Monday, September 16, 2013

TDN Guest blog: THE 2013 ARC DE TRIOMPHE: Is there determinism in racing and if so, which one?

by Mark Cramer

The Arc prep races have been run and two inevitable outcomes have distinctly emerged, set for a monumental clash.

On Sunday September 13, the filly Treve (Motivator) crushed her opposition in the Group 1 Prix Vermeille for fillies and mares at the same mile and a half distance and on the same track as the Arc. Following Treve’s third consecutive win in the French Oaks (Prix de Diane) last June, the filly was purchased by Sheikh Joaan Bin Hamad Al Thani of Qatar. Madame Christiane Head-Maarek remained the trainer while Thierry Jarnet lost the mount to Lanfranco Dettori. In the Vermeille, Dettori literally drove the filly past the field to a very convincing victory.
Qatar has been sponsoring French racing and notably the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe for the past several years, and it seemed inevitable that an Arc winner would be sooner rather than later owned by a Qatari. Treve will be supplemented into the Arc for 100,000 Euros.

A broader part of history seems to be siding with a Treve victory in the Arc. After the Paris-Saint-Germaine soccer team was purchased by the Qatar Investment Authority, the team won its first French title since 1994. The Qataris have contributed enormously to French racing and it seems time to reap the most prestigious reward.

The Japanese would beg to differ. They were out in large numbers to watch their stars participate in the other two Arc prep races, the Prix Niel and the Prix Foy, and Japanese horses won both of them. Japanese horses have been knocking at the Arc door for more than a decade, with several of near-wins along the way.

Last year’s unfortunate second-place finisher in the Arc, the Japanese colt Orfevre (Stay Gold), toyed with a field of 9 to win the Foy just as convincingly as Treve won the Vermeille, that is, if visual impressions count. The Vermeille is a real Group 1 race while the Foy is a Group II prep for older horses that has not produced an Arc winner since 1992. Invariably the final time of the Foy is a few seconds slower than the Vermeille.

This year was no exception, with Orfevre finishing in 2 min 41.47 seconds over a soft-slow course while Treve did 2 min 36.82. However, Orfevre’s supporters will note that he had a slow time in his Prix Foy last year as well, and nearly won the Arc anyway, in spite of racing much of the way on the slower outside of the track. For the 2013 Prix Foy, Orfevre was coming back after a 5 ½ month layoff and we can be assured that he only did what he had to.

Japanese racing fans don’t stop with Orfevre. They also had a winner of the Prix Niel for 3yo colts, in 2 min 37.64 seconds, with Kizuna (Deep Impact). Kizuna has a lot of history in his favor:  in the last 20 years, 8 winners of the Niel have come right back to win the Arc, and several Niel losers have also triumphed in the Arc, a race that has been favoring three year olds for quite some time.

So which inevitable outcome is the most likely? Sitting at the pre-race press conference, I saw that Treve’s trainer, Madame Head, was radiating confidence, as was her entourage.

But standing at the walking ring before each race, the presence of Japanese fans (they may be the most fervent racing fans in the world), told a different story. You could even see a banner displayed by the Yutaka Take fan club. (Mr. Take rode Kizuna to victory over a soft surface the colt was not used to, and following a 3 ½ month layoff to boot!)  
No way to get near Take aboard Kizuna as he goes to the winners' circle

So which is it, the Qatar inevitability or the Japanese destiny?

Backers of Novellist (Monsun-Germany) argue for a third destiny. Novellist, winner of the prestigious King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot and with 9 wins in 11 starts lifetime is following the path of Danedream, the first German-trained horse to win the Arc. Monsun horses such as Shirocco and Stacelita failed to win the Arc, but Maxios won today’s Prix du Moulin, so the Monsun star is rising at Longchamp!  

In the wake of the Arc trial-day races, British oddsmakers have staked their ground. The best odds you can get on their favorite, Orfevre, is 3/1, so the bookmakers favor the Japan destiny. Treve is 4/1 for the Qatar outcome, Novellist is 5/1 for the German-Monsun scenario, with Kizuna (Japan) following at 7/1.

If predestination existed in racing, what would we say about other Arc prospects (Intello, Galileo-Fabre, 11/1) and The Fugue (Dansili-Gosden, 13/1)? Or: several classy runners-up in the Prix Niel including the close-up second finisher Ruler of the World (Galileo-O’Brien)?

