Helissio: the new Sea Bird

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The Independent Online

They were invoking the name of the mighty Sea Bird II in the Bois de Boulogne last night as a new standard bearer for French excellence emerged in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. To merely say Helissio won Europe's end-of-season championship does him a monstrous disservice. The bay colt completely dismantled a crowd of talented adversaries in scoring facilely by five lengths.

There was a fatal fracture of Polaris Flight's off-fore leg in the home straight to typify another grim Arc for the British. Pilsudski was the best of the visitors in second place and Classic Cliche was the worst, stalling Frankie Dettori's momentum as he finished 16th and last.

Going into the 75th Arc, Olivier Peslier, Helissio's rider, had suggested he might try to win from the front, and any thought that this was tactical camouflage disappeared as soon as the stalls opened. Peslier and Helissio were indeed the pathfinders, but they seemed to be no more than keeping themselves warm until the straight was reached.

Then, as soon as Peslier squeezed his partner, the air behind him seemed to be thick with whips. The contest was immediately over, and the sub- plot that remained was the race for second place. Pilsudski held on to that honour from Ireland's Oscar Schindler, the biggest horse in the race who had been saddled with the biggest task by Cash Asmussen at the rear of the field.

Ahead of them, Helissio seemed to just float away from the main body of the field and after Peslier checked for possible opposition by peeking under his left armpit, in a manner of someone checking their personal hygiene, premature celebrations began. The jockey's Chipperfield performance, completed by a Mick Channon-style windmill, made Dettori's racecourse histrionics look rather sober by comparison.

Peslier's cap fluttered away in all this revelry, unveiling a pink helmet which lent its wearer the appearance of an egghead professor. "How do you say 'ooh la la' in English," Peslier asked. "This is the greatest day of my life and this horse is the best. It was very easy because he controlled the race. It was almost as if the other jockeys stopped their horses for me."

The other principals in the winning party were Elie Lellouche, the 44- year-old Tunisian-born trainer who rode 170 winners on the Flat in another life, and the colt's Spanish owner, Enrique Sarasola. This chairman of Madrid race-track does not speak much English, but, by heavens, he tries. Many of the words he used were recognisable, though not the order he was putting them in. The gist of the verbal blizzard seemed to be that Helissio could be for sale if sufficient zeros were put on the cheque.

Sarasola has already turned down a pounds 6m offer from Japan and they will have to stretch to eight figures now. Helissio may further exhibit his talents to potential buyers in the Japan Cup.

This was yet another victory for both the French, and the French mentality, as a horse which had been given a summer sabbatical was again successful. The first three from Britain's domestic championship, the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes - Pentire, Classic Cliche and Shaamit - floundered on the Paris turf. Only Pilsudski of the Britons can be regarded as having passed expectation. "He would have been good enough to win most Arcs but unfortunately has come up against a very serious machine," Michael Stoute, the runner-up's trainer, said.

There was a similar hint of disappointment and pleasure from Pilsudski's jockey, Walter Swinburn. "He would have won eight or nine of the last 10 races [Arcs]," he said. "I'm gutted I didn't win but if you are going to lose it might as well be to a superstar."

It may be that Peter Chapple-Hyam has upset the gypsies in the Bois de Boulogne because his fortunes seem cursed. The trainer lost a race when Monza was demoted on Saturday, and, more devastatingly, he lost a horse when Polaris Flight had to be put down. His rider, John Reid, was uninjured, a diagnosis which did not apply to British pride.