The day of reckoning for Zarkava has finally arrived. At around a quarter to four this afternoon we will know if the unbeaten filly is a wonder horse, or just a horse; whether the Longchamp turfistes will cheer their heroine home or shrug their shoulders, tear up their pari-mutuel slips and turn to the problem of finding the winner of the day's closing handicap.
Zarkava, owned and bred by the Aga Khan, is hot favourite for the 87th running of the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. The three-year-old has sailed through all her six races, including her first try at the mile-and-a-half distance over the Paris course three weeks ago, when she sluiced past her rivals despite giving them a six-lengths start as she missed the break. But all her efforts have been against her own sex. Today she must pass the most important test for greatness in a filly; that she be able to beat top-class colts. All those on the amazons' pantheon have done so: the paragon of all the ages, Pretty Polly; Allez France, Sun Chariot, Sceptre, Pebbles, Dahlia.
The 15 males lined up against Zarkava are led by the highest-rated turf horse in the world, five-time Group One winner Duke of Marmalade. And the filly must not only cope with her rivals, but an unpromising draw on the inside of the pack, and the prospect of softening ground. "We could not have picked a tougher race for her first time against colts," said trainer Alain de Royer-Dupre yesterday. "She has been working extremely well at home since her last race, and we have all seen her impressive turn of foot, but this is much better company."
The Arc has been won 15 times by females, but none since Urban Sea in 1993, and none of Zarkava's tender age since Akiyda brought the famous green colours home 26 years ago. Duke Of Marmalade will try to give Aidan O'Brien a second successive Arc; if he is ruled out in the event that forecast overnight rain softens the ground markedly, Johnny Murtagh will switch to stablemate Soldier Of Fortune.
The world's richest turf race, with a prize fund of £3.2 million, has attracted an international field: Papal Bull, Ask, Youmzain and Schiaparelli from Britain, Kamsin and It's Gino from Germany, Cima de Triomphe from Italy and Meisho Samson from Japan. As well as the favourite, the home side supply the rank outsider, and Blue Brésil has as little chance as would Cowdenbeath in the Champions' League. But the French jealously guard the climax to the European season; they have won 14 times in the past 20 years and can do so again today.
Like Zarkava, Vision d'Etat brings a perfect six-from-six record to the fray, including victories in a Classic and an Arc trial. The humbly bred, progressive colt, from Eric Libaud's provincial yard, will be well suited by soft ground and can become the seventh horse to defend an unbeaten record in this competitive contest.