Racing: Lessons of another lost Arc for Britain

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The Independent Online
EASILY the most entertaining excuse for defeat offered by jockeys is the line: 'they went too fast'. As trainers of the eight British and Irish challengers for Sunday's Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe digested another failure to breach the home defences yesterday, one explanation was recited above all others on the planes out of Paris. They went too slow.

This year's Arc, the video libraries will show, was really two races. It was a round of brinkmanship among the handful of jockeys wise enough to head to the front (who would strike first, being the issue there) and a clammy shoving- match behind, with the majority of riders looking like schoolboys attempting to restrain over-zealous labradors in the park. George Duffield was at it on User Friendly, too, but this time away from the bumping rumps and congestion that helped to defeat the well-fancied Magic Night and Jolypha.

'There wasn't the pace we anticipated, and had they gone a bit faster I'm sure she would have won,' Clive Brittain, the trainer, said yesterday of User Friendly, whose abundant stamina was prevented from coming into play as the Arc departed from its normal unrelenting pace.

Subotica's winning time (2min 39sec) was the most sluggish since Sagace's in 1984, 7.6sec slower than Suave Dancer's last year and fully 12 seconds outside the record, set in 1987 by Andre Fabre's other Arc winner, Trempolino. Sectional timing showed that the 18 runners covered the first half-mile at Bluebell Railway speed.

Inescapable also in any discussion of the many abortive foreign raids on Longchamp is the old issue of equine longevity and the benefits of a specifically autumn preparation. True, three of Subotica's five victories had come on soft or heavy ground (all of them round Longchamp), but at the same time his log book reveals a telling gap for the period from 5 July to 13 September. For over two months at the height of summer, this big dark marsh-runner was in his dock waiting for the rains to come.

Contrast that with User Friendly. Before Sunday she had run, and won, in April, May, June, July, August and September, so after her ultra-gallant effort behind Subotica she has raced in each of the main seven months of the Flat season, taking in four Group One races (three Classics) along the way. No wonder she wolfed down her food yesterday.

This disparity in approaches was addressed on Sunday evening by John Hammond, who prepared Suave Dancer to win the race last year (12 months ago, the post-Arc analysis was entirely different, with most trainers and jockeys agreeing that a lung-busting early gallop had finished off the pathfinders, who included Generous).

Hammond pointed out that it is not only the policy of mid-season holidays that assists French contenders. Because so many races in France progress at a gentle tempo before turning into a manic rush in the straight, the chances are that a horse trained at Chantilly rather than, say, Newmarket, will have had fewer hard contests by the time it gets to Longchamp.

No criticism is implied here of the British system of running a horse when it is fit and well. Was Brittain to surrender the Irish Oaks, Yorkshire Oaks and St Leger when User Friendly was flourishing enough to win them, simply in the hope of winning the Arc in some distant autumn? Similarly was St Jovite to be given the cold shower treatment to stop him peaking for the Irish Derby and King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes?

There is little doubt that it was the soft ground that swallowed St Jovite's chance, though the poor record of King George winners in Paris continues to occupy the mind. Generous, Belmez, Reference Point and now St Jovite: all winners of the mid-summer championship, all failures on the first Sunday in October.

Not a bad run for St Leger winners, though. The last three (Snurge and Toulon being the others) have all finished in the first four at Longchamp after risking their fashion status at Doncaster, a fact which seems to confirm the view that for the Arc you need a horse capable of lasting more than a mile and a half.

According to Brittain yesterday, few restrictions will be placed on User Friendly when it comes to choosing her races next season. 'She's well capable at a wide range of distances and I'm sure her targets will include the Eclipse, the King George and the Arc again,' Brittain said, before adding that User Friendly 'is showing no signs of having had a hard race'.

As with Dr Devious ('I reckon he could manage another race this year,' his jockey, John Reid, says), you wonder whether Brittain's blacksmith exceeded his brief one day when asked to make another pair of metal shoes. You wonder whether he made a whole horse, and called it User Friendly.

(Photograph omitted)