Racing: Test of brilliance for Arc lights

This is the Sunday of reckoning at Longchamp for Europe's big- race hopefuls.
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The Independent Online
THERE ARE few certainties in racing, but it would be a brave bookmaker who would offer odds against the winner of the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe turning up at Longchamp today for an advance sniff of the Paris air. Four of the last six winners of the race that is the climax of the European middle- distance season warmed up in either the Prix Niel or Prix Foy, two of the three traditional trials over the Arc course.

It is not absolutely necessary to win this afternoon; the races are only preps, after all. Of the four above mentioned heroes Helissio and Carnegie both took the Niel en route to the big one, but Peintre Celebre was beaten in it last year - controversially by Rajpoute, with Cash Asmussen and Olivier Peslier threatening each other with handbags at six paces afterwards - before his brilliant performance three weeks later and in 1992 the less charismatic Subotica went under to Magic Night in the Foy before nicking the Arc from the St Leger heroine User Friendly.

And even if the three races - the Prix Vermeille is the other - do not actually throw up the big-race winner, they are a significant guide none the less. In 1990 Epervier Bleu (who won the Niel) and In The Wings (won the Foy) took second and fourth in the Arc. A year later Magic Night (won the Vermeille) and Pistolet Bleu (second in the Foy) finished second and third. In 1994 Hernando and Apple Tree, placed in the Foy, chased Carnegie home. The worst years for the trials during the Nineties have been 1993, when the Vermeille winner Intrepidity came home fourth in the Arc and 1995, when Carnegie, who won the Foy, could finish only sixth in his bid for the double.

So anyone who does not think they saw the Arc winner either at Doncaster or Leopardstown yesterday should hop on to Le Shuttle and head for the Bois de Boulogne and the open-air gastronomic delights of Cami's outside the racecourse gates. Or more realistically, tune into BBC2 this afternoon.

First along is the three-year-old fillies' contest, the Prix Vermeille, which in recent years has been the least influential of the three, very likely because it is a Group One prize in its own right and therefore often the end in itself rather than the means to one.

The Arc would be, if not an afterthought, certainly a bonus. The last to complete the double was Three Troikas in 1979, though both Detroit and Akiyda bounced back from defeat in the trial in the early Eighties and Magic Night recorded that near-miss seven years ago. Today's 11 runners include two Oaks winners, the Chantilly heroine Zainta and Winona, who scored in such tremendous style at The Curragh but who would be a first Irish-trained winner of this race. The Aga Khan's Zainta, who will have the assistance of a pacemaker, is defending a six-race unbeaten record and at around 14-1 is the top-priced filly in the Arc betting.

British-trained fillies occasionally win Vermeilles, most recently My Emma two years ago and Salsabil in 1990. Today's challenge comprises Godolphin's Oaks runner-up Bahr, bidding to redeem herself after a below-par run in the Irish Oaks, John Dunlop's soft ground-loving Leggera and Cloud Castle (Clive Brittain).

The Group Two Prix Niel is for colts of the Classic generation and features the much-awaited return to action of the Arc favourite Dream Well, who has been accorded the typical French-style summer break by Pascal Bary since he added the Irish Derby to his Prix du Jockey-Club victory. He and Asmussen will not have things all their own way, though; his five rivals include his well- regarded stablemate Croco Rouge, two from Andre Fabre's yard, the recent Deauville winner Epistolaire and Sagamix, and the upwardly mobile Godolphin hope Sea Wave and his pacemaker Central Park, who ducked the St Leger challenge for today's test.

After victories in the Grand Prix de Chantilly and Saint-Cloud earlier in the year Fragrant Mix puts his reputation as the best older horse in France on the line in the Prix Foy. Godolphin's Predappio is the only foreign raider among the Fabre-trained grey's four rivals.

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