Even gnarled old pros harshly immunised to racing's most extravagant 'prince-from-a-pauper' tales have sucked on their straws at the Magic Night fable. Her mother bought pregnant for the knacker's price of 2,500 francs (pounds 300). Her name taken from the beautiful, star-lit night of her birth. Her useful appearance so unprepossessing that no reputable trainer would take her on.
The man who did so was then a 34-year-old scuffler whose main claim to fame was once having been champion jump jockey in Tunis, and whose yearling intake was doubled by Magic Night's arrival. Philippe Demercastel was taking a chance in more ways than one. He agreed to train the filly for nothing and to accept any prize money in lieu. Her win in last month's Prix Foy took her total to pounds 804,000.
Plain and flimsy-looking she may be, but unheralded she ain't. It was her name that was put forward as the French Arc de Triomphe defence was discussed amid the coffee cups, jodphur legs and savants of the tabac across the road from Chantilly's renowned Piste des Aigles training ground on Friday.
'Of course it will be difficult,' said the old hero behind the handshake, 'but she is in terrific shape.' The voice was soft and conspiratorial. Former champion trainer Maurice Zilber loves to add a touch of mystery to the tones of his louder 'I am a genius' heyday, but he is still a formidable judge. 'St Jovite and Dr Devious are Derby winners but you can bet Magic Night will be the best of our team.'
This view was not too strongly contradicted up the road where John Hammond was looking wistfully at last year's winner Suave Dancer, standing sad and slack- muscled after injury. In the next box today's Arc starter Dear Doctor shone like an apple in the morning light. He showed no signs of the air miles involved in last month's lucrative trips to New York and Chicago, but today's distance and competition may just be beyond him.
Horses, hopes, and when you get close to it, a hands-on addiction. The stable is the sanctum and only a flint-heart leaves unaffected. If you could resist Hammond's you still wouldn't have a prayer chez Philippe Demercastel.
Magic Night is located in an unpretentious, unscrubbed box under the brow of the hill on the southern, Lamorlaye side of the Chantilly Forest. Demercastel pere, white cigarette dangling from lean and leathered lips, rakes a patch of sand in the corner of the paddock. Philippe kisses him softly on both cheeks. The peck he gives Magic Night is just as gentle.
He strokes her narrow, hind- like neck. She ignores him, cocking her ears, alert and fractious at the clicking camera. She has been an idea beyond imagining, but Philippe's slow smile behind those huge brown eyes tells you it hasn't all happened without inspiration.
'I didn't have any plan. I just grabbed what was on offer,' he says of an obsession that took him from childhood riding days when Pa-pa was in the cavalry at Rouen, to stable lad, to Tunis jockey, back to stable lad, to trainer. He got started with jumpers, had a big winner at Auteuil, and then in 1986 won on the flat with a filly called Musimari whose mother was the grand dame of the four-legged ugly duckling whom he accepted in 1989 with hope only a short head in front of desperation.
Nobody willingly picks them lean and mean, but Philippe is adamant that even in the April of her two-year-old season the way Magic Night gallops meant that something odd was in the air.
Few activities deliver this so completely. Amidst 10,000 exploratory canters around the country, suddenly, unexpectedly, there's a diamond amongst the dross. The trick is to burnish it not break it. You can't fault Philippe.
Magic Night won first time out, and despite angular immaturity developed to Group class as a two-year-old. Last season she progressed through classic success in the Prix Vermeille to richly-rewarded second placings in both the Arc and in the Japan Cup in Tokyo.
That last trip was occasioned by a seven-figure sale to Mr Yokoyama after the Prix Vermeille, not bad business for a pounds 300 scrubber's daughter, not unjustified by this year's continued improvement. 'Before the Japan Cup she weighed just 414 kilos,' says Philippe, wincing at the almost anorexic memory. 'She wasn't eating. You couldn't train her. This year she at last eats normally and the way she forced her way through to win the Prix Foy on Arc trials weekend is something that would never have happened before.'
They all talk a good fight. But with Magic Night Philippe Demercastel has risen further and faster than anyone in memory. It would turn a Titan's head, yet there's little evidence of it having much effect on the balding skull beneath the baseball cap.
This winter he looks like training 15 yearlings. It's an almost eight-times improvement on Magic Night's year but it still only represents a fraction of the 100- strong intakes of the likes of Francois Boutin and Andre Fabre where he learned his trade and whom he opposes this afternoon. 'Who knows?' says Philippe, 'some of my yearlings may be some good but you can't expect them to be Magic Night.'
There will be other things this winter. A first holiday in two years and more time for the application of oil on canvas which he finds the perfect antidote to the addiction of the turf.
After much unfair prompting, he is persuaded to produce a yellow, green and blue flower study whose relationship to its Van Gogh original lies only in the thickness of the paint. It's pretty terrible. He smiles. He knows his filly isn't.
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