Take a look at last year’s Arc heartbreak for Orfevre, who seemed to have the race won.

One thing for sure: if a Japanese horse does not win the Arc this year, Japanese race fans will not give up.

As for Treve, her only obstacle is that the Vermeille is a Group 1 and is a goal in itself.  It is not a prep race like the other two.  Therefore horses must work harder to win the Vermeille - and unless they're a Zarkava-like superhorse, they cannot win the Vermeille and still be fresh enough to take the Arc three weeks later. Treve has never raced with only three weeks in between.




Friday, September 6, 2013

Saturday Two-year-old Stakes Analysis

--Brian DiDonato

There are quite a few interesting 2-year-old stakes to be run this Saturday, and with Showdown at the Spa withdrawals setting in, I thought it would be good to give a few opinions. Here goes. . . listed in order of strongest opinion to weakest.

Churchill Downs Race 7 - GIII Iroquois - There's a lot of hype surrounding Ride On Curlin, and though he may prove that good, I'm not sure that what seem like key races that he comes out of were as strong as they look. Plus now he'll be asked to stretch out three furlongs with other pace present. I really like Honorable Judge. Though his wide run when romping first out over one mile at Parx Aug. 11 probably looks a little better than it should because of how frequently that track has a dead rail, he did it the right way from off a slow pace and looks like he'll run all day. The last time trainer Butch Reid shipped to Churchill was with Honorable Judge's full-brother Afleet Again in the 2011 Breeders' Cup Marathon, and that runner went ahead and blew up the tote at 41-1. Afleet Again had previously finished second in the 2010 Whirlaway and took that year's GIII Withers S. at 24-1, so Reid has a pretty solid ROI when shipping away from him Pennsylvania base. Since a two-turn, 1 1/16-mile race for two years olds this time of year offers a major stamina test, I'll take the runner who clearly won't mind any amount of real estate thrown at him. I'll also get extra greedy and try to get Ride on Curlin out of the exacta with Tapiture, runner-up to GI Hopeful winner Strong Mandate on debut; and the Dale Romans-trained duo of Cleburne and Cee 'n O, who both impressed me visually in their respective maiden breakers.

Arlington Race 9 - Arlington-Washington Lassie - Like most 2-year-old races this time of year, solving this race seems to hinge on determining which speedy maiden breakers can switch off and carry their speed over more ground. I'm most interested in Istanford, who is the lone winner at this (approximate) distance thanks to a five-length front-running romp at about one mile on the turf here Aug. 18. Though she set a quick opening quarter of :23.50, the Mike Stidham trainee was able to slow things down for the middle part of the race before showing off a powerful stride in the lane. Those who chased her finished far back, but I'm not expecting Istanford to be up on the pace with a number of sprint stretch-outs signed on here. Look for her to settle early and try to mow them down. While she might go favored, I can't dismiss Maria Maria, whose field-best 81 Beyer Speed Figure was earned over seven furlongs here back on July 19. The extra time between races should alleviate any chance of regression and, though the bottom of her pedigree contains a lot of sprinters, she is by Curlin so an additional furlong should be within her scope. The Colonel Johns figure to appreciate more ground, so I'll also toss in Sweetsoutherndame, who was second behind a slow pace in the Ontario Debutante last out Aug. 10.

Arlington Race 7 - GIII Arlington-Washington Futurity - Whyruawesome may be a bit obvious off his super-impressive troubled-trip debut, but I'm hoping his under-the-radar connections keep the price inflated. Pinched back to last in his seven-panel unveiling here Aug. 16, the 17-1 shot dragged his way into contention and reeled in a very loose leader with relative ease in the stretch despite lugging in badly. Whyruawesome was far off a very quick opening quarter, but the eventual runner-up still enjoyed an easier trip--he tracked in second before inheriting a loose lead when the early pacesetter blew the turn. Even though he cost himself several lengths by being extremely green in the stretch, Whyruawesome covered his final furlong in :12.74 compared to :13.43 for the next two finishers. The drawbacks are obvious: he clearly isn't the most mentally mature 2-year-old considering the way he behaved last time despite blinkers and having already been gelded, and it is a short turnaround from his debut. But something like 4-1 or 5-1 on probably the most most talented runner in the race is worth the gamble.

