WHEN Britain's challengers arrive at Longchamp tomorrow for the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe they will not, for once, be carrying with them that heaviest article of luggage, expectation.
Since 1986, when Dancing Brave graced Paris with a performance that still lives in many minds, those from the Dover side of La Manche have anticipated a repeat. For five of those six seasons they supplied the favourites in Reference Point, Mtoto, Salsabil, Generous and User Friendly, and the British have had their swagger gradually reduced as each has been beaten.
Reality returns tomorrow when Opera House, who is seen by many as the best of the British team, will be sent off as probably the third favourite. Michael Stoute's colt goes into the race with the not insubstantial record of having won three Group One races this year, but, paradoxically, it is the detail behind these victories that suggests he will fail.
For Opera House's second and third wins were in the Eclipse and King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes, which were both run in July, and one of the more plausible theories about the Arc is that horses who compete in high summer are rarely primed for action in the autumn.
'July is a killer month,' John Hammond, who trained the 1991 Arc winner, Suave Dancer, says. 'If a horse has hard races in July it can really take the edge off them for the end of the year.'
In recent times, the only horses to have won the King George and the Arc in the same season are Mill Reef and Dancing Brave, and, whatever Opera House's supporters find to celebrate in their horse, they could never get him on to the same shelf as those two.
The five-year-old has ahead of him in the market this morning Hernando and Wemyss Bight, who, by French standards, have had busy campaigns. The former would provide the film-script victory as he is trained by the cancer-stricken Francois Boutin, who has won everything France has to offer but the Arc.
The soft ground may be against Hernando, however, and his trainer is not convinced that 12 furlongs is his colt's best trip. 'The distance may be a little at the end of the world for him,' he has said.
Wemyss Bight is one of three entries by France's champion trainer, Andre Fabre, but by no means the stable selected. Fabre has a feeling that Intrepidity, who beat Wemyss Bight in the Prix Vermeille, may confirm that form. 'There is little between them and they are totally different fillies, but maybe Intrepidity has more nerve, which could make a big difference in the Arc,' he says.
What will definitely make a difference is the draw. 'With 23 runners the draw is a big factor,' Hammond says. 'You don't want to be drawn one or 23, in fact anything above 18, on the wide outside, is a big disadvantage. You want to be drawn in the middle, because that gives the jockey more options about the race he can ride.' If this proves correct, the British entries White Muzzle, Ezzoud, Garden Of Heaven and Always Friendly have lost out in the lottery.
They will nevertheless have their supporters in a crowd with a large portion of visiting Britons. It is a paradox that the Arc, which is considered the peak of the French season, is perhaps the day most unrepresentative of the country's racing, not least because of the large travelling contingent.
Racing at Longchamp at other times is relaxed and serene in the arboreal setting of the Bois de Boulogne, most notably because local racegoers save most of their excitement for one day of the season. 'Overall it's true that the French are not as interested in racing as the English, but this race is a little bit of an exception,' Hammond says. 'This race captures the attention.
'Longchamp is a nice course with lots of trees, and when you're looking out from the stands it's a very picturesque sight, but, strangely, on Arc day, the atmosphere is quite like England. Much more so than any other day in France.'
Hammond does not believe this year's Arc is an attractive betting proposition as there will be 23 runners, the largest field for five years, swirling their way around a course which seems to take the path of water going down a plughole.
If pressed, the Chantilly trainer thinks the time for fillies may have returned. Over the bridge into the 1980s fillies won the race for five years in succession, but they have not scored since the last of that quintet, All Along, in 1983.
The trend looks about to change as tomorrow's field features a filly who has been allotted a good draw, has won the Prix de Diane (French Oaks) and goes into the race honed by a well-paced programme. Her name is Shemaka.
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