If Robert the Bruce was around today, he would surely take heart from Aidan O'Brien. Like the spider of legend who inspired the Scottish king to eventually defeat the English, O'Brien has tried five times in a seemingly impossible task. In the 2,000 Guineas, the Derby, the Eclipse, the International and the Irish Champion Stakes, Ballydoyle's finest have been put in their places by Sea The Stars, the favourite to take his run of Group Ones to six in the 88th Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe today. Fame And Glory goes to the fray charged with bringing the imperious one's Group One sequence to an end. For Bannockburn read Longchamp.
It was possible to see the stars in O'Brien's eyes yesterday as he relished the prospect of the battle in the Bois de Boulogne. Fame And Glory has been beaten twice by the champion-elect, off a slow early pace at Epsom and coming back from a nine-week lay-off at Leopardstown. Stoutly-bred Fame And Glory went on to show his efficacy over a mile and a half in the Irish Derby, whereas Sea The Stars will today be tackling that trip for the first time since Epsom.
"We were delighted with Fame And Glory in the Irish Champion," said O'Brien. "He'd had a break and was only just ready to start back. The good thing was that Mick [Kinane, Sea The Stars' rider] challenged late, didn't lock horns early, so ours didn't get hammered all the way down the straight. If that had happened he might have regressed.
"When you see a horse who gets a mile and a half well quicken up as he did that day, you'd have to be really happy. We're just sorry the Derby rematch with Sea The Stars didn't materialise at the Curragh in the Irish Derby, but we're looking forward to taking him on again."
Fame And Glory will have the assistance of two pacemakers to ensure a strong, stamina-testing gallop throughout the climax to the European middle-distance campaign. But nonetheless Sea The Stars will start odds-on to take the £2.2 million prize and opinion among domestic professionals at Newmarket yesterday was overwhelmingly in his favour.
The size of today's field has not been surpassed since Carnegie beat 19 rivals 15 years ago and in a pack that large the danger of being badly shuffled is always there. Ill-luck was seen as Sea The Stars' most serious threat. Sir Michael Stoute admitted to hope rather than confidence about his Conduit against the John Oxx-trained colt. "On what he's done so far, he looks unbeatable," he said. John Gosden, who fields the filly Dar Re Mi, was similarly measured about his runner's prospects. "We're taking on the boys for the first time and we have to be realistic."
Of the 22 Derby winners to have contested the Arc as three-year-olds, only four – Sea-Bird, Mill Reef, Lammtarra and Sinndar – have won. The latest Epsom hero is likely to start the shortest favourite since Allez France scored at 1-2 in 1974 and in this department too he has statistics to overcome. Of the 20 runners who have started at odds-on, that great mare was the most recent of only six to have succeeded.
Sea The Stars arrived safely yesterday at Longchamp, where Oxx found the ground entirely to his satisfaction. "This meeting is often run on soft, so we are lucky the way things have worked out," he said. "And the horse is happy and seems in good form."
As was Christophe Soumillon, whose rapid return after breaking an elbow was rewarded yesterday with a win on Tamazirte on the Longchamp warm-up card and the plum Arc ride on Stacelita today. Ironically, the Belgian replaces injured Christophe Lemaire, who landed his job with the Aga Khan after he was sacked last month.
There were surprises in both yesterday's Group One contests. At Longchamp Goldikova, the 4-9 favourite, could finish only third to Varenar in the Prix de la Foret and at Newmarket the 6-5 market leader Ghanaati had no answer to the final-furlong thrust of 16-1 French raider Sahpresa in the Sun Chariot Stakes.