Two devout men, Aidan O'Brien and Saeed bin Suroor, will face each other this afternoon in the most profane and yet the most inspirational of arenas. The crowd of 500 who turned up at lowly Southwell on Wednesday proved that the cult of a good horse goes way beyond the concept of mere lucre; the faithful turned up just to worship at the shrine of Galileo.
There will not be the same simplicity today at Longchamp, where the 80th Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe will be run as the finale to a card comprising, for the first time in Europe, six Group One championship races. There will be £1.6 million in prize money on offer, F200m bet on the Pari-Mutuel, and stallion values galore at stake.
But at the heart of it all are the horses and those closest to them. In this annus mirabilis of O'Brien it has been a pleasure to watch the exploits of the colts and fillies under his care at Ballydoyle, but a delight to observe the small hands-on cameos of diligence performed by the trainer as he adds the finishing touches to his charges, the sweep of a brush on the flanks, the easing of a bridle's headpiece to make it more comfortable.
Spring, summer and autumn early mornings in Newmarket have been illuminated by the presence of the Godolphin team, immaculate and resplendent in matching blue livery, emerging from Moulton Paddocks under the constant gaze of Bin Suroor on his faithful hack Frosty. Absolute attention to detail is the watchword of both trainers, but then both put the rest in the hands of a higher power. O'Brien prefaces most remarks with the words "God willing"; Bin Suroor sits in the saddle of a morning with the misbah, the Muslim prayer-beads, in his hand.
The earthly powers behind the two men are the most dominant there have been in this sport. O'Brien's skills have annexed an extraordinary 17 Group One races so far this season for John Magnier and the businessmen who operate the bloodstock empire centred at Coolmore Stud in Co Tipperary. Godolphin, the Anglo-Dubai creation of Sheikh Mohammed, have been overshadowed by their Irish rivals for much of the season but Bin Suroor's team, who have been knocking in top-level winners for fun in recent weeks, appear to be peaking at the right time.
Neither squad are sending their public star, Galileo or Fantastic Light, to the Bois de Boulogne this afternoon, a reflection of the way their preferred engagement, the Breeders' Cup with its $13m prize money and, more crucially, the chance for global standing for the victors, is proving an irresistible lure. But the so-called second strings, Milan and Sakhee, are no mere understudies.
Both are horses for whom the great stage of Europe's premier middle-distance all-aged contest may prove the final step into the spotlight. Both are nearly there: Milan's previous Group One win came in the St Leger, a race currently lacking street cred; Sakhee's was in the York International, over 10 furlongs which, in Europe at least, is still short of the status of the pukka mile and a half.
No St Leger winner has yet won an Arc in the year of his Classic triumph (the sole horse to have won both races, Ballymoss, won at Longchamp at four) but there have been some near-misses, notably by Nijinsky and in recent years by palpably lesser beasts: Snurge, Toulon and User Friendly.
For Milan, the St Leger was but a pit-stop on the way to the Arc; the longer race was neither a necessity nor an inconvenience. The Sadler's Wells colt's performance at Doncaster, when he would have won at any distance, confirmed what his connections hoped; that he is a rapidly improving, high-class performer. "After he won the Great Voltigeur, we realised then that he might be our Arc horse," said O'Brien, "and the St Leger happened to fit in on his timetable. He has made excellent progress since and although in a race like the Arc it is impossible to be confident – you just do your best to get them there and then hope everything goes right on the day – the horse is happy and healthy."
So, if his work on the morning gallops is anything to go by, is Sakhee, who has been oozing wellbeing since his York effort, positively revelling in his own vitality. The lightly-raced four-year-old has been given all the time he has needed to get over an injury picked up when he ran last year's brilliant Arc winner, Sinndar, to a length in the Derby. "Sometimes horses can remember these things," said Bin Suroor, "and then you have a mental rather than a physical problem. But I think it is now out of his head."
The Arc is arguably the hardest race in Europe to win, always competitive, often rough, on a difficult and deceptive course. Outsiders can and do have their days and this year Foreign Affairs, stepping up from handicaps and looking very much the part at home, has a more than sporting chance. Sir Mark Prescott, his trainer, is not so much God-fearing as one to invoke the fear of God, particularly if you happen to be a bookmaker.
Raiders traditionally find it difficult to win Arcs, with only nine from Britain and five from Ireland, but on the balance of form the home side may be found wanting this year. On soft ground, Milan is taken to outstay Sakhee, with Foreign Affairs and Golan in the minor berths and Aquarelliste the best of the French.
119-1: STAR APPEAL
The only shock concerning the longest-priced winner of the Arc should have been why he was allowed to go off as the despised outsider of 24 runners. Sure, he was not, on the book, as good as the likes of Allez France, Dahlia or Green Dancer. But Star Appeal had won both the Eclipse and the Gran Premio di Milano. He was, though, trained in Germany, which was not then noted for international racing exploits. He won decisively in a rough race and remains the only German winner.
Topyo scored in a blanket finish in the largest field, 30 runners. He was one of the worst Arc winners and a fortunate one, for a stablemate blocked the fast-finishing runner-up Salvo at a crucial moment. But less lucky in victory was his Australian rider, Bill Pyers, who, earlier in the year, had been sentenced to prison in absentia for his part in a car crash in France. His high-profile success alerted the authorities to his whereabouts and he subesquently spent several months in custody.
53-1: GOLD RIVER
Gold River was a classy, tough stayer who had won the Prix du Cadran before the Arc and revelled in the testing conditions. But punters ignored her because her usual pilot, Freddy Head, had deserted her in favour of the previous year's heroine Detroit. Winning jockey Gary Moore had ridden in Hong Kong the previous day and made it to Longchamp with only minutes to spare after a bomb scare on his flight. Gold River was killed by lightning at stud five years later.
52-1: OROSO and LEVMOSS
Oroso was the only important Flat winner for his trainer Daniel Lescalle, who specialised in jumpers. His young jockey Serge Boullenger had signed up for military service a few weeks before the race and it was only the intervention of the Minister for War that got him the day off. He arrived at the course in uniform. Levmoss, who spoiled Park Top's party, was a top-class stayer and the last Gold Cup winner to triumph.
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