Age barrier between Camelot and history

O'Brien will have his faith in his 'wonder' horse severely tested in a difficult challenge on a tricky course in Paris

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The Independent Online

At Doncaster last month we had Camelot: The Holy Grail. Today in Paris the wraps come off Camelot II: The Quest Continues. The colt considered by his trainer Aidan O'Brien to indeed have the mystical, other-worldly qualities suggested by his name was revealed to be mortal in the St Leger. Now he takes his lance and shield from Town Moor to the Bois de Boulogne to tilt at another challenge, one that could restore him as a legend. Or reduce him to Spamalot.

His task is tough, make no mistake. Although 15 horses have won the elusive Triple Crown of the 2,000 Guineas, the Derby and the St Leger, only one has taken the first two Classics, restricted to three-year-olds, and the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, the great all-aged end-of-season tourney. Three years ago Sea The Stars succeeded where such as Sir Ivor, Nijinsky, Mill Reef and Dancing Brave did not.

The Arc will be Camelot's first venture against older rivals, and his first into the hurly-burly of not only a big-field thunder, but one round a deceptively difficult course. Though flat in profile Longchamp, with its matchless backdrop of the Eiffel Tower, presents the problem of a series of straights and bends that put jockey skills, as well as equine talent, at a premium.

As far as guidance from the saddle is concerned, Camelot will lack nothing. His regular rider, his trainer's son Joseph, cannot pare down to the 8st 11lb that three-year-olds carry, and has been replaced by Frankie Dettori who, at 41, will be riding in his 25th consecutive Arc. The horse and rider bring charisma to the race on their own but as a partnership add spice and intrigue.

Dettori, of course, is employed by Sheikh Mohammed's Godolphin operation; Camelot represents the Dubai team's arch-rivals, the Irish-based Coolmore partners. The Godolphin runner in today's race, progressive three-year-old Masterstroke, is the mount of rising young talent Mickael Barzalona, who was recruited by the Sheikh this year and has been steadily eating into Dettori's two-decade hegemony as the blues' No 1. His high-profile wins have included the undoing of Camelot in the St Leger, on Encke.

The place on Masterstroke for Barzalona, 20, could be considered a logical one, without particular slight – the colt is trained by his old boss Andre Fabre – and has allowed Dettori to pick up the ultimate spare ride. Should Camelot give the Italian a fourth victory in the world's richest turf contest – the first prize is nearly £2 million – he will no doubt treat the crowd to his trademark flying dismount. But perhaps he won't kiss the Co Tipperary badge.

The Frankie factor and an advantageous starting position have ensured that Camelot will start favourite; he has usurped the wide-drawn Orfevre, winner of the Triple Crown in his native Japan last year and of the Prix Foy three weeks ago on his first European start, in the market, and he was trading at as short as 5-2 yesterday.

Camelot's presence has given the showpiece back a little of the sparkle it lost with the defections (due respectively to enforced quarantine, injury and illness) of the season's top older horses, the defending champion Danedream, last year's third Snow Fairy and Nathaniel.

Danedream was a fairytale heroine; she was bought for just €9,000 and has earned £3.2 million. Today's rags-to-riches runner is Prix du Jockey-club winner Saonois, who was part of a €13,000 job lot and put forward his Arc ecredentials with victory in last month's Prix Niel, historically the most significant trial.

Today's is a contest, though, that tends to favour the sport's higher rollers. Camelot, a son of 1999 winner Montjeu, cost his owners 525,000 guineas as a yearling and his stablemate St Nicholas Abbey 200,000 guineas, and as well as Masterstroke, homebreds from major players include last year's runner-up Shareta (the Aga Khan), Sea Moon (Khaled Abdullah) and Great Heavens and Meandre (the Rothschild family).

It is not likely that Camelot's reputation, with his stallion prospects in mind, would be profligately risked, and he can justify O'Brien's faith. But better value each-way may lie in St Nicholas Abbey and Meandre.

The Arc is not the sole point of interest this weekend, with six other Group 1 contests at Longchamp, including two top juvenile contests (Pedro The Great is suggested for the Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere) and the welcome return of high-class sprinter Mayson in the Prix de L'abbaye.

At the Seine-side track yesterday, on testing ground, Cirrus Des Aigles came back from a five-month layoff with a nine-length rout of his rivals in the Prix Dollar and now has the Champion Stakes in 13 days' time, and a clash with Frankel, in his sights. And the domestic trainers' title may have been decided at Newmarket when Ghurair inched home in Europe's richest juvenile prize, the Tattersalls Millions Two-year-Old Trophy, to take John Gosden more than £400,000 clear of O'Brien.