Finding time for the Arc in a city of plenty.
THE great thing about the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe - well just one of them, actually - is that it's a really easy story to write. You turn up at Longchamp and watch Ribot, Sea-Bird or Dancing Brave win, jot down the words 'stunning', 'champion' and 'Bois de Boulogne' and the rest just seems to fold round. Such is the grim fate awaiting journalists should the champion Sea The Stars - the son of an Arc winner and the pride of his owners - record a stunning victory in Paris tomorrow afternoon.
But Arc weekend is not just great because of the big race. For we, the ungrateful many, it is perhaps the highlight of the hack's year.
In Paris, you can ogle the locals, eat foie gras (while your partner or principles are not looking) and pretend, contrary to all other information, that you're actually quite civilised. We try to squeeze the race in, but the priorities are the bars and restaurants. Our preferred spot is La Coupole on the Boulevard du Montparnasse which, as Paris's largest brasserie, is less a watering hole than a watering Pacific. Great writers have been through the doors here. Sartre, Hemingway and us. But they cannot have enjoyed it as much as we do.
Oceans of seafood disappear, Chablis evaporates and my fellow hack Neil Morrice (whose name suggests his ancestors presumably tried to eat here for free as well) consumes a steak tartare so rare that a reasonable vet could soon have it back on its feet.
Perhaps it's Paris and perhaps it's Longchamp. I can never write a piece without mentioning les platanes, the huge plane trees that surround the parade ring at the hippodrome.
I first encountered this small forest when I was sent over by the Press Association to cover Nashwan's run in the Prix Niel. Being a conscientious sort (foie gras excluded), I rang up Dick Hern to do a pre-piece on the stunning champion. I'd heard Dick considered that training life did not essentially revolve around talking to young agency scribblers. But, I calculated, he had probably yet to lock horns with a possessor of a National Council for the Training of Journalists diploma.
I went for him using the mind games it was really not fair of me to employ. The Masonic interviewing rule is that you start interrogations with easy questions that put your victim at ease. You save the stuff about illicit offspring and cross-dressing to later. Thus, fully educated in these dark arts, I speared Dick.
"When do you suppose Nashwan will travel over to Longchamp?" I sleekly asked him as a charming introduction. "I'm not telling you," he said. And then he put the phone down. Nashwan lost, but then again so had I. Despite this baptism, I have grown to love the Prix Niel. The best one was in 1997 when Peintre Celebre lost after being boxed in by Cash Asmussen on Ithaki. There was previous to this, as Asmussen was not on speaking terms with Olivier Peslier, Peintre Celebre's rider.
Another colleague, Richard Evans, investigated this quarrel when he inquired of Cash: "A tactical race?" (which I thought involved a clever n'est pas). Cash thought it less clever. He called Richard "a sarcastic prick" before adding: "I'm going to poke your f***ing eye out."
Peintre Celebre won that Arc and, alongside Dancing Brave, it was the most stunning performance I've seen at Longchamp.
THAT was the year Paris was choked in smog and we were left wheezing by an Arc winner. Andre Fabre, the victorious trainer, said he would not compare Peintre Celebre with his previous Arc winners, that it would be like comparing children. I know what he means now. They're all scroungers who get fed without thanks.
I like Andre. There is no artifice about the man. Like Dick Hern, he lets you know where you stand. Which is outside with the garbage. The last time our relationship did not happen was when I asked to visit him. "I don't wish to give any interview," he replied by email. "Best regards," which is a better two-word send-off than I could ever have imagined.
Peintre Celebre was an easy story to write 12 years ago. Fabre, record time, Wildenstein. Stunning, champion, Bois de Boulogne.
It all seems to work in Paris in the autumn - except for once. I've seen a cadre of people deflated, regularly when they stop the free-flowing champagne in the Longchamp press centre, but nothing to compare with the 1993 Arc when the winner was ridden by Eric Saint-Martin and trained by Jean Lesbordes. You had to be Columbo to find the news line.
To make it even less memorable, who could ever see the significance of Urban Sea or her owners, the Tsui family? Retire to La Coupole and discuss.
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|Publication:||The Racing Post (London, England)|
|Date:||Oct 3, 2009|
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