Racing: That Condor moment

FIRST NIGHT EL CONDOR PASA; Sue Montgomery in Chantilly sees a star from the East in the ascendant for the Arc
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ON WEDNESDAY morning in Lamorlaye, watching the Japanese contender for the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe warming up, it was soon very clear that there was to be no chance at all of any rising sun allusions, either in words or on celluloid. At seven o'clock it was still very dark and very wet. Overhead the cloud ceiling appeared to be about 50 feet, underfoot was the result of its diligent ministrations during the previous few days. You walked on what appeared in the blackness to be grass but what was in reality a carpet of saturated green sponges.

Somewhere in between, bats were not yet abed, swooping between clumps of trees and dodging fat raindrops by sonar, and as dawn (using the word loosely) slowly improved visibility from a few inches to a few yards, the point of the exercise took shape from the murk. It has to be said it was one that was at first mildly unprepossessing but the more you looked the more you liked.

For El Condor Pasa, a smallish bay four-year-old with a white diamond on his forehead, is a horse who has a rather unusual trick. At first glance, as he squelched through the slushy sand of the walking ring next to the grass gallops at Coye-la-Foret waiting for daylight, he seemed to be just a horse. Yes, he was extraordinarily relaxed about the proceedings and as he trudged round with his mates your eye was increasingly drawn to his fluid economy of movement, but he was not one you would particularly pick out in a herd, nothing of an alpha male.

But a few minutes later, as he came thundering past towards the end of a kilometre spin, it was as if he had ducked into a phone box somewhere en route. You would swear he had grown a hand taller, such was the impression of might and power in his stride at the gallop. Yet back among the trees, he was once again the mild-mannered trainer's hack, slopping round on a loose rein with his rider sitting long-legged and relaxed.

It is this very quality - you could, if anthropomorphising, call it professionalism - that has contributed to the success so far of El Condor Pasa's adventures in Europe and may lead to the ultimate triumph next Sunday at Longchamp.

Historically, Japanese-trained horses have been rarities outside their own shores and, when they did appear, novelties. El Condor Pasa will be only the fourth of his kind to run in the Arc; the first, 30 years ago, was Speed Symboli, who started at 99-1 and finished 11th of 24, followed by Mejiro Musashi in 1972 (18th of 19 at 41-1) and Sirius Symboli in 1986 (14th of 15 at 99-1).

But the tide has been rapidly turning and in August last year the victories of Seeking The Pearl and Taiki Shuttle in Group One races on successive Sundays at Deauville were a signal that Japanese challengers in top races should be taken very much more seriously. And El Condor Pasa is; he is among the first three favourites for the Parisian showpiece.

As a Kentucky-foaled horse with a Spanish name (from the Simon and Garfunkel track based on a Peruvian folk song) at present lodging in France, the colt in many ways epitomises the cosmopolitan nature of modern racing. But he will be defending the honour of only one country next week. The colt has been managed during his stay at Tony Clout's stable at Lamorlaye, just outside Chantilly, by Nobutaka Tada. "Most Japanese people are interested in racing just for the betting," he said, "but they can also identify with a champion. Every move this one makes has been drunk in back home and if he wins the Arc, it will be as if Japan has won the soccer World Cup."

El Condor Pasa, owned and bred by businessman Takashi Watanabe, is handled back home by one of the best of Japan's younger, outward-looking generation of trainers, Yoshitaka Ninomiya. He was given the green light to go west after he trounced an international field in the Japan Cup in Tokyo in November and his campaign has been a team effort involving Ninomiya at the end of a phone and the hands-on day-to-day application of Clout, Tada and his regular work and exercise rider Koji Sasaki.

There was a slight culture shock for the son of Kingmambo when he arrived at Clout's in mid-April. For a start, he found snow on the ground; his home, by the lakes and rice-fields of the Miho training centre two hours north of Tokyo, is on the same latitude as Gibraltar. And at Miho there are more than 2,000 horses packed in one place, American-style. But the little colt adapted to the more elegant life among the trees in Lamorlaye to the manner born, as, perhaps, a grandson of the great French racemare Miesque should. "All we knew was his ability," said Tada. "We could only hope that the change in environment would fit him so well. But he is a kind horse, and a clever one."

And a talented one, too, who made an immediate impact in competition. Heads turned when, on his first outing, he ran the very smart local Croco Rouge, fourth in last year's Arc, to three-quarters of a length in the Prix d'Ispahan in May over a distance short of his best and then remained so when the following month he confirmed his merit at the top level with a rout of two more high-class ones, the German champion Tiger Hill (last year's Arc third) and Dream Well, in the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud.

Two weeks ago he had his freshener in the Prix Foy over the big-race course and distance and, ridden by next week's jockey Masayoshi Ebina, scored a narrow victory in an awkward, slow-run race from Borgia - third in the 1997 Arc - and Croco Rouge. The pundits were not all impressed, but his connections were delighted. "We were happy that he won," said Tada, "but the result was actually not so important. We knew he was not fully fit and we did not want him to have too hard a race." El Condor Pasa, who had to make his own running against his two rivals, lacked nothing in attitude. "The jockey told me that the only time he was full of gas during the race was when the filly put her nose in front near the finish," said Clout, "up to then he was totally relaxed. Then he thought, let's go. He will be much better suited by a strong gallop."

Tada is perfectly happy with El Condor Pasa's progress since and, significantly, for the signs are that this may be a squelchy Arc, the horse does not seem fazed by soggy conditions underfoot. "He has improved since then, as we planned. And you saw this morning he ran with strength and grace and a very light movement. He is almost ready."

Japan's citizens have taken to racing, as to other Western oddities like golf and skiing, with passionate enthusiasm in the post-war era and in the past two decades have been among the world's largest spenders on bloodstock. During the Nineties they have owned 11 Arc runners, including the runners- up White Muzzle and Magic Night.

For the past five years the Japan Racing Association has been pumping money into the sport to improve facilities and encouraging integration with the rest of the world. Two years ago Japanese horses earned the right to international classification for the first time and Taiki Shuttle and Seeking The Pearl both earned substantial bonuses from the JRA for their brief foreign forays.

This latest venture is, however, slightly more altruistic. Even though El Condor Pasa's stud potential has already been considerably enhanced, the first prize in the Arc is only about half that of the pounds 1m he won in the Japan Cup. "The horse had nothing left to prove at home," said Tada, "so we have come to take on the rest of the world, for honour and sportsmanship." Given that El Condor Pasa seems to go at any pace, on any ground and in any direction, a week today Longchamp may be turning Japanese. You'd have to really think so.