5 October 2003

Playing the ace: Dalakhani is the fastest, most brilliant horse in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe field. His 22-year-old jockey, Christophe Soumillon, is the coolest, most talented of the new crop of jockeys riding in France. But this afternoon he has got to play clever, and  play late.

The beauty of this game is that we know the opening hand. We know of High Chaparral’s sustained excellence, of Ange Gabriel’s 18-race toughness, of Vinnie Roe and Bollin Eric’s stamina, of Doyen’s potential, of Kris Kin’s deceptive laziness, of German star Dai Jin’s home reputation. We even know the second hand, the draw for starting position with High Chaparral locked in snug by the rail with Dalakhani stranded 14th of 14 on the wide outside. What we don’t know is how things will unroll as the field swings right-handed into the straight.

Or even the false straight – one of the most confusing things to the television viewer and most tempting to the rider is to get prematurely excited as the race makes the first right handed turn at the far end of the course. It appears they have swung the corner but they haven’t. There is another quarter of a mile left before the final turn. It is a test for punters and jockeys to hold their nerve. It will test Belgium’s greatest jockey.

For there will be a lot of action up front. Dalakhani, High Chaparral and Kris Kin all have pacemakers to press the gallop. High Chaparral’s stable-companion, Black Sam Bellamy, will want to attack, and High Chaparral himself will be right in his slipstream, happy to take over and challenge Dalakhani to come and catch him on rain-softened ground which may blunt the French star’s finishing kick.

From his draw, Soumillon will want to avoid being swung too wide on the turns but will also wish to settle to the middle or back of the field to avoid the disaster that dogged him in the Irish Derby. Worried about being trapped against the rail he jumped out of the stalls behind the pacemaker which, with the others dropping in behind him, meant that he was bound to be stranded in front a good two furlongs from home when the leader weakened.

Trainer Alain de Royer Dupre is no motormouth and while his summary – “Dalakhani had to be a leader, he is not a leader” – was the most brutal of verdicts, that first defeat also flags up what Dalakhani’s opponents must do today. The elegant but quite light-framed grey may have the best acceleration but he got outgunned the one time he really had to battle. High Chaparral and his team have to make this hurt.

That means they have to wind the gallop up from the front. Soumillon has to avoid letting them get detached from him, ensuring he does not get dragged back by the pacemakers, as they roll like flotsam through the field, or trapped by any other rival who would relish his discomfort if they had him on their inside. But above all, young Soumillon must hold his nerve, must not use Dalakhani too early, must not yet play the ace. This week he will have been viewing past Arcs, the key date being 1986, when Pat Eddery rode the greatest waiting race I have seen on Dancing Brave.

As the field hit the straight Dancing Brave moved out for a moment from the back of the field. Up front, super mare Triptych and English Derby winner Shahrastani were on the attack, with French ace Bering closing on the outside. The instinct was for Eddery to set out in pursuit. Instead, he moved back in and kept the powder dry. “I didn’t,” he said afterwards in perfect understatement, “want to use his speed too soon.”

When he did, Dancing Brave came as if from a sling shot. His attack up the wide outside was so dramatic and so fast that our Channel 4 cameras missed the first part of it. But is Dalakhani as fast as the Guineas winner Dancing Brave? Were Bering and Triptych quite as strong as High Chaparral will be this afternoon? The answer surely has to be `no’.

Because of the Falbrav controversy last time and the Hawk Wing hype last year, High Chaparral has never been fully paid his dues. In 10 races he has only been beaten once since his debut and that was when a narrow third after an interrupted preparation in this race last October. He has won Derbys at Epsom and The Curragh and the Breeders’ Cup round the cambered speedway track at Arlington in Chicago. His shoulder has been a worry before and after his tough battle at Leopardstown, but this is a mature and battle-hardened star who every jockey would just love to ride.

Michael Kinane knows what he has to do. He must trump the Dalakhani ace.

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