Pat Smullen believes that his mount Harzand will be well suited by the change of venue for this year’s Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, as Chantilly plays host to the world’s richest turf race, but the Offaly man’s confidence would be bolstered considerably by the arrival of rain prior to Sunday’s big race.
The son of Sea The Stars provided Smullen and trainer Dermot Weld with a first ever victory in the Derby at Epsom earlier this season, overcoming an injury scare at the eleventh hour to score from US Army Ranger and Idaho in a 1-2-3 for Irish-trained runners.
Having spread a plate on the morning of the race, Harzand’s participation was in serious jeopardy, but a skilled farrier and the colt’s powers of recovery saw him take his chance and run out a well-backed 13-2 winner.
Harzand followed up in the Irish equivalent of the race three weeks later and then enjoyed a long break, as Weld prioritised his main autumn target.
The plan may have been hatched on the Curragh, but the preparation for Europe’s most prestigious Flat race has been typically French.
Many Irish and British runners have faltered in the race over the years on the back of long, arduous seasons. The Gallic tactic of a lengthy mid-season rest is designed to prevent such a result.
No matter where it’s run, we’d always be hoping that we wouldn’t get an outside draw.
However, Harzand’s return to the racecourse in the Irish Champion Stakes was far from ideal.
An eighth-place finish for the 2-1 favourite behind French raider Almanzor was a disappointing outcome, even if the race was over a trip short of his best, but the underwhelming display was subsequently attributed to the dual Derby winner getting struck into in an early part of the race.
Smullen anticipates a bold display on Sunday after riding the horse out on Tuesday morning and told RTÉ Sport: “He felt well. Everything seems to be in place with him. It’s all systems go.
“He took a couple of days after the race at Leopardstown to recover from it and he was obviously quite sore, but this horse has unbelievable healing powers. He recovered very quickly from his bruise in the Epsom Derby to win the Irish Derby and he’s recovered very well again from this mishap.
“Unfortunately, that’s what happened in the race, but he’s in good shape now and seems to be 100%.”
With Longchamp closed for redevelopment, the Arc has moved 50 kilometres north to Chantilly. Much like the Curragh or Newmarket, the town is a historic focal point for the training of thoroughbreds, home to more than 100 handlers and in excess of 2,500 racehorses.
Smullen and Weld could be forgiven for having unhappy memories of the town’s scenic racecourse as they suffered one of their most painful reversals there in 2008, when their Famous Name came second in the Prix du Jockey Club over 10 and a half furlongs, after just failing to reel in Vision D’Etat from an unpromising wide draw.
While the prospect of another bad draw remains a concern, Smullen is hopeful that luck plays slightly less of a role over the 12-furlong trip in the Arc.
“It’s the same at any track," he said. "Nobody wants to drawn on the outside.
“No matter where it’s run, we’d always be hoping that we wouldn’t get an outside draw. That goes for everybody. Hopefully we get a middle draw, somewhere around there would be ideal.
“The extra distance is going to be helpful. It’ll let them sort themselves out before that tricky turn into the straight.
“It’s a negative if you’re drawn wide, but hopefully it won’t be such a huge bias. We just have to wait and hope for the luck of the draw and take it from there.
“But it’s a good racetrack and it’s a good demanding mile and a half, which will help us, and usually the best horse will win the race.”
Les jockeys Stéphane Pasquier et Maxime Guyon vous embarquent avec eux pour un tour de piste du Qatar Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe 2016 ! pic.twitter.com/RGNbjND8dD— France Galop (@francegalop) September 22, 2016
Harzand’s record to date and his pedigree suggest that stamina is his forte and Chantilly should afford him the chance to showcase his staying powers.
While most of the premier racecourses in France feature flat home straights, Chantilly is atypical in featuring a more testing finish.
“He’s a good solid horse, that gets the trip well,” Smullen acknowledged.
“When it’s getting tough for other horses, we’ve seen with him in the past, he’s a very, very tough horse in the finish.
“Hopefully, because it’s that little bit more demanding a mile and a half, when it gets to that last furlong when other horses are finding it difficult, maybe he’ll be coming into his own.
“The tougher the competition is, the better he is.”
If it’s good ground, it’ll be ideal. If it’s good to firm it might be a little bit of a negative.
With precious little rain in Chantilly in recent weeks, officials watered the course on Wednesday night.
Connections of Harzand have previously voiced concerns over risking the Aga Khan-owned colt on a rattling-fast surface and Smullen would welcome a wet weekend in France.
“He’s a lot of form with ease in the ground, so we would definitely welcome any rain that might fall,” the rider admitted.
“But if it’s good ground, it’ll be ideal. If it’s good to firm it might be a little bit of a negative. But hopefully he’ll get away with it once.”
Roger Varian’s Postponed is the favourite for the race and Smullen believes the son of Dubawi warrants his place at the head of the market, following a faultless campaign which has seen him capture the Sheema Classic, the Coronation Cup and the International Stakes.
“Postponed is the standout form horse in the race apart from our own horse”, the 39-year-old said.
“But it’s by no means a two-horse race. You’ve got Found and Highland Reel, and a lot of good horses, but you have to be very impressed with Postponed all along. He looks the epitome of a thoroughbred and he’ll be the one to beat in my opinion.”