It takes years to change a culture. If the Japanese Triple Crown winner Orfevre ttakes the Arc deTriomphe this afternoon it will mean his country has cracked horse racing in three decades. Back then they could not even walk them round the paddock . Mind you they cracked the money long ago. Orfevre’s eight wins have netted £7.7 million. Frankel’s unbeaten thirteen total a mere £2.2 million.
But when I first visited Japan in 1980 a stifling mix of excessive bureaucratic control and lack of local horseunderstanding saw thoroughbreds treated more like tigers with each of them being led from either side by two elderly lads with tin hats on their heads. The Japan Racing Association set up in 1954 under the wing of the Ministiry of Agriculture , Food and Fisheries was already the richest in the world thanks to a 15% slice of betting revenue but it was inward looking, banned foreign runners in its principal races and the failure of their best horse Speed Symboli to finish closer than 10th in the 1969 Arc de Triomphe was greeted with national sense of shame. After endless enquiries, fact finding missions and young men sent abroad ,the authorities needed progress and so in 1981 inaugurated the Japan Cup as their first international race and found they could not finish nearer than 5th . When Speed Symboli’s son Symboli Rudolph finally scored a Japanese victory in 1984, Tokyo’s Fuchu racecourse was a scene of national rejoicing.
Things were on the up but the real criteria to international success is the “away match” and for them the greatest of these is the Arc de Triomphe in which Orfevre will be their 12th runner since Speed Symboli’s initial attempt . Their closest calls have been the second placings of El Condor Pasa in 1999 and Nakayama Festa a year later but it was the appearance of their best ever horse Deep Impact in 2006 which made the world realise that Japanese racing fans were like no other. Thousands and thousands of Japanese swamped the course, no less than 135 journalists were accredited and the collective weight of yen backed the horse down to 9/4 favourite . Orfevre has history to put right.
He might well do it but he has two major question marks to his name . He is drawn on the wide outside, 18th of the 18 runners, and four races ago suddenly cocked his jaw and ran off the course before regrouping and finishing second. The video of that incident looks alarming but Orfevre has won twice since , most recently in his first run at Longchamp under the guidance of French champion and two times Arc winner Christophe Soumillion. The jockey may be able to handle the steering but being stranded out wide is a massive disadvantage with only one winner in the last ten years coming from a double figure draw albeit that, Dalakhani from stall 14 in 2003, had the same Soumillon in the irons.
Once the draw was announced Orfevre was replaced as favourite by Camelot last seen failing in our St Leger to land the Triple Crown that his Japanese rival achieved in his own territory last season. Camelot has the advantage both of having stall five and *trple arc hero Frankie Dettori who has set tongues wagging by taking the ride for the Coolmore team, arch rivals to his own employers Godolphin for whom Dettori’s supposed understudy Mikael Barzalona jumps the Andre Fabre trained Masterstroke out of stall 14..
Frankie seemed unfazed by any perceived diplomatic issues when he broke hisscheedule to entertain a group of retired jockeys at Ascot on Friday . “Look ,” he said, “you don’t often get the chance to ride a Derby winner in the Arc. Forget Camelot’s run in the St Leger and his Derby run gives him a tremendous chance. You need a bit of luck round there but I am really looking forward to the ride.” He followed this by blithely explaining how his Arc preperation included riding two horses in New York today and flying back overnight to ride in five Group One races at Longchamp on Sunday. “I will sleep on the plane,” he said, “and one of the lads has promised me his bed to get a few more hourse when I reach the racecourse.”
Camelot obviously has a major chance although if the ground cuts up soft he might struggle the way he did in the Irish Derby. The same might apply to the Aga Khan’s cstar filly Shareta who was second to last year’s record time winner Danedream so cruelly absent because of a disease outbreak at her stable complex in Cologne. But two major fancies who should flourish are Sea Moon and Saonois and both of these bring back stories of almost Orfevre dimensions.
Sea Moon would be the Arc winner which the great career of Sir Michael Stoute has so long demanded, would be compensation for what by his standards is a second consecutive mediocre season and would be an astounding comeback by his stable jockey Ryan Moore who only resumed riding on Friday after two months off with a broken wrist. Sea Moon himself hasn’t run since a disappointing favourite in Ascot’s “King George” in July but he got trapped in behind that day, had looked hugely impressive at the Royal Meeting and his best run last year was on softish ground at York.
Sea Moon was as big as 10-1 in yesterday’s betting with Saonois at 8-1 and i thee latter would probably be favourite if the esteemed Sir Michael was in charge rather than the relatively unknown Jean Pierre Gavin who has a small stable near Lyon and shares his horse with the local baker Pascal Treyve . But handsome is as handsome does and while the seven races Gavin has won with Saonois may have started with an apprentice “claimer” on the Deauville sand last October, the colt was a decisive winner of the French Derby in June and was the most impressive of the three Arc trial victors at Longchamp three weeks ago.
Of more concern has to be the comparative inexperience of Saonois young jockey Antoine Hameline who has never ridden in an Arc before. He has talent but “buried” in stall two, he may get unlucky with the breaks and I think that he and Sea Moon can fill the places behind the piece of history that Orfevre is destined to complete.