With the midafternoon sun playing off his radiant chestnut coat and with jockey Steve Cauthen asking him only briefly for his highest turn of speed, the 3-year-old colt Arazi did far more than merely return to the races at a little course outside Paris last week.
In the 100 meters it took him in the final straight to pulverize a field of seven colts in the Prix Omnium II—a gallop of 1,600 meters, or a little less than a mile, around the soft turf course at the Hippodrome de Saint-Cloud—Arazi's hooves beat out a message loud and bold, one that echoed around the world. Despite undergoing arthroscopic surgery on both knees on Nov. 6, four days after his extraordinary tour de force in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs, last year's champion 2-year-old colt will be returning to Louisville for the May 2 Kentucky Derby looking like the most capable and charismatic Derby favorite since Spectacular Bid in 1979.
Indeed, the day after Arazi's five-length triumph at Saint-Cloud—had Cauthen not wrapped up on him through the final 100 meters, the colt would have won by twice that margin—some of the leading figures in French racing were viewing the performance with something close to wonder. "He's a fantastic horse," said John Hammond, the French-based trainer of Suave Dancer, last year's winner of the Continent's most important race, the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. "He's the best I've ever seen."
Maurice Zilber, the veteran trainer of such crack colts as Youth and Empery, had to reach back through three decades of history—to the great French runners Sea Bird and Allez France—to find comparisons. "This is the best horse I have seen in my whole career," said Zilber. "He has the acceleration, the great style, the class. How can they possibly beat him in the Kentucky Derby if he repeats his Breeders' Cup form?"
People have been asking this question since that memorable afternoon last fall at Churchill Downs. Arazi had already won three Grade I stakes in France—he was, by consensus, the finest juvenile to race in Europe in at least a decade—when the colt's American co-owner, Allen Paulson, took a high-risk adventure by sending him to Louisville to meet America's best juveniles. The colt's French trainer, Fran‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√ºois Boutin, had resisted the idea. Not only had the colt never raced on the dirt (grass is the medium in France), but he also had raced only on straightaways and clockwise on ovals, never counterclockwise, the North American way.
In the 1[1/16]-mile Breeders' Cup Juvenile, Arazi broke from the far outside post, number 14, and fell so far out of it in the first quarter mile that no one, not even Paulson, figured he had a chance. "I thought it was lost going down the backstretch," Paulson says. But under jockey Pat Valenzuela, Arazi swept past horses into the far turn, threaded his way through traffic like a polo pony, then fairly burst to the lead heading into the stretch, moving so fast that his momentum carried him to the middle of the track. He won by nearly five with a flourish, if you believe the official chart—by seven if you listen to Paulson, an aeronautical engineer. "I took a photograph of the finish off the TV screen," Paulson says. "Then I measured the lengths by calipers. He won by a good seven lengths."
No matter. For its brilliance and style, the performance stirred memories of Secretariat cutting up a field while winning for fun. When Paulson announced that Arazi would prepare during the winter in France for a May assault on the Kentucky Derby, the colt immediately became everyone's winter-book favorite for the race. If training a horse in France for the Kentucky Derby seemed more than unorthodox—it has never been done in the 118-year history of the race—Paulson cheerily reminded inquiring doubters that no European 2-year-old champion had ever won the American juvenile title either, so sit down and relax. "This is a super horse," Paulson said. "He can run anywhere and do anything."
Or so it seemed, until the colt's connections made the ominous announcement a few days after the Juvenile that Arazi would be spending six weeks at Paulson's 2,200-acre Brookside Farm in Versailles, Ky., following surgery to remove what was initially described as "bone chips" from the colt's knees. Trainer Boutin had urged against the operation. "It is not necessary," Boutin told Paulson. But American veterinarians saw it differently. Indeed, X-rays revealed spurs of cartilage growing along the ridges of Arazi's knee joints, raising the fear that, under the stress of training and racing, the spurs could eventually break off as painful chips. Removing such spurs is not an uncommon practice in America. Earlier that year one of Paulson's best older horses, the 5-year-old Opening Verse, had also undergone arthroscopic surgery, and he had come back to win the Breeders' Cup Mile on the day that Arazi won the Juvenile. So Paulson ordered the operation. "It was more of a preventative thing than anything else," he says.
