THE highlight of the year came just 48 hours after Monsieur Soumillon’s brain fade when, despite the rain and the mud, the Qatar Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe produced a denouement worthy of the continent’s most prestigious contest.
Some were talking down the race beforehand, bemoaning William Haggas’ ultimately far-sighted decision not to put Baaeed’s unbeaten record on the line over a distance and on ground that would surely have proved his undoing.
Even the doubters were then won round by a race that saw the best European five-year-old beat the best three-year-old and the best four-year-old, all representing different countries, the trio clear of the remainder with the best that Japan could offer nowhere to be seen.
Victory for Alpinista was the crowning moment of not one, not two, but three careers.
First, and most prominently, that of 74-year-old trainer Sir Mark Prescott, who in his half century as proprietor of Heath House Stables, Newmarket, had earned widespread admiration, though sometimes more for his wit, anecdotes and old-school attitudes towards staff loyalty and discipline rather than for what his horses achieved on the track.
Then we have another septuagenarian, the successful owner-breeder, Swedish-born Kirsten Rausing. She may be one of the world’s richest women, thanks to her family’s invention of the Tetra Pak food packaging system, but that does not make her lifelong devotion to the thoroughbred racehorse any less passionate.
The sport is lucky to have her and the impact of the time and money that she gives to a large number of equine causes throughout Europe is profound.
Lastly, we come to the winning jockey, Luke Morris, who produced a picture-perfect performance aboard the daughter of Frankel even though this she was by far the highest pressure ride of his life.
Momentarily, the man best known for his hard work and partnering of countless winners on the unglamorous all-weather circuit in the depths of winter became a global superstar.
Most Memorable Moment (and not in a good way)
Soumillon suspension cast shadow
IS there something rotten in the state of France’s weighing rooms?
The suggestion may be unpalatable to many, but it simply has to be asked given that the image that will remain with me the longest from watching French racing over the past 12 months is that of Christophe Soumillon using his elbow to stop Rossa Ryan from moving up on his outside in a race at Saint-Cloud on September 30th.
Co Galway-born Ryan was unseated and Soumillon was rightly handed a 60-day ban and lost his job as retained rider to owner-breeder the Aga Khan as a result.
He was swift to apologise for his moment of madness and accepted his punishment, but the really worrying aspect of the whole affair is that this was the third shocking incident involving a senior member of the French weighing room in little over two years.
In case you have forgotten, Pierre-Charles Boudot remains on bail waiting to be tried for the alleged rape of a female member of stable staff in an incident at Cagnes-sur-Mer in February 2021.
And Kevin Nabet was banned for six months after being found guilty of assaulting and breaking the jaw of fellow rider Baptiste Dubourg in the changing room at La Teste Racecourse, apparently in retribution for having cut up his inside in a racing manoeuvre a few minutes earlier, in July 2020.
Soumillon and Boudot have 13 golden whips, trophies awarded to France’s champion jockey, on their combined mantelpieces, including a shared title in 2015, while Nabet has finished in the top ten of the nation’s jump jockeys every year for the past decade.
Now Soumillon’s crime, though having the potential to cause grievous injury, was surely just a split-second lapse of reason and nowhere near as heinous as the other two.
I wish the contrite Belgian-born 41-year-old, who was generous with his time and came up with his usual thoughtful answers when I spoke to him on behalf of The Irish Field just a few weeks before the incident in question, a speedy rehabilitation in 2023.
But for three different high profile jockeys to perpetrate such horrendous acts over a relatively short timeframe hints that there may be a deep malaise within the French riding fraternity.
Possibly it is simply reflection of French society as a whole, another interpretation would be to link it to testosterone-fueled male professional athletes, but the sorry sequence of events makes even the highly regrettable Robbie Dunne/Bryony Frost feud seem insignificant in comparison. At least that was only words, not deeds.
Themes Of The Year
O’Brien juveniles dominate in France
THE pick of the home Arc contingent was the runner-up, Vadeni, and this Churchill colt was the undoubted star of another chastening campaign for France’s flat trainers, who for a second straight year managed to keep at home just eight of their nation’s 28 Group 1 races.
