THE RAIDERS OF THE ARC

6 October 2002

Today’s big-race winner will have to be `something special’ according to four-time champion Freddie Head

At 7 o’clock on Friday morning the Tabac Des Chasses A Courre, opposite Les Aigles training grounds in Chantilly, was as French and as international as you could get. That’s what happens when you invite big time racing in.

It was two days to the Arc. At the bar was Pascal Bary, trainer of Arc favourite Sulamani, his face crumpled in early morning concentration on Paris Turf. Beside him, the leaner, more stress-free, features of John Hammond, the Chantilly-based Englishman who is without a runner this year but who survived the media spotlight to saddle Montjeu to land the odds in 1999. Over in the corner the small figure of Freddie Head sips his coffee, small in size but not in stature. Freddie won four Arcs in a 36-year riding career.

Three of them, uniquely, were for three generations of his family, Three Troikas trained by his sister Criquette in 1979, Ivanjica (1976) by his father Alec, and Bon Mot (1966) by his grandfather Willie Head when Freddie was a boy of 19. Over the years Freddie has seen victories for French, English, Irish, even Italian horses but never from the nation most represented in the tabac that morning. Manhattan Cafe runs for Japan, and already almost a dozen reporters, photographers and just die-hard fans are on hand to cheer jockey Masayoshi Ebina to go one better than he did on Japan’s El Condor Pasa, second to Montjeu.

But first they have to beat the favourite. As the light lifts, Pascal takes us to a misty clearing in the forest where Sulamani is among 70 of his horses circling in the sand. Sulamani is slight, hardly 16 hands (5ft 4in) at the shoulder and earlier in the season his nerves got to him to such an extent that he was awash with sweat after a mere five minutes in the horsebox up the road to Chantilly for the French Derby.

Yet Sulamani triumphed that day and the wisdom of giving the little bay a midsummer break paid off with a much calmer display in his successful comeback in a farcically slow-run trial at Longchamp three weeks ago. “He has grown up,” says Pascal approvingly as the colt hacks off, cocky and confident for his morning constitutional, “his mind is good, so is his condition.”

We move up the tree-lined side of a long, slightly snaking sand gallop which rejoices in the name of La Plaisanterie (the joke). Bary’s team, like the animals from the original Ark, come up two by two and as Sulamani winged past, he gave a little squeal and flashed his tail in well being. You could swear he was laughing at us.

At Chantilly, and adjoining Lamorlaye, there are now some 100 trainers and 2,500 horses to share in the racing comedy first brought here by anglophile Aristocrats in 1833. For a century this gorgeous chateau-dominated, forest-ringed roman town rang to an English accent.. Now there are only a couple of Brits in the town and only Franglais phrases like `le lad’, `la boxe,’ `le jockey’ and `le outsider’ remind you of their origins. Over at Lamorlaye, Ellie Lellouche trains the four-year-old filly Aquarelliste. She is no outsider, he is a short, pug-faced, genial ex-jockey and absolutely no `Anglais’.

Aquarelliste is taller than Sulamani and the challenge for Ellie is whether he has got her back to last year’s autumn excellence. Ellie moves her across the deep straw bedding and you marvel at the sheen on her bright bay coat, the gleam of the muscles across her rib-cage and down the length of her haunches. “Je pense,” says Ellie with emphasis, “qu’elle est pret,” (that she is ready).

The Japanese are trying to say the same thing about Manhattan Cafe, who returns from exercise to Richard Gibson’s beautiful old yard in Chantilly. He is an enormous (over 17 hands) black brute of a thing and when he gallops, throwS his forelegs higher and further than any creature yet seen at Chantilly.

But impressive though his Japanese form may be, his best effort and his last run was over two miles and was back in April. For all one’s respect for Japan’s growing international achievements, to believe such a horse could travel all the way to France and win the Arc first time out after a five-month lay-off is a miracle beyond imagining.

Freddie Head is the man to tell us. He is out in the sunshine of the Les Aigles supervising the last of the 60 horses he now trains along the way. “No, it must be impossible,” he says with a huge lip-pushing Gallic shrug that has long been his speciality. “And the favourite, he may be just a stayer, Aquarelliste is good but not a champion. To win an Arc you need speed, you need an extra. Maybe that English filly Islington.”

Les Aigles was supposedly so named because Napoleon once drilled his legions on the huge grassy bowl in the centre of the forest. It is now one of the most beautiful places on the bow-legged planet and on Friday morning it was easy to forget that there is a large cloud hanging over our racing sky and that tonight the BBC’s Panorama programme on corruption in British racing and the Brian Wright affair will give a necessary shock to the system.

But corruption began with Eve and the apple, not with the first punter trying to bend a jockey. Back in 1970 I was on the fringe of Europe’s worst scandal, the long-scale penetration of French jump jockeys by the Marseille mafia which culminated in the fixed Prix Bride Abattue at Auteuil. On the fringe, because I had known and been entertained by the mafia’s main contact but neither I nor my rides can have been interesting enough for any attempt at seduction.

More than half of France’s top 10 jockeys went to jail. It was a salutary lesson, which is what this scandal should be to all of us. But if such dangers always remain, so too does the wonderful, addictive attraction of these equine super-athletes and the men who ride. The October sun was warm as Freddie finally walked off the grass of Les Aigles training ground. “To win the Arc, you need something special,” he repeated, before pausing and spreading his hands in that trademark expression, “something glorious”.

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