Racing: A nerve-racking 1999 - the year the action went down to the wire: Montjeu muddy marvellous

Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, at Longchamp Montjeu v El Condor Pasa
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The Independent Online
LIKE MANY moments of high drama, Montjeu's victory in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe appeared from the midst of seeming anticlimax. Thousands had packed the Longchamp enclosures to anoint the French Derby winner as the finest racehorse of his generation. With less than a quarter of a mile to run, however, Montjeu was five lengths behind El Condor Pasa, the leader, who showed no signs of stopping.

It had been raining steadily for much of the weekend. The going had not been so testing for 20 years. Racegoers in the grandstand swept their gaze left, from Montjeu to El Condor Pasa, and then to the winning post. Eyes and mind told you that even a champion could not win from there.

But the heart knew otherwise - the one beating in Montjeu's barrel of a chest. Mick Kinane asked for his final effort, and, despite the mud grasping at his feet, Montjeu picked up and flew. All afternoon horses had found it impossible to quicken in the straight. Kinane's mount, though, did so in an instant.

El Condor Pasa, trained in Japan, had long since burned off all but the best three-year-old in Europe. Though not normally a front-runner, he had set out to win the Arc the hard way with real vigour, and he had what looked a winning lead as they turned for home. But he had no answer now as Montjeu galloped up alongside and then surged past.

In all, it took about 15 seconds from the shake of the reins to the passing of the post. The punters who had made him their 6-4 favourite were as astonished as they were jubilant. Horses are gentle creatures by nature, but the very best racehorses are predators and bullies. Montjeu showed both those qualities as he stalked, pounced and then swaggered by the leader.

There can be little doubt that the soft ground was greatly in his favour and against Daylami, the grey who finished well beaten at Longchamp but went on to win the Breeders' Cup Turf just a few weeks later. None the less, when it mattered most, Montjeu found the energy and courage to snatch victory and do so in a manner those who were present will never forget. And the most exciting thought of all is that he will be back next year to take on Europe's best once again.

GREG WOOD

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