After two editions of the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in which a genuine equine superstar stepped on to the pantheon with her, and then his, victory, today's 89th running of the great Parisian showpiece could be considered rather low-key by comparison. After all, the horse who stamped himself as the best middle-distance performer of the season with that devastating 11-length tour de force in the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes in July has not made it to Long-champ; Harbinger has retired hurt and is already being prepared for his career as a stallion in Japan.
The formbook confirms Harbinger's status at every turn; his two most recent immediate victims were Cape Blanco and Duncan, who followed up by winning the Irish Champion Stakes, Ireland's top all-aged contest, and Prix Foy, one of the key Arc trials, respectively. So does this make this afternoon's finale to the European season, with its £2 million first prize, merely a lucrative consolation? Probably. But there is one horse in the field who has the opportunity to provide an alternative bright thread through the pattern of the narrative.
Workforce will be the 24th Derby winner to contest the Arc as a three-year-old. Only five have succeeded so far and their names – Sea-Bird, Mill Reef, Lammtarra, Sinndar and last year's hero, Sea The Stars – are a measure of the talent required. But when he won at Epsom, by seven lengths in record time, Workforce looked every bit another glittering prospect. Then came his dull display behind his Sir Michael Stoute stablemate Harbinger at Ascot.
After that blip the colt's presence today has been a will-he, won't-he cliffhanger, confirmed at the last possible opportunity after he showed himself increasingly ready for the fray on the Newmarket gallops. It is logical to assume that his connections – he is owned by the Saudi Arabian prince Khaled Abdullah, principal of one of the world's most successful breeding operations – will not be risking his reputation lightly. At about a quarter past three they, and we, will know whether he is indeed another wonder horse, or merely a horse.
But Workforce is just one of three Derby winners in the line-up, Cape Blanco having won the Irish version and Lope de Vega the French.
If the race does not define an overweening champion it could still tell a story. Youmzain has finished secondin the past three runnings; victory for him really would be some consolation. There is an ongoing rivalry between two of the home side, Behkabad and Planteur. The Godolphin team will be looking to restore some pride with Cavalryman, third last year, and arch-rivals Ballydoyle, with a trio of contenders, to continueto make a point about the operations'current standing.
Stoute has yet to win an Arc; André Fabre, represented by Plumania and Lope de Vega, has won seven. The other man for whom the race is a specialist subject is owner the Aga Khan, with four victories, including three in the past 10 runnings. Behkabad, the favourite, and Sarafina carry the famous green colours today.
Any sporting arena built next to a river will be subject to vagaries in the water table, and the ground today will be testing. Though Cape Blanco, due to be ridden by Christophe Soumillon, is perceived in the betting as back-up to the best-fancied of the Aidan O'Brien contenders, Fame And Glory, he has done nothing but progress all season, is match-fit and is the sort of powerful individual whose strength will stand him in good stead. Fillies have an excellent record in the race and closely matched Sarafina and Plumania can prove sound place prospects.
The Arc, of course, is only one of seven top-level contests in the Bois de Boulogne this afternoon, each with its own set of cameos. It is another of the female of the species, Goldikova, who provides the warm-up act in the Prix de la Forêt as she bids to sign off with a win in Europe before her bid for an unprecedented third Breeders' Cup Mile in Kentucky next month.
The British launch a 12-strong attack, headed by the rising star Swiss Diva, on the sprint they have made their own, the Prix de l'Abbaye. But the weekend's first Group One blood went to France when the Rod Collet-trained Sahpresa, ridden by Soumillon, saw off Strawberrydaiquiri to take her second successive Sun Chariot Stakes at Newmarket.
As far as the five-year-old Credit Swap is concerned, practice made perfect. The Michael Wigham-trained gelding swooped late to take the Cambridgeshire, his third start in six days.