At a posh black-tie dinner in Maxim's on the eve of last week's 50th running of the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp, the Virginia sportsman and art collector, Paul Mellon, spoke graciously of the upcoming event. He pleased his audience no end by calling the Arc the turf's greatest race, and then drew further smiles by adding, "I only hope my horse has been eating food as tasty and nourishing as this."
Mellon's Epsom Derby winner, Mill Reef, was the race favorite, and the colt, like his owner, was apparently in fine form; the following afternoon before a crowd estimated at 75,000 he sped to a three-length victory in record time. Second place in the big race went to Pennsylvania-foaled, but French-owned, Pistol Packer, making it a bang-up occasion for Americans.
Mill Reef, a shifty bay son of Never Bend and the Princequillo mare Milan Mill, will now go into the record book as the first horse bred in this country to score in the Arc. His victory, at 3-to-5 odds, was engineered by 32-year-old Trainer Ian Balding, son of the late British polo player Gerald Balding (and a nephew, incidentally, of U.S. Trainer Ivor Balding).
While Mill Reef is a product of Mel-Ion's Virginia stud, Pistol Packer—who has now established herself as France's champion filly—was bred by Mrs. John Thouron in the rolling fox-hunting country outside of Philadelphia. The filly brought 515,000 at the Saratoga Sales and was shipped to France, where she races in the colors of Mme. Alec Head and is trained by her husband.
Each year, it seems, the Arc generates increasing interest. As more foreign horses have come to challenge the French at their own game on one of the world's most testing courses, so too have come their followers—from England, Ireland, Italy, Germany, Russia, Canada and, naturally, the U.S. Last Sunday even French President Georges Pompidou turned up for his first day of racing as Chief of State. A harried track official declared, "The only person in Paris who hasn't asked for a seat is Emperor Hirohito"—and he might have, had he and his entourage been fully settled into the Hotel Crillon.
The Arc, run over Longchamp's outside course with its long hill immediately after the start, a sweeping, steep downhill turn to the right and then a straight run home of three-eighths of a mile, has been won—and lost—by varying tactics. The best way to finish first is to stay close to the leaders and save ground on the rails. And that is what British Jockey Geoff Lewis and Mill Reef did. The best way to lose the race is to, as the French put it, faire le grand boulevard. In other words, take the come-from-behind, outside route, which is the next thing to being off the course and mixing it up with the Sunday drivers in the Bois de Boulogne. This is what Jockey Freddy Head and Pistol Packer tried to do.
But tactics are not everything. A horse must, as one official noted, "be at his best on this occasion, perfectly fit. This isn't a contest of looks; there is something inside the animal that settles this race." There are reasons the Arc is so demanding. As one trainer explained, "It is the world's most difficult race, in part because of the course, but also because it brings together in the fall of the year runners who are fully mature. These are no longer inexperienced horses being tested for stamina as they are in midsummer. By Arc day they are proven stayers and already the winners of European classics."
The Mill Reef race plan was relatively simple: be among the leaders at all times, try to save ground where possible and move to the front only after turning into the homestretch. The firm going was believed to be to Mill Reef's advantage (although Ian Balding said he could handle any sort of surface). He had shipped over from England in good shape, his temperament was ideal and, despite not having started in 2½ months, those who had seen the colt during his summer victories in the Derby, the Eclipse and the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes were already declaring that he was a better colt than Nijinsky and, in fact, right up there with two-time Arc winner Ribot. "I would compare Mill Reef to Ribot more than to Nijinsky," said a veteran observer, even before last week's Arc. "It is not his record but the way he wins his races. He doesn't give you a great burst of speed. Instead he gives you a steady run that accelerates progressively, the sign of a true stayer."