In fact, by then Arazi was not Paulson's alone. He had paid $350,000 for the beautifully bred weanling—by the champion English miler Blushing Groom, out of the mare Danseur Fabuleux, a daughter of the great Northern Dancer—in a 1989 dispersal sale by the colt's breeder, Ralph C. Wilson Jr., the owner of the Buffalo Bills. The next summer, thinking he might get $1 million for him, Paulson entered the colt in Keeneland's premier yearling sale, but the bidding stalled early, and Paulson bought him back for $300,000. From the female side of his family—from his own dam, Danseur Fabuleux, all the way back through his great-great-granddam Dinner Partner—the colt inherited an offset knee. Seen from the front, his right knee is not perfectly straight but rather offset slightly to the right. The defect cooled prospective buyers. Like in all naturally gifted performers, however, the colt's athleticism tends to compensate for the structural glitch.
Of course, there is no way to see the complete athlete in the incomplete horse at a yearling sale. One of the buyers who turned him down was Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, of Dubai, the defense minister of the the United Arab Emirates and one of the world's leading owners and breeders of thoroughbreds. "These animals are soul and blood and flesh," the sheikh has said. "They are not machines. Sometimes you hit the jackpot. Sometimes you don't." Shortly before Arazi won the most prestigious race for juveniles in France, the Grand Criterium at Longchamp on Oct. 5, the sheikh sent his emissaries to Paulson, offering to buy half the horse for $5 million.
"I didn't want to sell Arazi," Paulson says. "Even half of him. I kept turning them down, turning them down." The 69-year-old Paulson could afford to reject such overtures. The former 30-cents-an-hour TWA mechanic built his fortune by supplying surplus military equipment to the airline industry and later converting passenger planes to cargo planes. In 1978 he founded the Gulfstream Aerospace Corporation and has since developed the company into the world's largest seller of corporate jets. In 1983 he offered about 29% of the company to the public, netting more than $85 million in the transaction. Two years later, when Chrysler bought the company for $636.5 million, Paulson's sale of his 71% share made him one of this country's richest men. Over the last eight years his $150 million investment in the thoroughbred business—more than $100 million in horses alone—has easily made him the biggest U.S. player in the game. Today his vast holdings at the idyllic Brookside include 180 royally bred broodmares, 120 yearlings, four active stallions and a projected 1992 crop of 132 foals.
Paulson routinely jets between various farms and homes and to racetracks around the world in his own Gulfstream IV—the same plane that he piloted to two round-the-world speed records in 1987 and '88—usually traveling in the company of his wife, Madeleine, and the planet's two most contrasting dogs, Frosty, a regal white poodle so intelligent that he does everything but fasten his own seat belt during takeoff, and Lido, a 14-pound Chihuahua with Peter Lorre eyes and aspirations to be the William Perry of his species. Paulson himself aspires to be the most successful horse owner and breeder in the world, so he did his best to discourage the sheikh in his quest for Arazi. Paulson finally made a counteroffer that he was certain the emissaries would reject out of hand, $9 million for half the horse.
"I thought that would turn them off," Paulson says. "But I'll be damned. They came to the Bristol Hotel in Paris, where I was staying, and they took the offer." After they worked it out, the deal was essentially this: The sheikh would get half the horse, race him in his colors when Arazi competed in Europe and stand him there at stud following his 3-year-old year. The sheikh agreed that the colt would not only run in the 1991 Breeders' Cup, but that Paulson could also take him to the 1992 Kentucky Derby, the race the American has always wanted to win.
