The same, immaculate form figures, maybe, but only in one case do they remain suggestive of perfection. Both Zarkava and Mastercraftsman survived their respective Group One examinations yesterday unbeaten, but while the French filly produced another celestial performance, the young Irish colt won only by the skin of his teeth. Perhaps it is only in the struggles of one that we can quite grasp the extraordinary gifts of the other.
It is uncommon, after all, even for great racehorses to be able to replicate such grace and gloss quite so mechanically. There are always times when they have to fall back upon their mettle, much as Mastercraftsman did in the mud and rain of the Curragh. In the autumn sunshine of Paris, however, Zarkava had once again addressed a new challenge with the same old serenity.
She was stepping up to a mile and a half for the first time, and any fissures in her stamina would surely be opened by a three-month break. Back in the spring she had outpaced two subsequent Group One winners over a mile, and while the good going was in her favour, her pedigree could by no means be considered absolutely watertight at this trip. Moreover her trainer, Alain de Royer-Dupré, had confessed himself somewhat disappointed by her final gallop during the week. And the Prix Vermeille, as a Group One race, is always the most earnestly contested of the three consecutive trials staged yesterday over the course and distance of the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe.
Yet Zarkava almost seemed to treat the whole thing as a joke. She planted herself as the gates opened, so granting a head start of several lengths to the rest of the field, and was still last turning for home. Christophe Soumillon then took her the long way round, and nor was he going to introduce her to the whip at any stage. None of this was sufficient, however, to offer some very accomplished rivals any illusion of parity.
Pushed along with hands and heels, she sprinted past the entire field, running down Da Re Mi inside the final furlong and two lengths clear pulling up. The runner-up had made no less a filly than Lush Lashes work a good deal harder at Newmarket last month – and Zarkava is now a match for the Irish filly in versatility as well. She has also became the sixth winner of the French fillies' triple crown of the Poule d'Essai des Pouliches, Prix Diane and Prix Vermeille.
Zarkava is now no better than 7-4 among the leading bookmakers to beat the colts in the Arc. They will set her another question – the last filly to win was Urban Sea in 1993 – but she has come up with all the answers so far. There can be no quibbles about her stamina, certainly, as the three Ballydoyle fillies yesterday were clearly ridden to ensure a searching test and the time equalled the race record. The only reservation was that eccentric exhibition at the start. "I don't know what she was up to," Soumillon confessed. "I was worried, because she had lost six lengths. It's not like her. But I've ridden some very good horses and she is something else."
The colts' trials proved rather less intimidating. Zambezi Sun, essentially disappointing since, won his first race since last year's Grand Prix de Paris when narrowly holding Schiaparelli's rally in the Prix Foy, while Vision d'Etat achieved symmetry of sorts with Zarkava when extending his own unbeaten run against the three-year-olds in the Prix Niel. He, too, had been given a break since his success in the Prix du Jockey-Club, and while he won only narrowly his trainer, Eric Libaud, anticipates plenty of improvement for the run.
It seems that the principal candidate from Ballydoyle is going to be Soldier Of Fortune, with Aidan O'Brien yesterday introducing the intriguing possibility that Duke Of Marmalade, now very much in the Breeders' Cup Classic picture, may come over for a conditions race at Great Leighs on Saturday week in order to sample a synthetic surface. The Breeders' Cup Turf could instead be on the agenda for Frozen Fire, who disappointed when only seventh behind Conduit in the Ladbrokes St Leger on Saturday. "Frozen Fire was keen at Doncaster and the ground was wrong for him," O'Brien said. "We might look at [Santa Anita] with him over a mile and a half on good ground."
Septimus had meanwhile duly completed O'Brien's clean sweep of his home Classics by winning the Irish Leger with absurd ease, and he could well lap the Australians in the Melbourne Cup. And the Ballydoyle trainer promptly took his Group One haul for the year to 20 when Mastercraftsman won a desperate duel for the Bank Of Scotland National Stakes. Trying a seventh furlong for the first time, in heavy ground, Mastercraftsman was again weak in the betting, just as he had been when romping home in the Phoenix Stakes. But while Johnny Murtagh had to pull out all the stops this time, the other colt in the photo was not the one everyone expected.
Arazan had been backed to odds-on but was already labouring as Shaweel – a colt trained in Britain, no less – took it up two furlongs out. Shaweel had been young Greg Fairley's first Group winner in the Gimcrack Stakes, when it was transferred to Newbury, and for much of the final furlong it looked as though they might have the temerity to win the race that had anointed a series of Irish champions over the past decade: New Approach, Teofilo, George Washington, Refuse To Bend, Hawk Wing, Sinndar. But Murtagh, having claimed the rail, just got Mastercraftsman home. "He has to be very good to do what he has done today," O'Brien said. "It was his first run back after a break. He has a great attitude and an awful lot of speed."
Shaweel may proceed to the Darley Dewhurst Stakes, and likewise Zacinto, beaten by one of the lesser Ballydoyle colts, Westphalia, at Doncaster the previous day. Mastercraftsman is now likely to tackle the Prix Jean Luc Lagardere on Arc day, and maybe he will look rather more like a Classic colt there. For now the sponsors keep him 5-1 favourite for the Stan James 2,000 Guineas, with his stablemate, Rip Van Winkle, 7-1.
Nap: Elite Land (Musselburgh 5.20)
NB: Ignotus (Leicester 4.30)