Sunday Times, Sunday 4 October
When Enable walks into the Longchamp paddock for her fourth tilt at the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe this afternoon, she will hear a familiar sound. It will not be the usual buzz of massed ranks of spectators but the shrill, stallion’s challenge of Stradivarius. He is her stable companion but he could be her conqueror.
That is a bold statement about a horse whose best form is over a whole mile further than today’s mile and a half and whose jockey is riding her for the first time. It’s also something of an insult to Enable, today’s hot favourite, whose 11-race, four-country, dual-continent, top-event haul over the past three seasons has never been equalled on an international level. But Stradivarius is in the form of his life and even Enable’s greatest fans in the John Gosden stable cannot be sure the noisy chestnut colt will not dethrone the mare.
The pair will face just nine rivals after Aidan O’Brien’s withdrawal of four of his runners after discovering that a batch of horse feed used in his yard was contaminated.
“Enable is the best horse I have ever worked with,” says Barry O’Dowd, whom Gosden calls “the best assistant I have ever had”. O’Dowd looked after Spectrum, the Irish 2,000 Guineas and Newmarket Champion Stakes winner, before joining the stable 20 years ago.
“But you can’t take anything away from the old warrior,” O’Dowd says of Stradivarius “He just gets better and better. On the heath you hear him before you see him but he is really professional when he gets to work and his last gallop was absolutely tip- top. We didn’t think he wanted it soft but in this year’s Gold Cup he was a revelation.”
O’Dowd’s is the sort of voice worth listening to: discreet, informed, experienced and happily uninfected by the usual pre-race hyperbole. He has seen many great champions in his time and sent Golden Horn off on the road to Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe glory in 2015, two years before the first of Enable’s two successes.
“Make no mistake,” O’Dowd says, “Enable is in the very best of shape both physically and mentally. But while my head says that she ought to do it, my heart just wonders if it might be Strad. He’s a remarkable horse.”
They both are. Enable is a big bay mare who at 16.2 hands and 405kg is a couple of inches taller and 20kg heavier than her shorter but still powerfully built stable companion. She has come to mean more to Frankie Dettori than any other of the superstars he has ridden. He talks vividly of how she seems to grow under him at the races and grinds her teeth as if ready for battle. But he also knows how it felt when Stradivarius put ten long lengths between himself and the nearest pursuer on that soggy Gold Cup day at Royal Ascot in June. He signs off by saying “I just hope he doesn’t pass me.”
Someone who does hope exactly that is Stradivarius’s owner and breeder, Bjorn Nielsen, who has waited 27 and more years for this. Born in South Africa, he became addicted to racing during his schooldays in Epsom. Then his tennis talent took him on a sports scholarship to the United States and to many tournament victories on the highly competitive college circuit, as well as a semi- final defeat by Yannick Noah, who won the French Open in 1983.
So Nielsen, 63, who made his fortune in hedge funds and keeps 16 mares in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Kiltinan Castle stud in Tipperary, knows about pressure. But asked about today, he says “Of course, it’s worse being a watcher than a player and as a breeder you feel like a parent at a sports day. You can only worry. But I don’t think it will be as great as when my horse Assessor was favourite at the start of Derby week in 1992 and at 35 I was quite new to it.”
That race worked out unhappily for Assessor but a year later the colt won the Prix du Cadran the day before Nielsen watched a mare called Urban Sea win the Arc with Dettori seventh and Olivier Peslier, Stradivarius’s new rider, back in eighth. Urban Sea has gone on to be dam both of Stradivarius’s sire, Sea The Stars, and Enable’s grandsire, Galileo. The racing world moves in strange and circular ways.
Which brings us to tactics. Peslier may not know Stradivarius and may have won a “mere” four Arcs to Dettori’s six, but he has won great races around the world, including the Epsom Derby on High Rise, the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot on first-time acquaintance Harbinger and three consecutive victories in the ultra-competitive Breeders’ Cup Mile on Goldikova.
What’s more he is the long- acknowledged master around Longchamp, his home course. In big races, knowledge of the horse, particularly if it is a straightforward ride such as Stradivarius, is not as important as playing your cards in the right order. Ask Dettori, who would have won again on Enable last year had he not found himself in front too soon.
Peslier, at 47 two years younger than Dettori, is the wiliest of card players. In Stradivarius he just might have the card to trump Enable’s ace.