Change of venue to Chantilly tops Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe story lines

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September 26th, 2016

The Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1) typically brims with story lines. The classic generation takes on the best of the older horses in Europe’s fall championship, with broader international implications. Japanese fans still hope for a breakthrough, and North American observers are looking for Breeders’ Cup clues.

Sunday’s renewal furnishes a new twist, for the Arc has been transferred to Chantilly as its historic home, Longchamp, is currently being redeveloped. This marks the first time the Arc has been staged away from Longchamp in peacetime.

The 1943-44 editions were moved to Le Tremblay due to the exigencies of World War II. The Germans had positioned anti-aircraft guns at Longchamp, and the track was hit by American bombers on a raceday in April 1943. Although that card went on (!), the German occupiers subsequently pulled the plug on racing at Longchamp. In 1944, the Allies took over Longchamp for soldiers’ quarters, and the Arc had to stay at Le Tremblay another year. (For more on the race’s history, see the magisterial Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe by Arthur Fitzgerald and Michael Seth-Smith.)

Chantilly now becomes a player in itself, prompting comparisons to Longchamp and questions about how much of a factor the track may play in the outcome. That makes the change of venue the number one storyline.

One piece of conventional wisdom, at least in the Anglosphere, is that an outside post is terribly disadvantageous at Chantilly. Yet digging into the results from Chantilly’s Prix du Jockey Club (French Derby) (G1) suggests a different view.

Of the last 12 runnings of the French Derby, six winners came from double-digit posts. Lope de Vega (2010) famously came from post 20, while Saonois (2012) sprang a 25-1 upset from post 16, current Arc contender New Bay (2015) rallied from post 13 in a 14-horse field, Shamardal (2005) wired them from post 13, and Reliable Man (2011) and Intello (2013) broke from post 10.

Those stats reflect the French Derby since it was shortened to about 1 5/16 miles, but if you keep looking into its old days at the about 1 1/2-mile trip of the Arc, higher draws still weren’t necessarily a problem. Ignoring 1999 (when only eight ran), six of the 10 French Derby winners in the 1994-2004 time frame had double-digit draws. For example, Dream Well (1998) closed from post 12, and half-brother Sulamani (2002) came from the clouds (and post 11 of 15) to beat Act One (post 13). Celtic Swing (post 11) edged Poliglote (post 12) in 1995.

After the French Derby trends began to alleviate my concerns about the draw’s determinative power, I watched this informative tour of Chantilly, which corroborated the research. With the all-important subtitles for those of us who didn’t take French, note that jockeys Stephane Pasquier and Maxime Guyon aren’t fazed by post positions.


A more salient difference between Longchamp and Chantilly is the course topography. Arc historian Fitzgerald characterizes Longchamp as “the stiffest and most searching test of stamina of any major racecourse in Europe” over 1 1/2 miles. If Longchamp demands true stayers, Chantilly may possibly offer a kinder scene for those who find the Arc at the upper end of their distance range.

As Alan Shuback explains in Global Racing, the first half of the Arc course at Longchamp is uphill. Chantilly has an uphill portion on the far turn and at the top of the straight, which is “mildly uphill for a furlong before leveling off.”

The right-hand turn at Chantilly is shorter than the protracted turn around Longchamp, but Chantilly’s homestretch is a little longer. Longchamp features about a 2 1/2-furlong final stretch (after negotiating the bend from the “false straight”). Chantilly’s stretch is about three furlongs, and as Pasquier and Guyon comment in the video, you don’t want to move too soon.

So who stands to miss Longchamp the most? Dermot Weld has already regretted Chantilly as the locale for dual Derby winner Harzand, principally over fears about an outside post.

Instead of overthinking the Chantilly vs. Longchamp question, though, I’m not going to make the track the decisive point in choosing an Arc horse. That may be the wrong tack in hindsight, but I’d rather re-evaluate as a post-mortem than wrongly talk myself off a horse I’d otherwise really like.

Here are the other major story lines to watch throughout Arc week:

Can Postponed justify red-hot favoritism and extend his winning streak to seven? Or will the trend against older males, who must concede significant weight to the three-year-olds, trip him up? No older male has won the Arc since Dylan Thomas (2007).

Will Makahiki finally capture an elusive Arc for Japan?

Will Harzand pass his Tuesday morning gallop to Weld’s satisfaction, and get his green light for the Arc? Or will the Aga Khan homebred still feel the effects of being roughed-up sore in the Irish Champion (G1)? Does stablemate Fascinating Rock get a chance only as a super-sub, or will his participation be judged independently of whether Harzand goes?

With original second-favorite La Cressonniere ruled out by an ill-timed setback Sunday, will the same connections give in to the temptation to run Irish Champion hero Almanzor? Every indication is they’re proceeding with the game plan for Almanzor to skip the Arc and go directly to the October 15 Champion (G1) at Ascot, but I’ve seen stranger reversals.

Will Left Hand, runner-up to La Cressonniere in the French Oaks (G1), flatter her in absentia?

Or will fillies regain the ascendancy courtesy of the Aidan O’Brien-trained Found, who had a luckless run here last year and enters in peak form?

Will O’Brien definitely run Ascot Gold Cup (G1) winner Order of St George, who preferred cutting back in trip for the Arc instead of shouldering top weight in the Melbourne Cup (G1)? Can the star stayer beat Europe’s top 12-furlong runners at their own game?

What role will Highland Reel play as O’Brien’s third contender? Is he missing an Australian trip himself to serve as a pacesetter for his vaunted stablemates?

Is New Bay something of a “forgotten horse,” despite his third in the 2015 Arc? Trained by the maestro Andre Fabre, the Juddmonte homebred ran a sneakily-good fourth to Almanzor and Found in the Irish Champion.

And as always, what about the weather: will the pleasant conditions persist, or might more rain materialize over the weekend?

Some questions will be answered in the build-up, but the biggest must wait until Sunday.

Stay tuned to this space for more thoughts on Arc weekend, and for Ron Flatter's on-the-scene coverage.