Times, Monday 5 October
The drink has to be swallowed. The record books don’t lie. Much as many of us may have wished different but it was the French horse Sottsass that won this Qatar Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp. Enable did not.
Sottsass won last year’s French Derby and his master trainer Jean Claude Rouget had targeted this Arc since finishing third, a couple of lengths behind Enable when the mare came up short in the big race last October. His jockey, Christian Demuro, 28, is 21 years junior to Enable’s rider Frankie Dettori but read the tactics of the slowest Arc since 1976 more easily than his fellow Italian.
For on ground not much firmer than the mud on the banks of the nearby Seine, the final time of 2min 39.30 was seven full seconds slower than last year when the going was seen to be too soft for Enable’s liking and Dettori arguably moved too soon.
This time, with the mare breaking fastest of all from the gates, Frankie had the option of trying to dictate from the front but opted to rein back into close fifth and allow French champion Pierre Charles Boudot to set a funereal pace on the stamina suspect Persian King. The big outsider Chachnak followed with Sottsass tucked in on the rails and Stradivarius on the outside of his stable companion Enable.
At the seven furlongs they were nine seconds down on last year’s gallop and they were still tightly bunched turning into the straight. Making up ground was always going to be difficult as they sprinted towards the finish clocking a highly respectable 24.75 seconds for the final two furlongs. Sure enough Persian King had first run, Sottsass moved out to collar him a furlong out and resisted the strong challenge of the German bred In Swoop to win by a neck with Persian King a length and a quarter in third just ahead of the French outsider Gold Trip. The fast finishing filly Raabinah was 2 lengths away in fifth with Enable and Stradivarius another couple of lengths back in 6th and 7th.
Dettori had seemed to have plenty under him turning in but, in the words of his friend and one time rival Jason Weaver, the great mare went from ‘go to woe’ in a couple of strides. Both she and Stradivarius were nastily sandwiched as Sottsass moved out just as Gold Tip came past, but it was lack of “go” that allowed it to happen. “It was too deep,” said Frankie of the horse he has loved more than all of the great ones that have gone before, “it just killed her action.”
None of this should take away from Enable’s greatness or the richness of the memories that Dettori and his broad beamed lady have given us over the last four seasons. It has been an unmatched epic journey as they have scooped up the prizes from Epsom to Ascot, to Ireland, to Kentucky and twice conquered the Arc itself in Paris. Indeed it may not be over. Racing manager Teddy Grimthorpe saying afterwards, “We’ll see how she is when she gets back and talk to John [Gosden] and Prince Khalid and make a plan. There will be no decisions [on retirement] at this stage.” Two years ago Enable closed off her season with transatlantic triumph in The Breeders Cup. If she is healthy, what a swan song that would be, even if the faster ground would certainly not be swan suitable.
Over the seasons we have rightly paid tribute to the wisdom and foresight with which John Gosden has handled his champion and so it is only right that we should do the same for Jean Claude Rouget whose career is in many ways a match for Enable’s remarkable trainer. At 67 Rouget is two years Gosden’s junior but saddled his first runner (it duly won) in 1978, a year before John took out his first licence in California. Gosden, of course, hit the heights in America before coming back to super success at home. But Rouget, while he now has satellite yards in the north, has remained at his original base at Pau, the town on the southern Alpine border that was once so popular with British expats that it had its own pack of foxhounds.
From there he first won a reputation for an ever increasing number of winners, saddling 180 in 1991 to set a new record and topping that to 242 three seasons later. But now, almost 6,000 winners in, he is just as feared as a big race specialist and his successes include triumphs at Ascot which he first visited when he was an assistant at Ian Balding’s having been a moderate amateur rider but a regional 1500 metre champion on his own two feet.
Christian Demuro’s athletic ability is not listed but his prowess in the saddle is ever growing. Italian racing offers little prospects for top class talent these days and Christian’s move to France in 2013 soon began to pay dividends. At 28 he has many years ahead of him, with 180 winners last season and now an Arc to his name, there should be many good years ahead.
Of course the same cannot be said for Enable and Frankie Dettori. The mare is likely to go to stud and the jockey facing the 50 year milestone this December and having to wonder for how much longer he can go on nursing his god given talent. The renewed association with his old mentor John Gosden and the continued arrival of brilliant horses on which to fulfil himself should give us a few more seasons. But there will never be another chance quite like yesterday.
So while all credit to Sottsass and his connections, for most of us the story of the 2020 Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe will have to be another addition to that sad but weighty volume entitled “Great Sporting Might Have Beens.”