Churchill Downs Race 6 - GII Pocahontas - She doesn't look fast enough on paper, but I think it's pretty interesting that Steve Asmussen has opted to run Nevada Deputy here. She likely would have been a short price and tough to beat in the Happy Ticket S. at Louisiana Downs off her nightmare trip in that venue's Donnie Wilhite Memorial S. last time, but instead he goes for dirt and much deeper waters. At a big price, she seems worth a flyer.

Louisiana Downs Race 8 - Happy Ticket S. - Multi-millioniare sprinter Benny the Bull doesn't exactly strike me as a promising sire of turf routers, but Love Bullet is out of a Stormy Atlantic mare and has some other things going for her off a sharp debut tally sprinting over this main track. I really liked the way she got over the synthetic track once she switched leads before selling for $20,000 at OBSAPR, and her trainer Scotty McNair is three-for-seven with a $6.20 ROI with first-time turfers over the past five years according to DRF Formulator. Perhaps she'll be a pace casualty, but I definitely wouldn't be surprised if she takes another step forward here.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013


by Mark Cramer

The Normandy race track Evreux-Navarre is a pleasant hour train ride from the Paris Saint-Lazare station. They’ve been racing at Evreux since 1905 and if you go there today, not much seems to have changed.

Evreux represents hippodrome number 22 in my quest to visit all 250 French race tracks. I had heard that the ambiance at Evreux was truly special and I set out to discover for myself. I took my bicycle with me in the train in order to get to the track from the Evreux station, but also to take in the context by cycling through the emerald green pastures of the Eure region of Haute Normandie, up the rolling hills over country roads that follow the contour of the land, maybe passing one of the many horse farms, medieval abbeys and Renaissance castles.

None of the horses intended for the Arc de Triomphe would be racing on this splendid Sunday afternoon but the maidens and claimers were all beautifully groomed and looked like champions to me.

Rather than rant about how much I love country tracks, let’s just take a look.


The race track is a family outing instead of a casino, with pony rides and other children’s activities.


The first turn around the mile oval gives you a picture of the rough forested hills of the region.


Railbirds clutch their programs, which contain sparse information about the runners, mainly listing their recent finish positions, with no indication of surface, distance, class level, or anything else that handicappers need to know.

But in the walking ring before each race, medieval oral culture kicks in and the track announcer narrates past performances like an old troubadour, chanting more specific information about the recent races as the horses parade in the walking ring.  

I was able to scribble out my own past performances by going on line the night before, entering the free Geny Courses database, and clicking on the names of the entries, riders and trainers.

Thanks to this information, I had two choices in the first race, for gentleman riders and cavalières (“gentlewomen”). The number 5 Charmeuse had by far the best earnings per race and was to be ridden by the leading gentleman rider, Florent Guy (31% wins and 54% in the money). But Charmeuse was the favorite, and his earnings had come with a string of seconds and thirds in maiden races. He looked like a professional maiden.

Meanwhile, the only other rider with high impact stats was Madmoiselle Catherine Rieb-Menard (15% wins, 26% in the money) and her horse, Iconic, was going off at around 11/1. I played Iconic. When Madmoiselle Rieb-Menard felt the pace too slow in the 1 9/16 event, she swept Iconic by the field, took the lead, and never surrendered it. Iconic paid 23.60. Naturally, I was pleased to listen to the extended interview of Miss Rieb-Menard, who had become my new heroine.

Notice the rear of the grandstand in the background of this picture. This is the typical half-timbered style (exposed wood frames) that came from the Middle Ages and then became fashionable once again in Normandy in the 1800s. This grandstand was built 110 years ago and looks and feels as if it hasn’t undergone any changes since.

Looking from the grandstand across the backstretch, a railroad track is carved into the side of the hill, hidden in the brush, with Intercities trains gliding between Paris and Deauville.

In the background of the far turn, you can take a glimpse at a typical Normandy church spire in the nearby town of Navarre.

The region is replete with architectural treasures and I have chosen a rare one to finish this visit, an old copper foundry I passed between the race course and the train station in the town of Navarre, called the Usines de Navarre.

With a theatrical track announcer, convivial country atmosphere and authentic homespun architecture, racing at Evreux manages a perfect balance between serenity and exhilaration. Too bad they only get four racing dates per year. But somehow, racing managers have found a way to preserve France’s 250 race courses without resorting to casinos and hype, by realizing that so often less is better and small is beautiful.