Wildenstein still in pursuit of perfection

The most fastidious of French owners has Arc success off to a fine art
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The Independent Online

In racing, as in life, Daniel Wildenstein is a big cheese and he expects to be treated as the largest wedge on the board. When he is not the fine art dealer, the fine horseflesh owner does not hang around. He moves on.

Peter Walwyn felt the draught from stable doors in the 1970s, Henry Cecil was abandoned the following decade and André Fabre, this season, became the latest headline trainer to see Wildenstein's caravan disappearing over the horizon.

It is an unusual peripatetic characteristic when you realise that Papa Wildenstein has made his money (a reported £3bn plus) through enduring liaisons. Daniel Wildenstein does not just own the odd Cezanne, Renoir and Van Gogh. He has job lots of them. He is also said to possess a number of publicly unseen Picassos. And the longer he has kept his collection, the more valuable it has become.

Wildenstein will never be able to spend the wealth he has accrued but at least he has found a pursuit which gets rid of it more quickly than most. Racing, like art, is pleasing to his eye. "In a sense you can find perfection in both, but whereas a great picture stays great forever, a horse is only great for two or three years," he once said. "And, unlike art, horses bring you disappointment."

In Wildenstein's formidable equine history there are four winners of the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe (though the family argue the number is five and that Sagace was improperly demoted in favour of Rainbow Quest when pursuing a second successive win in 1985). All Along had triumphed in 1983 and the best of his colts to succeed was Peintre Celebre, who broke the course record in 1997, while the memory of his leading filly, Allez France, still lingers 27 years after her victory.

Allez France was a beautiful, imposing filly. She, almost uniquely in modern French racing, put derrieres on seats in the grandstand. Now, it seems, she has a rival for the affection of turfistes and Wildenstein himself.

On Sunday, the unbeaten Aquarelliste will go to post for the Arc in an effort to strike for the gentler sex who were last successful with Urban Sea, Galileo's dam, eight years ago. Aquarelliste is actually not that gentle in appearance. Quite incongruously, she is no oil painting, her most remarkable physical attribute being hugely powerful quarters.

"It's tough to compare Allez France and Aquarelliste, but they were and are both brilliant but different at the same time," Alec Wildenstein, Daniel's elder son, said yesterday. "This one is very, very quiet while Allez France was very strong. We hope she's as good if not better. Allez France could not win [the Arc] at three."

Daniel Wildenstein was 84 last month but he still gets the kick. "It's exactly the same for him," his son says. "He's run 44 horses in the Arc and it's always exciting."

Wildenstein snr will watch the race, as he always does these days, from the Restaurant Panoramique, where he is less panicked than most by the gourmet meal set price of around £140. He will get aflamed, just as he has done for all his career in racing.

We can trace the emotional trail back to the 1978 Ascot Gold Cup, a race which precipitated the owner's rupture with Walwyn. "Buckskin was favourite for the Gold Cup after winning the Prix du Cadran, but finished a well-beaten fourth," Wildenstein once said. "Like any owner I was bitterly disappointed and blamed Pat [Eddery]. If I'd been English I would have kept my cool, but I'm a Frenchman and I got too excited.

"Fifteen minutes later I regretted what I'd said, and realised it was the ground that had been the problem, but by then the damage was done."

Buckskin moved to Cecil and the owner and his new trainer shared many triumphs in the dark blue, light blue cap, including Hello Gorgeous, Simply Great and Claude Monet.

The last-named was around when Wildenstein could dip into a well of artistic names. "Normally, I would like to give names of painters, but all the good ones are gone," he said later. "And some of the bad too. Ribot was an excellent horse but a terrible painter. And anyway I wouldn't want to see Velazquez, my favourite artist by a short head, turn up in a claimer."

Wildenstein and Cecil divorced over another riding dispute, when Vacarme and Lester Piggott were disqualified from the 1983 Richmond Stakes. Piggott was to describe the Wildensteins as "inveterate bad losers".

The old Wildenstein volcano was just smouldering until this spring, when Fabre was told he would be spared the burden of feeding 42 of the mouths at his Chantilly yard. "When you are a racehorse owner you are taking a gamble every time you race," Alec Wildenstein explained yesterday. "To change the people who take care of the racehorses is not such a gamble. If they don't get along with you and you don't have any communications it's not fun any more. And the name of the game is to have fun.

"Monsieur Fabre couldn't find the time to come and talk. Even if you don't win, and especially at the start of the year it was a hard period, at least if you talk about it it makes the time go by."

The time for talk, however, will soon be over. On Sunday we will discover if Aquarelliste (which means one who paints in water colours) is as talented as her legendary predecessor. We will discover if Daniel Leopold Wildenstein has added another entry to his great racehorse collection and, finally, we will find out if Elie Lellouche, who was listed as the filly's handler last night, will still be the designated trainer come post time.