Racing: Ouija Board can defy scientific approach

Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe: Ed Dunlop's Oaks winner can overcome statistics that point to the Fabre-trained Valixir
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The Independent Online

Those forward-thinking French racing administrators who created the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in 1920 with the purpose of attracting international competition to Paris would have looked with approval on today's 20-strong field, a home defence of 11 against challengers from Britain, Ireland, Germany and Japan.

Those forward-thinking French racing administrators who created the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in 1920 with the purpose of attracting international competition to Paris would have looked with approval on today's 20-strong field, a home defence of 11 against challengers from Britain, Ireland, Germany and Japan.

The attitude of the foreigners to their baby would have particularly delighted them. Latice would have started favourite for today's Prix de l'Opera, but her owner, Enrico Ciampi, insisted she take her chance in the big one. Likewise, Lord Derby diverted Ouija Board from the filly-only contest. And when Tap Dance City's plane broke down, his fan club rose up as one and insisted a replacement be found. The hearts of an Italian businessman, an English aristocrat and a thousand Japanese punters all beat as one in the Bois de Boulogne.

Today's 83rd running of Europe's most famous all-aged contest is perceived as sub-standard, which could be considered odd, considering it features the winners of this year's Derbys at Epsom (North Light), the Curragh (Grey Swallow), Chantilly (Blue Canari) and Hamburg (Shirocco, who will be withdrawn unless rain eases the going), plus the Oaks and Irish Oaks (Ouija Board), the French equivalent (Latice), Grand Prix victors in Paris (Bago), Deauville (Cherry Mix), and Baden-Baden (Warrsan) and the best horse in Japan. But what is missing is a real star, a horse apart from the rest. This lot, though the best around, seem too much of a muchness. Most of them have been beating each other all season.

Recent results say that the winner will be a colt (19 of the past 20 have been), will have already scored over 12 furlongs (17 of 20), been successful last time out (16 of 20), and at Group One level (15 of 20), be drawn in single figures (13 of 20), have a bay coat (13 of 20), be aged three (12 of 20), and be French-trained (12 of 20) probably by André Fabre (five wins).

No horse falls entirely within those parameters, but the one who comes closest is Valixir. It may seem perverse to look elsewhere, but one of the features of this season has been the prevalence of girl power against the boys at élite levels. Russian Rhythm set the tone in the Lockinge Stakes back in May and the likes of Soviet Song, Frizzante, Grey Lilas, Albanova, Divine Proportions and Damson have carried on her good work.

Time was when distaffers gave as good as they got in the Arc. Fifteen have won, including top-notchers like Pearl Cap, Coronation and Allez France, and they recorded a run of five consecutive victories from 1979 to 1983, a year in which they filled the first four places courtesy of All Along, Sun Princess, Luth Enchantee and Time Charter. And although the last female to win was Urban Sea back in 1993, they have been knocking at the door since, with places from Borgia, Leggera, Egyptband, Volvoreta and Aquarelliste.

One of the oldest statistical barriers to be breached is the record of Oaks winners in the Arc. All 19 to have tried, from Brulette, fourth in 1931, to Intrepidity, who occupied the same place 11 years ago, have failed. Time Charter, as a four-year-old, and Sun Princess were the market leaders 21 years ago. Bella Paola, eighth in 1958, Salsabil, 10th in 1990, and User Friendly, the one who came closest when beaten a neck 12 years ago, also started favourite.

User Friendly is also the only Oaks winner to have finished in front of the same year's Derby winner on the four occasions the pair have met in the Arc. And according to the man who rode both Epsom winners this year, the same will happen today. Kieren Fallon takes the mount on North Light for his retained stable, that of Sir Michael Stoute, but gave a considerable vote of confidence to Ouija Board. "If she gets a clear passage she'll be there," he said. "She's got a massive turn of foot and has done nothing wrong."

The participation in the Arc of the filly, her noble owner's sole racehorse, was something of a last-minute decision, influenced by having her favoured, if unseasonal, fast ground. "We decided it was the chance of a lifetime to run in such a race," Ed Dunlop, her trainer, said yesterday.

"Anything that happens will be a bonus. She's already the champion of her division, but we don't know how good she is compared to older horses or colts. It will be a huge ask, but one thing we are confident of is that she's in tremendous form. But she'll need to be."

The evidence says this year's Classic generation is no more than average, but Ouija Board could be the star the stage is lacking. Cases can be made, too, for the soul sisters taking part, particularly Vallee Enchantee, who was unlucky in the Coronation Cup and comes to the fray fresh. She is tiny, though, so will need to keep out of trouble. Pride, a fast-finishing third in the Prix Vermeille, is not the no-hoper her price indicates.

Of the colts, North Light has had an injury-interrupted preparation and may prefer softer ground. Grey Swallow, vying with him for favouritism, had his measure at the Curragh and owns better acceleration. He is rated more highly by Dermot Weld, his trainer, than Vinnie Roe, fifth in a classier Arc last year. A six-year-old has yet to win, though Ardross nearly did, but the admirable Warrsan, the most prolific Group One winner in the field, will surely be thereabouts.

MONTGOMERY'S VERDICT

1 Ouija Board

2 Vallee Enchantee

3 Grey Swallow

4 Warrsan

Best longshot: Pride

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