The first horse to show from the gate in the Arc was John A. Bell's One for All, the third American-bred entry in the race. But Jockey Willie Carson quickly took him back, and with two furlongs gone in the mile-and-a-half race it was Ossian, a pacemaker for his stablemate Ramsin, who was in front by two lengths. In the pack closest to him were Sharapour, Ortis, Hallez, Ramsin and then Mill Reef, who at no time was worse than sixth. Pistol Packer, second choice along with Bourbon at 4 to 1, was back in 12th position as the field started up the hill, and Cabrizzia, who was to finish third, trailed. Positions varied little at the top of the hill except that now One for All had moved up to seventh. But not even the wizardry of Trainer Horatio Luro, who has saddled two Kentucky Derby winners, could save the day for this son of Northern Dancer. Unaccustomed to running downhill and to his right, One for All faltered so badly that he was 16th at the bottom of the hill. He then pulled himself together to end up ninth, beaten a respectable seven lengths for all the money.
Straightening for home, Britain's champion Jockey Lester Piggott, who had gotten into so much trouble at this point a year ago on Nijinsky, had Hallez briefly in front. Outside of him was Miss Dan and to his right along the rails were Sharapour and Ortis. Behind, waiting patiently, was Mill Reef. Ranging up very fast on the outside was Pistol Packer. Jockey Lewis needed a break at this point or he might have had to swing wide and go around. Suddenly the opening came. The gap between Hallez and Sharapour widened, and Mill Reef shot through and headed toward the rail. Two furlongs from the wire he led by two lengths, and although Pistol Packer might have been a threat even then, Mellon's colt just kept grinding out the yardage. The issue was never really in doubt. Mill Reef was being pulled up as he crossed the finish line. His time was a record 2:28.3.
The early pace had been so telling that none of the leaders to the stretch except Hallez were in the first 10 at the finish. Ramsin, Ossian, Sharapour, Miss Dan and Ortis all faded and dropped back, while the positions behind the first three were taken by Caro, Hallez, Royalty, Bourbon, Arlequino, One for All and Irish Ball.
Mill Reef, now being acclaimed as the Horse of the World, returns to England to await a 4-year-old European campaign in which his toughest competitor may well be his conqueror last May in the 2,000 Guineas, Brigadier Gerard. This colt has won four straight races since but has not met as stiff competition as Mill Reef.
The victory by Mellon's horse rekindles the controversy over which nation is breeding the best horses these days. Why, for example, are U.S. sires who never won at a mile and a half (and some who never even won at a mile and a quarter) producing the winners of Europe's classic events? Northern Dancer, Never Bend, Gun Bow, Traffic, Bold Lad and Sir Gaylord have sired champions in England, Ireland and France in the last few years. "The reason that nonclassic horses in the U.S. can produce classic horses abroad is solely a matter of training," says one French horseman. "In the U.S. it seems to me you break down more than a quarter of your 2-year-olds before they turn 3, mostly from working them those fast four and five furlongs at 2, or just plain overracing them. Here we start a 2-year-old twice or three times at most, with no emphasis on speed. The result is that we have good 3-year-olds, and at 4 we still have some horses around who can stand up with clean legs."
International Owner Raymond Guest has another opinion, which he puts bluntly: "Why the American success? We've got the best horses now, and why shouldn't we have the best after buying—or stealing—the best European blood for the last 100 years.
"Any good mile-and-a-quarter horse in the States should be able to win at a mile and a half in Europe because he's not being asked for the kind of speed we demand of our horses. If this is true, and I personally believe it to be, then a good American mile-and-a-quarter horse should be expected to be just as good a sire of mile-and-a-half European horses as French-and English-bred classic winners."
What amazes Arc victor Paul Mellon about all this is that horsemen spend so much time emphasizing the role of the stallion. "In the first place," says Mellon, "how can we discuss mile-and-a-half races in the States when we have so few of them? Then I hear all this talk about Never Bend. They could just as well be talking about Mill Reef's maternal side with its Princequillo, Count Fleet and Hyperion blood. I have to think that the mare has something to do with it!"
And, as the bubbly was being poured liberally in Paris Sunday night, Mellon probably was recalling another remark he made just the evening before. "My idea of international racing," he told the group at Maxim's, tongue in cheek, "would be for President Pompidou to win the Kentucky Derby, President Nixon to win the Arc de Triomphe, Queen Elizabeth to win the Laurel International and Chairman Mao to win the Russian St. Leger."
It's 3 to 5 that Emperor Hirohito would ask for a seat to that one.