Aboard our coach from Rouen to Paris for the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe our lady guide put it succinctly: ‘The only polite Parisians are the ones who are asleep.’ Try out your rusty French anywhere else and the locals award you bonus marks for effort: Parisians sneer and affect the sort of aural incomprehension Lester Piggott displayed when stable lads sought a fiver for leading up his winner.
It was a joy nonetheless to be at my first Arc: while I was a full-time political commentator the coincidence with the party conference season made attendance impossible. It was all the more fun sharing duties with ex-jockey John Reid, who won the 1988 Arc on Tony Bin, escorting cruise ship passengers to the big race won for the second year in a row by the remarkable filly Treve.
Longchamp’s style certainly lived up to expectations. The spaces between the grandstand towers were populated by matinee idol men with flowing silk handkerchiefs and impeccably tailored suits escorting girls young enough to be their daughters in bandage dresses and Bondage Queen high heels. Scarves were draped with the artless abandon of those who have absorbed chic through their pores. Impeccably made-up women prowled like panthers, exuding a confidence that opened doors on its own. There was an exuberance, too, about the Qatari sponsorship that makes this the richest race in Europe. Everywhere the banners in a strange shade of purple — foreseeable fuchsia? — fluttered in the breeze while in an entertainment pavilion white-robed and moustached Qatari men blew pipes, waved swords and danced in that decorously timeless Arab way.
My only complaint was the poor-quality catering for those without reservations in the grandstand restaurants. A minimum 25-minute wait for a crêpe au marron or a coffee is just not on. As hope of sustenance faded I finally found something authentically French, a snack bar just above the rond de présentation dispensing platefuls of Philippe Olivier cheeses at €12. But the French, too, have succumbed to ‘Elf and Safety’. A notice proclaimed that ‘Owing to the implementation of the Vigipirate security plan all beverages will be served in disposable cups’. My €5 taste of St Estephe came in a hideous plastic tooth mug: it really doesn’t taste the same that way.
We Brits do ceremony well but even Royal Ascot is pushed to match the glorious razmatazz of the Arc trophy presentations. We had already had mounted bands and fanfares. After the race, red-carpeted steps were drawn down the course by four white horses. Three open carriages then followed with winning owner, Sheikh Joaan of the Qatari sponsors and his family in the first, trainer Criquette Head-Maarek in the second, and the ebullient 47-year-old jockey Thierry Jarnet waving from the third.
The race itself had been a thriller. Both John Reid and I told our cruise ship audience that Treve could win the race if she was the same horse she had been in 2013, but after three defeats we neither of us believed she was. Gloriously she proved us wrong and her loyal trainer right: in 2013 Treve had endured the wrong kind of race and won, this time a perfect path opened and she became the first double winner since Alleged in 1978.
Despite her poor draw, I stuck with Taghrooda, one of this column’s Twelve To Follow for the year, who ran a fine race to finish third. Much credit, too, attaches to St Leger winner Kingston Hill, who was one place behind her from an equally unhelpful draw. One thing I did learn was to back French horses by phone with an English bookie and English horses on the Longchamp pari-mutuel. David O’Meara’s Move In Time was 25-1 at home. The French Tote paid me 30-1.
The most disappointed folk at Longchamp were the Japanese and Frankie Dettori. For the second year in a row Frankie, who took it gracefully, lost an Arc winner. In 2013 as Sheikh Joaan’s contracted jockey he missed the ride on Treve with an injury. This year he missed it because the Sheikh heeded his trainer’s plea to give the mount back to Thierry Jarnet. As for the Japanese, they have made a national quest of winning Europe’s greatest race. Three times in the past four years they had finished second and this year they had three live hopes in Just A Way, the highest ranked horse in the world, Harp Star and Gold Ship but came nowhere. Two of the Japanese jockeys rode such exaggerated waiting races that they may as well have started at the real Arc de Triomphe. Gold Ship’s rider said he had to have a ‘conversation’ with his intelligent horse. The answer this time was clearly No.
Japan has some fine jockeys on Japanese courses. But Longchamp poses particular tests. I don’t believe the Japanese dream will be realised without the help of a European jockey. But there is another obstacle. After the Arc Treve was retired, only to be rapidly unretired. Who is to say she can’t make it three?