5 October 2008

She has the legs but does she still have the head? Zarkava has made only six trips to the races and in each of them she has flashed past her opponents as if she had wings on her heels. But last time she stood still when the stalls opened and even when she did consent to leave them there were a few worrying strides when she seemed unsure if she was prepared to buckle down at all. Could the young queen be ready to abdicate?

It’s the one cloud on what has been a blazing meteor of a career. On Arc day last year she was a sensational winner of the Prix Marcel Boussac. This season she has set race records in both the French 1,000 Guineas and in the Prix Vermeille last time on her first attempt at the Arc distance of a mile and a half. But still the image of her early reluctance niggles in the brain. He’ll never admit it, because jockeys never do, but you can bet it niggles Christophe Soumillon, too.

In fact it clearly bothered him for a time in the Prix Diane, the French Oaks, in the summer when Soumillon’s pipe-cleaner frame showed clear signs of uneasiness before his elegant partner came up that Chantilly straight as brilliantly as anything has ever done before. The Aga Khan’s rider has made his lofty reputation by being the coolest of customers, but even his temperament will be tested as he tries to finesse Zarkava through the early part of today’s race and see if he can present his filly with a clear stretch of Longchamp turf on which to lay down the law.

Much has been made of the fact that no female has won the Arc since 1993 and no three-year-old filly since 1982, but then nothing as good as Zarkava has taken part. So far her career has been one of freakish brilliance beyond the imagination of the Aga Khan’s team when they sent her unraced dam Zarkasha (promising but injured in training) to the hard-pulling miler Zamindar, partly because “he might put a bit of size into the progeny”. If she triumphs today in her first race against colts she will join the true stars on the Arc’s honours board. One’s heart wills her to make it, one’s head worries about that moment of hesitancy last time and the notorious toughness of the battle ahead.

The French Derby winner Vision D’Etat has a six-race unbeaten record, just like Zarkava, and won his Arc trial on the same day as the filly. But he has never looked as classy as her and his trial time was some two seconds slower. The Japanese horse Meisho Samson has won almost £5 million and was a close third when odds-on favourite in last year’s Japan Cup. But even his strongest supporters won’t mention him in the same breath as Deep Impact, who could not win the 2005 Arc, and so we move on to Team O’Brien.

They are out in force with Red Rock Canyon doing his usual (and now notorious) pacemaking duties for Ballydoyle’s “Big Two” – Duke of Marmalade and Soldier of Fortune. The fact that Johnny Murtagh took so long before opting for Soldier of Fortune shows there is nothing between them.

The same can be said of Youmzain, who was behind Soldier of Fortune at Epsom but beat him at Saint-Cloud, and the enigmatic Papal Bull, who gave Duke of Marmalade such a fright at Ascot. But of all the older horses the one I prefer is the Andre Fabre-trained Getaway, who had excuses at both Epsom and Saint-Cloud but whose opening win at Newmarket had “potential Arc winner” written all over it.

Getaway was fourth in the race last year and he is one of those late-maturing horses which Fabre is an absolute master at getting to peak on the big day. The softened ground may well blunt Zarkava’s rapier speed and Getaway is the sort of hardened battler that you like to have on your side. But the real result would be if Zarkava can still fly.

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