Zarkava beguiles as Paris hails new queen of the turf
Monday 06 October 2008
If passion drives you, said Benjamin Franklin, let reason hold the reins. But he had conflict in mind, not love, and this was not the time or place for reason. The triumph of Zarkava and Christophe Soumillon in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe yesterday was instead a crescendo of reckless joy, un grand amour between two of the most bewitching talents in French Turf history.
Seldom can even this city have witnessed the sort of ardour that garlanded a dank, drizzly autumn afternoon in the Bois de Boulogne with a whole springtime of new memories. For those present will never forget the consummation of this partnership – the way Soumillon first declared his fidelity, for all the world to see, and then exulted in Zarkava's own, fervent response.
The filly had come here unbeaten, but not unquestioned. She had not run against colts before, and her rehearsal over this course last month had introduced disquiet about her temperament after she planted herself and granted the rest a six-length start. Surely she could not afford to approach the world's richest turf prize quite so capriciously.
Before the race, Zarkava seemed to be caricaturing gender, strutting among the brawny males, flicking her ears. The romantics applauded her to the start, but it was the worldly doubters who first sensed vindication. From her awkward inside draw, she had veered into 13th or 14th of 16; moreover it was already apparent that she would need luck to break from the rail. But Soumillon never wavered.
With the audacity of infatuation, he kept her on the inside as the field entered the final turns. Though others were already under pressure, notably Duke Of Marmalade, she was still moving with seductive ease. Sure enough, in the straight Zarkava was able to sway into the gaps, like a woman who knows perfectly well that she looks a million dollars, but does not object to being told so. For one moment, Ioritz Mendizabal thought he could trap Soumillon on Vision D'Etat; the next, they were gone. Every instinct had insisted that only one of the true greats would be able to win from where Zarkava started her run; in the end, she won by two lengths, and Soumillon had again been able to keep his whip hidden away, like a husband's guilty secret.
The others, even the most gallant, became mere footnotes – even Youmzain, who forced Dylan Thomas to a photo last year, and again excelled in second, not for the first time finding trouble in running. Soldier Of Fortune plugged on to share third with It's Gino, and might have done better still on softer ground. Duke Of Marmalade, however, disappointed in seventh, and perhaps his long season is telling.
Soumillon's ecstasy was meanwhile untrammelled. To the usual, narcissistic flourishes – the finger-pointing, the blown kisses – he added a gesture of rapture, hammering his ribcage. Then he tossed his helmet into the crowd, which might not win him Pony Club approval, but gave him a suitably tousled look on his return.
Only Dalakhani, his 2003 Arc winner, had ever approached her brilliance. "She gave me the same extraordinary sensation," he said. "They are the two horses of my life. They will be engraved in everyone's memory forever. I always said I would win the Arc with her, but we needed a good run, which is never guaranteed. But we got a passage through at a crucial moment. She's a real jewel. We won't see another filly like this for 25 or 30 years."
Zarkava is the first of her sex to win the Arc since Urban Sea in 1993, and the first three-year-old filly since 1982. Her fulfilment is the work of a masterly trainer in Alain de Royer-Dupré, who paid decorous tribute to the help of an employee named Pierre Goral. "She has a very fluid way of moving and an ease of acceleration, in just a couple of strides, which is incredible," he said. "I have never seen her in difficulty. I'm very lucky to train such a great filly."
That sense of good fortune may yet be shared by the public next season, as the Aga Khan offered no view on his filly's future beyond the fact that she will not go to the Breeders' Cup. "Today is the apogee for a breeding operation which dates back 90 years, and for five generations of my family," he said.
The afternoon began at the other end of the spectrum, with the Hungarian colt Overdose scorching five furlongs in 54.5 seconds in the Prix de l'Abbaye. He had cost just 2,000 guineas as a yearling. Unfortunately, Fleeting Spirit's stall had malfunctioned and Overdose's jockey missed the red flag. The race was run again in the gloaming, but Overdose was spent and did not line up; instead Marchand D'Or, already a multiple Group One winner, completed an extraordinary day for the Head family.
It was a harrowing experience for the adventurers who "had come 1,700 kilometres for nothing". For a while, the Turf seemed a cruel world, innocent of all romance. But then passion seized the reins.
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