For 154 days after the operation, the central questions in the sport were how Arazi would recover from the surgery, where and when he would make his only pre-Derby start and whether he would emerge from a winter of convalescence and training as the same colt who had so dominated his generation. Boutin is among the finest horsemen in France, and like many other top European conditioners, he has a talent for training a horse to the moment, for using long gallops interspersed with slow works to lay a deep foundation under a horse's form. It was not unusual this winter for Arazi to spend 90 minutes on the wooded trails in Les Aigles, the course on which Boutin trains his horses, and to travel five miles a day at varying gaits and speeds.
"I have had a lot of horses, but rarely horses with this kind of speed," Boutin said at Les Aigles on the day before the Omnium as Arazi finished his morning gallop. What he has been building, of course, is the stamina the colt will need to get the Kentucky Derby's 10 furlongs with only one race leading up to it. Reminded of the traditional American practice of running a Derby horse off several preps, Boutin shrugged and said, "They are asking too much of their young horses. They have three or five starts getting to the Derby, and sometimes they do not run well."
For Boutin the weeks leading up to the Prix Omnium had not been without controversy, and at one point he got caught in a media cross fire about the tender subject of Arazi's knees when he was quoted in a British racing paper, the Racing Post, as saying, "Personally, I don't think that his knees are any better now than they were before. If anything, they are more of a problem than they were. Before, he had perfectly good knees, but since the operation he has, obviously, been feeling the effects; one minute they are hot, the next cold." Boutin claimed his remarks were not translated correctly and that that was not what he had meant at all. By last week he had become more circumspect on the subject: "At the time of the operation. I didn't think it was necessary, but now, ‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√ºa va. I am satisfied with how he is doing.... He does not need to do better to win the Kentucky Derby."
For his part, jockey Cauthen was taking no chances. As the sheikh's regular rider, he will get the mount whenever Arazi races in Europe—Valenzuela will be aboard in the U.S.—and at 12:45 p.m., less than three hours before the Omnium, Cauthen, the 31-year-old American expatriate who won the 1978 Triple Crown on Affirmed before settling in England, jogged nearly 500 meters up the Saint-Cloud stretch and around the last turn, getting a feel for the turf. "It's dead, but it feels good," Cauthen said on his return.
As things turned out, Arazi could have spotted the field 10 lengths and beaten them swimming the Seine, but it was the way he won the race that brought the crowd, applauding, to its feet. Cauthen let Arazi drop back to fifth on the run down the backstretch and around the turn, keeping him outside and clear of horses. With about 300 meters to run, Cauthen began pumping his arms vigorously in rhythm with the colt's lengthening stride. In a trice Arazi was racing for the lead, and in a sudden burst of speed—the very hallmark of his style—he sprinted to daylight as he pleased, running straight and sound to the wire.
As Paulson headed for the winner's circle, Arazi's co-owner materialized at his side. "Very well done," said the sheikh.
"It was easy," said a relieved Paulson. "No effort at all."
Moments later, as the colt strutted his stuff into the paddock amid scrambling TV cameramen and photographers, with voices from the crowd of 3,500 crying, "Bravo! Extraordinaire!" Paulson said to his partner, "You know, there will be more than 130,000 people at Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby!"
The sheikh nodded. "People like to see the horses as stars." he said. "That is good...."
A unity of purpose abides today in the Arazi camp. Boutin will train the colt through the woods at Les Aigles for about two weeks, then ship Arazi to Louisville to finish his preparations there, just as he did last fall. If Arazi wins in Kentucky, there is no telling where he will go from there. The sheikh would prefer to send the colt to England for the Epsom Derby on June 3. No horse has ever won the world's two most famous derbies, and such a quest would resonate with romance and history. Of course, as a Yank, Paulson would like to win the Preakness and the Belmont Slakes and all the laurels that go to the winner of the American Triple Crown. The way the partnership works, Boutin may have to cast the deciding vote if the owners are deadlocked.
Now the long winter wait is over, and the first Saturday in May is floating down the Ohio River toward Louisville. Toward the end of that long Churchill Downs homestretch, to the winner's circle inside that old oval, where Arazi will return once again to dare the fates. And claim his place in history.