one of the most persuasive trends in a sport that thrives, indeed depends, on interpretation of facts and figures is the recent influence of the afternoon of dress rehearsals staged at Longchamp three weeks before the curtain goes up on the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. In the past 20 years the Prix Niel, Foy and Vermeille have produced 12 winners of Europe's most valuable race, plus seven runners-up and six thirds. In fact, on only one occasion during that timespan, Lammtarra's triumph of 1995, did a horse who appeared on trials day fail to make the first four in the real thing.
It is a statistic, though, that should be no real surprise. Most Arcs are won by the home side, and the classic French preparation is a summer break followed by one cobweb-blower before the big day. Another thread to follow is the record of the Aga Khan in the Parisian showpiece; he has won three of the past 10 runnings and after yesterday is in the happy position of owning the new clear favourite for next month's renewal, Behkabad.
Like two of the Arc heroes in the green colours, Sinndar and Dalakhani, Behkabad won the Prix Niel, the contest for three-year-old colts over the big-race course and distance, though not as easily as either. It was only by a short-head that the son of Cape Cross, who had previously beaten Planteur in the Grand Prix de Paris in July, accounted for the same rival, catching him in the final couple of strides.
But if such a narrow success can be assured, this one was. As Planteur took the initiative at the head of the straight, Behkabad was caught slightly flat-footed. But Christophe Lemaire quickly had him balanced with all gears engaged and his sweeping run to victory was irresistible, for all Planteur's dogged resistance. The pair finished well clear.
With the Arc itself the priority, neither combatant will have been fully wound up and Behkabad's trainer Jean-Claude Rouget confirmed that there will be better to come from his charge. "He's a brave and good horse," he said, "and everything went according to plan and he won well enough in the end. But this was only the comeback race and he'll be spot-on for the Arc."
Behkabad, whose maternal grand-dam Behera finished second in her Arc 21 years ago, is now generally the 7-2 favourite, ahead of the Ballydoyle contender Fame And Glory, a late absentee from yesterday's excursions. He may be joined in the field by another Aga Khan colourbearer, Sarafina. The Refuse To Bend filly lost her unbeaten record when only third in the Prix Vermeille, but finished strongly after being given a lot to do from off the pace by Lemaire. She is rated around 12-1.
In both the Vermeille and the Prix Foy, it would have again paid to follow trends set recently. In the distaff race, Sariska once again disgraced herself by refusing to leave the starting stalls and, just as it had been in the Yorkshire Oaks last month, her old sparring partner Midday went on to victory, her fifth at the top level. Sariska, last year's dual Oaks heroine, has now been retired; it was sad to see the career of one so talented end thus.
In the Foy it was the jockey who caught the eye as much as his mount. When a sportsman's eye is in, it's in, and young William Buick and his boss John Gosden, triumphant in the St Leger at Doncaster on Saturday with Arctic Cosmos, rounded off a dream weekend by taking the older horse prep with Duncan, the outsider in a field of six.
Buick, 22, is one of the weighing room's outstanding emerging talents and for the second day in succession showed all the qualities that prompted Gosden to fast-track him to the big time. On Arctic Cosmos, he had ridden a finely-judged race from off a demanding pace to notch his first Classic; yesterday he controlled the game for most of the way.
Setting a modest gallop on the Dalakhani five-year-old once he reached the front, he risked being swallowed up in a typical French bunch sprint finish and, indeed, Timos and Nakayama Festa headed him as the run to the line began. But Buick knew exactly what he had left and his mount rallied determinedly to regain the lead and repel the Japanese raider by three-quarters of a length.
Duncan, whose older brother Samuel had won the Doncaster Cup on Friday, may take his chance in the Arc. "He's brave," said Gosden, "and I love the way he fought back."
The Newmarket trainer reported Arctic Cosmos in fine fettle yesterday morning after his Town Moor exertions. The colt is likely to try to follow the example of Conduit, who won the St Leger two years ago and went on to take the Breeders' Cup Turf.
Churchill Downs is also the destination of Midday, and the defence of her Filly And Mare Turf title. Her owner Khaled Abdullah's Arc possible Byword was put in his place in the Foy yesterday but the famous pink and green colours may yet be carried in the Arc by Derby hero Workforce, who showed on the Newmarket gallops on Saturday that he is beginning to sparkle again and is still, despite his absence since flopping in the "King George", in the big-race lists.
Sue Montgomery's Nap
Namir (2.00 Brighton) Back to form after long barren spell and can make it two from three at admittedly modest level after narrow defeat by progressive rival.
Tilos Gem (5.50 Musselburgh) Drops in class and distance on course where he has previously performed well off higher mark, and has ground to suit.
One to watch
Lightly-campaigned Cornish Beau (M H Tompkins) looks type to exploit current rating when he returns to 12 furlongs or more on a track that will play to stamina.
Where the money's going
Poet's Place is Totesport's new 5-1 favourite for Saturday's Ayr Gold Cup after his late swoop to take the Portland Handicap two days ago at Doncaster.
*Chris McGrath's Nap
Zelos Diktator (3.30 Brighton)