Noble perfectly placed in the first group and was never worse than fifth or sixth, while Lester Piggott. on Sir Ivor, was saving ground along the inside the whole trip. He was about 10th going up the hill and sixth midway down it.
As the compactly bunched field straightened out for the three-eighths-of-a-mile slightly uphill run home, Luthier and Roseliere were still head-and-head on the lead. But suddenly Luthier tired and drifted out, and Williamson shot Vaguely Noble into the opening. Piggott had Sir Ivor tight on the rail in fourth place, and when the courageous filly Roseliere gradually gave way, Sir Ivor also broke away from the rest of the pack and took up the pursuit of Vaguely Noble.
It was, however, a futile chase. As the pair of them left the other 15 staggering behind, Williamson confidently hand-rode Vaguely Noble to a very easy victory. With Piggott using his stick freely, Sir Ivor made a quick challenge, but at no time was he really closing the three-length gap. Sir Ivor had four lengths on the late-closing Carmarthen who, in turn, was a length and a half in front of Roseliere. La Lagune, the only other filly in the race, was fifth, while such well-fancied local favorites as Petrone and Dhaudevi were out of the money after never offering even a minor threat.
Williamson, upon dismounting, said that if he had used his whip he believed he would have won by 15 lengths. As it was, Vaguely Noble never felt its sting once. He had refuted those who said he would not run well on a soft track by covering the mile and a half in the good, but not exceptional, time of 2 minutes and 35[1/5] seconds (more than four seconds off Soltikoff's 1962 Arc record).
Vaguely Noble is by the stallion Vienna, once owned by Sir Winston Churchill, and is out of the Nearco mare Noble Lassie. Counting the $236,040 he picked up for winning the Arc, he now has won about $400,000 in nine lifetime starts. "He's paid himself out, all right," said Dr. Franklyn. "It's been a rather interesting gamble, too. Do you realize that last year if we had bought every other ranking 2-year-old in England, Ireland and France we would have spent about $32 million and would not have gotten the winner of the Arc de Tri-omphe! Interesting, eh?"
Interesting, too, is 50-year-old Dr. Franklyn himself. He made up his mind to come to the Arc only two days before its running. "I went over to Newmarket to see some horses and discovered that prices were up 80%—at least to me they were!" he said. "Then, being so close to Paris, I figured I better come on over to watch our horse run." The doctor wants it known that he is not the sole owner of Vaguely Noble. "Let's say that I am the manager of the group that owns him. There are others involved. For instance, my wife, Willie; my partner, Bunker Hunt; and, oh yes, my favorite golden retriever, J. Brandle Berry-Bush Esq. I wanted very much to have J. Brandle Berry-Bush Esq. here with me, and now I'm a little annoyed that he couldn't come. Imagine, Air France refused to let him come over first class, and naturally I refused to let him travel in the cargo compartment. So he had to stay home."
Dr. Franklyn did not exactly try to take Paris by storm in the manner of Jack Price or this summer's agitated students. While Bunker Hunt and his horse-buying agent and friend Albert Yank came out for some racing at Longchamp the day before the Arc, the doc visited the immensely popular automobile show. On Arc day, the group lunched at the Ritz as the guests of John D. Schapiro, entrepreneur of Laurel's Washington, D.C. International, in company of such well-known French owners as Mme. Suzy Volterra and Daniel Wildenstein. Once at the course Dr. Franklyn, like everyone else, got lost a few times before finding his assigned seats. When Vaguely Noble had safely crossed the finish line everyone jumped into everyone else's arms, and then, of course, they all got somewhat lost all over again trying to find the winner's circle.
Naturally people started asking Dr. Franklyn what he planned next for Vaguely Noble, and just as naturally Dr. Franklyn started the evening off with a few conflicting statements. Would the colt go to America for John Schapiro's International on Nov. 11? First, to the French press, it was, "He's too good for the International. He's now retired." A moment or so later, to a gaggle of British writers, it came out, "We take our hats off to England. Thanks to the Queen, thanks to Sir Winston Churchill and thanks to his breeder, Major Holliday. This horse is a credit to all of them." At this point John Schapiro was tracking better than any golden retriever, including J. Brandle Berry-Bush. And a few hours later it seemed that Vaguely Noble wasn't retired at all. In fact, he was full of run. "Until we discuss it more fully with our trainer," said the doc, "I can't say that we definitely will go in the International. But I think we very easily may. This colt is young, he's sound and he's ready to run. I think it might be foolish not to keep him in training and let him race. [The next day, Trainer Pollet said the colt would not go to Laurel because he would not run well on that track.] I understand Damascus has already accepted. Well, we don't consider him in our league, but it would be nice if Dr. Fager showed up, because we have the best horse in the world and could also beat Dr. Fager by 15 lengths."
From behind his dark glasses the doc's brown eyes twinkled. It was time to go. Phones were about to ring from the breeding farms in Kentucky, England and France. And it was time for an all-night victory party.