We could sense it at the time. When Mill Reef came clear, the 1971 Arc became the benchmark against which all future champions would be measured and at which only Dancing Brave and Sea The Stars have stood comparison.
He was the first British trained horse to win the Arc since Indiana in 1948 and the first ever since the race became established as the climax to the European season in the 1950s. What’s more he and jockey Geoff Lewis were trying to succeed where the great Lester Piggott had failed on the majestic Derby winners Sir Ivor and Nijinsky in 1968 and 1970. Mill Reef was small but he was mighty and he had a lot on his banner already.
As a two year old he had won the Coventry, the Gimcrack and the Dewhurst. At three he had taken the Derby, the Eclipse and The King George. As that 1971 Arc field raced to Longchamp’s final turn, Mill Reef was locked on the inside as so many favourites have been before. Then suddenly, like the sunshine coming out from behind the cloud, his white nose band gleamed amongst the leaders. Mill Reef was through.
He had the silkiest stride you ever saw. Not the deep finishing kick of Dancing Brave, or the big-punch finish of Sea The Stars, or even the predatory reach of Frankel storming for the line. Mill Reef skimmed across the turf whether it be as swampy as the Gimcrack or as rattling fast as at Longchamp where he set a new track record just as he had done in the Eclipse. In every race he won he increased the advantage between him and his pursuers in the final furlong. That afternoon in Paris, the standard was set.