The most impressive triumph in any of the classics came courtesy of Vadeni himself during his five-length romp in the Prix du Jockey-Club. But the most jaw-dropping Group 1 of the year came on Arc Saturday, when Aidan O’Brien’s champion stayer, Kyprios, was so far clear in the closing stages of the Prix du Cadran that he got bored and came to a virtual standstill yet still had a ridiculous 20 lengths to spare over his closest pursuer once Ryan Moore had restarted his enormous engine and driven him to the finish line.
Secretariat may once have won the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths but the margin here would surely have been bigger had Kyprios not taken time out to admire the architecture of the Longchamp stands!
The Master of Ballydoyle won two more top level contests and was particularly dominant with his juvenile visitors, Blackbeard and The Antarctic finishing first and third in the Prix Morny and first and second in the Prix Robert Papin while another Group 1 score in the Criterium International was only denied when son Donnacha O’Brien’s Proud And Regal got the better of his dad’s Espionage by a head.
In on the act
Older brother Joseph got in on the act by landing both the Prix Ganay (with State Of Rest) and the Prix Saint-Alary (with Above The Curve) meaning that the family has plundered a remarkable six French Group 1s during the campaign.
The overall quality of the top French two-year-olds was, as in each of the last few seasons, sadly lacking, yet domestic trainers somehow managed to keep the two top Arc Day prizes for that age group at home.
The form of the Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere won by Belbek looks particularly suspect, but the Prix Marcel Boussac heroine, Blue Rose Cen, a first triumph at the top table for trainer Christopher Head, son of now-retired Freddy Head, is the one ray of hope on the horizon.
Another progeny of Churchill, she won by five lengths and her earlier narrow listed defeat by Victoria Road looks a whole lot better now that her conqueror has been successful at the Breeders’ Cup.
Jean-Claude Rouget became champion trainer for a fourth time, denying Andre Fabre a 32nd crown by a healthy €1.3 million margin, while the Jockeys’ Championship, which for the first time was decided over the core six months of the season rather than the entire year, saw Maxime Guyon repeat his 2019 success ahead of the reigning champion, Mickael Barzalona.
One final point of significance, jockey-wise concerning the flat season was the first classic victory for a female jockey thanks to Hollie Doyle taking the Prix de Diane aboard Nashwa, soon followed by a second four months later when Marie Velon partnered Iresine to Prix Royal-Oak glory.
No luck for Willie Mullins yet
THE absence through injury of the two-time Grand Steeple-Chase de Paris champ Docteur Du Ballon left the way clear for a new kid on the block in the shape of the five-year-old Masked Marvel gelding, Sel Jem.
However, the Guillaume Macaire and Hector de Lageneste-trained young pretender has himself not been seen since his dominant eight-length victory in June’s renewal of France’s biggest jump race.
Hermes Baie became trainer Francois Nicolle’s third different Grand Course de Haies victor in five years, seeing off the Willie Mullins Irish raider Klassical Dream by seven lengths.
Mullins broke new ground when Franco De Port fared much better than any of the few previous Closutton runners in French chases when a fine third in the Grand Steep’, but any fears that this would herald a surge of Co Carlow-trained successes in Autueil’s top races over the bigger obstacles proved wide of the mark, in the short term at least, as Franco De Port posted two less impressive Parisian performances in the autumn.
Nicolle landed his fifth straight jump trainers’ championship, though in less dominant style than in the two previous seasons. And the jump jockeys’ title, which runs to the very end of the year, looks set to go for a third time to the expatriate Yorkshireman, James Reveley.
Reveley’s exquisite horsemanship was again showcased as he ran up a treble of Grade 1 victories late in the year. But his most praiseworthy ride of the season may, rather incongruously, have come in mid-October, when he made the brave and spectacularly clear-sighted decision that the Grand National winner, Noble Yeats, was not adapting to the fearsome Auteuil fences and pulled him up in the early stages of the Prix Heros XII.