Orfevre led into deep stretch in the 2012 Arc de Triomphe before giving way late to Solemia (outside). (Photo courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire)
Special to America's Best Racing
It’s not the quite “Curse of the Bambino” or the “Billy Goat”. But when it comes to the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, the world’s richest turf race has been lost in translation in Japan.
The 91 previous winners have all been European. So the party has also lacked American and Australian and South African and South American horses. But unlike the others, Japan really, really wants this.
“It is Japan’s big dream win this race,” said Yasutoshi Ikee, who trained Orfèvre to a near-miss second in the 2012 Arc. “Last year, I disappointed the Japanese people in a huge way. This year they are counting on me.”
“They” are not just Japan. “They” are also the bettors who made Orfèvre an early 2-to-1 favorite with European bookmakers this year to end continental domination and win Sunday’s 1½-mile race worth $6.5 million.
But it is that core “they” whom Ikee had on his mind at a news conference after Orfèvre’s workout Wednesday at Chantilly, the huge haven for racehorses an hour north of Paris.
“It’s not just about me,” Ikee said through a translator. “The Arc also counts a lot for Japanese racing and the Japanese people. I hope to be the one to make their dream come true.”
Based just on Saturday’s races on the eve of the Arc, it seems more Japanese fans are here at Longchamp this weekend. Their support is certainly more coordinated – to the point that the Japan Racing Association brought a 20-foot-long greeting for Orfèvre that was signed by perhaps 2,000 people from back home.
ORFEVRE IS A JAPANESE FAN FAVORITE
Photo couretsy of Eclipse Sportswire
“I have all but finished my job – the preparation,” Ikee said. “It will be up to Orfèvre and Christophe Soumillon to execute the plan to perfection.”
Well, maybe not entirely. Last year a week of rainy weather ahead of race day conspired against Orfèvre and jockey Soumillon and any horse looking to get any traction on the ground at Longchamp. With the finish line in sight, Orfèvre was unable dig in and hold his tenuous lead against the late charge from Solémia, who won by a neck.
It looked for a time like history would repeat itself before this year’s race with more rain during the past week. But it was not nearly as much as last year, and since it appears to be done for the weekend, France Galop officials expect the track to rate “soft” – “yielding” in U.S. terms – for the Arc.
“It is a very fair track,” said Koji Maeda, owner of Kizuna.
Oh, yes. There is a second Japanese horse among the 17 horses entered this year – an 8-to-1 choice who has won four in a row. “I am not concerned about the ground. I think it is better for Kizuna.”
If there is one advantage that the 3-year-old Kizuna has on the 5-year-old Orfèvre, it is a dispositional advantage. Just about every horse in the race has that. The biggest example of that came in the final strides of last year’s Arc. With the race probably already lost, Orfèvre unpredictably veered toward the fence and brushed it.
Ikee and Soumillon have acknowledged that Orfèvre is a rein full.
Said Ikee: “Orfèvre is his own biggest rival.”
The Arc was not the last time Orfèvre was in the middle of some head-shaking drama. A bleeding episode after a workout kept him out of the big Takarazuka Kinen in June, and then he got kicked before another workout last month. That was before he came through with a victory in the Prix Foy, an Arc prep at Longchamp, that was as much a confidence builder for him as it was for his fans.
If only this horse could know the hunger of those fans in Japan who have seen Arc chances come and go for 44 years. El Condor Pasa looked in 1999 like the one who was going to end the jinx – before Montjeu ran past him in the last 100 yards. Nakayama Festa had the race won in 2010, until Workforce burst through to win by a head.
Of course, there will be 15 horses trying to spoil the Orfèvre and/or Kizuna story. At 4-to-1, bettors figure undefeated 3-year-old filly Trêve is the best local chance for Europe to keep the Arc trophy – a bread-box sized, silver replica of the actual Arc de Triomphe at the end of the Champs Elysées.
There were two signs late this week that this could be Japan’s year to end the Arc drought. Where Orfèvre drew the far-outside gate in 2012, this time he drew a more ideal number 8 – a lucky number in Asian culture. And for the second year in a row, the big German hope was scratched for veterinary reasons. Four-year-old Novellist, winner of five in a row and a 5-to-1 chance, developed a fever Friday.
Does that put more pressure on Orfèvre’s connections to win?
“I have a lot of pressure,” Ikee said. “But not to the level where I’m not eating or sleeping. I’m leading a normal life.”