January 25, 2021

Ron Flatter reflects on attending 12 years of the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe

Two-time Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe (G1) queen Enable ran her way into the history books by completing the Arc/Breeders' Cup Turf (G1) double in the same year at Churchill Downs on November 3, 2018, under Frankie Dettori (Churchill Downs/Coady Photography)


From the track in Paris

For years I have compared the Triple Crown with “Modern Family.” Especially the Dunphys.

The Kentucky Derby is Haley, the fun, pretty one. The Preakness is Alex, the smart, sensible one. The Belmont is Luke, the precocious, unpredictable one.

Extending this allegory one more step – one giant step across the Atlantic – the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe is Manny, good-hearted with more than a little pretense.

Manny has brought home another very pretty, out-of-his-league date. This one has an off-center, upside-down teardrop of a blaze on her face. Her name is Enable, and she might just steal the show from the Pritchetts, not to mention all of France.

FLATTER: Superstar Enable is light on her feet

I started coming to the Arc in 2008, the year before we were introduced to “Modern Family.” Like Wednesday nights at 9 – 8 Central – on ABC, it has become an immovable date on my calendar. OK, one is actually on my DVR. But since having the horse race on TV is not the same as a front-row seat, I use the Arc as an excuse to come to Paris every year.

The vibe of the race itself is very much in tune with a city that by the first Sunday in October has left the height of tourist season behind. The flair of spring and summer has given way to the more sensible, bundled-up fashion of autumn.

But like any time of year in any big city, Parisians are attracted to stars. None has been as bright as Enable is right now. But some remain indelible.

REILLY: Enable odds-on to make Arc history; new stars, old foes hope to thwart three-peat

12 years of stories from the Arc

My first year here it was Zarkava, the filly that flashed onto the racing scene, wove through traffic to win and then disappeared almost as fast as you could say Justify.

Speaking of last year’s Triple Crown winner, he is the most magnificent example of equine form that I have ever seen in the flesh. Only Justify so far has surpassed the 2009 winner Sea The Stars, a horse that I regretted betting against the moment I saw the sun glisten off his magnificent hind quarters as he walked in the post parade.

One of the great joys of this trip comes every time Japan sends over a real threat to take the Arc trophy out of Europe for the first time ever. That country produces the world’s most dedicated, fervent and downright nicest racing fans. So when the great Orfèvre tired and swerved and gave up a late lead to 41-1 long shot Solémia in a rain-soaked 2012 Arc, the sudden silence from the Japanese fans on the finish line was palpable. And sad.

That French phrase déjà vu applies to this trip, because this is not the first time I have come here anticipating a possible three-peat. Four years ago Trêve came in the even-money favorite to do it. She was looked after by Criquette Head-Maarek, the only woman ever to train an Arc winner (actually three). So the story took on even greater significance.

Three days before the 2015 Arc, I took a half-hour train ride from the Gare du Nord to Compiègne, a town made famous in 1918 when the armistice ending World War I was signed in a nearby railcar. My mission that particular Thursday afternoon was to visit the picturesque little racetrack where Head-Maarek had a few horses running. It was the equivalent of seeing Bob Baffert take time off during Breeders’ Cup week to train some allowance horses in Fresno.

So among a few hundred people on a cool afternoon, we sat in the concrete grandstand. I had a good half-hour chatting one on one with the very down-to-earth Head-Maarek, something that the racing media would have craved – if only they had taken that train up along the Oise River.

Of course, Trêve came up short in 2015 when the downpour that she and Head-Maarek would have wanted did not arrive for another 24 hours. Instead, it was Golden Horn that prevailed, trained by the same John Gosden who now tries to do get the three-peat that Maarek-Head could not.

The hunt for a story

Sometimes the hunt for a story has taken me to Chantilly – and not just the grand racecourse that hosted the Arc in 2016 and 2017 while the ParisLongchamp grandstand was being rebuilt. It is also the France’s answer to Keeneland, an endlessly green expanse that is a five-star, working resort for racehorses. Workouts there lure dozens of journalists and photographers to see the flash of a star horse running by on a long straightaway between the trees, not the full laps that we are used to in America.

Then there are the times when I have pursued owners and trainers and jockeys at the annual post-position draw. My first was in the offices of France Galop, where no more than maybe a dozen media types showed up. It grew so big so quickly that it was moved to a restaurant near the actual Arc de Triomphe in the heart of Paris. Now the media are uninvited; the French version of TVG has made it a studio show of its own.

No matter, though. There is plenty else to see during Arc week. Like the infinite number of restaurants that lure me. Or the jazz clubs that are packed on Friday and Saturday nights. Or the architectural scenery of what might be the most beautiful city in the world. Or my favorite sidewalk haunt – the Café du Métro on the Rue de Rennes.

New York or Paris?

It isn’t all fun and games. Just this week I was mugged and had my pocket picked on the Métro. All the years I lived in New York, and that never happened. I am just glad this inconvenience did not happen until my 12th trip to Paris rather than my first. Who knows if there would have been a second?

The Métro is a lot like the subway system in New York in that it makes up for its dreary surroundings with a convenience that residents take for granted. It is unlike New York in that it is shut down overnights and does not run 24/7.

Something else is a lot like New York with these annual trips. That is the feeling that the Arc is like a Broadway show. Some years the stars are strictly “B” list. Sorry, Danedream and Solémia. You are to this race’s history what Joseph Morales is to “Hamilton.”

Today and Tomorrow

On Sunday we will be treated to a performance from the Arc’s version of Lin-Manuel Miranda. Enable has already attracted media attention that, as my friend Scott Burton of Racing Post put it, gets the thoroughbred story out of the ghetto of the sports section. If she pulls off the three-peat, it will be one of those “I was there” moments for about 40,000 people who will jam the new ParisLongchamp, which by the way is not exactly rain friendly. Think the new Gulfstream.

Believe me, having a box seat and a backstage pass to see Enable is worth the ever-escalating annual price of the trip – with or without the euros I lost to thieves this week. And with “Modern Family” going off the air next spring, here is hoping that I outlast that show with a 13th trip here in October 2020, when yet another star and story will be born.

REILLY: Prix de l’Opera among four Breeders’ Cup Challenge races on Arc undercard