The Amazing Race - Qatar Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe
Written by Brian Johnston
Top thoroughbreds, serious prize money, international glamour, and the best of French fashion combine to create one of the world’s most prestigious horse races: the Qatar Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.
For a moment, there’s intense anticipation, almost a sudden stillness. Then the starting gates open with a clang and the world’s top thoroughbred racers leap forward. The crowd roars, horseflesh ripples, hoofs thunder, and the bright colours of international silks flash. Ahead lies 2,400m of track that requires from both horses and jockeys an expert balance of restraint, endurance, and exuberant bursts of energy. The gallop to the finish line is a sheer adrenalin rush as onlookers cheer. In just two-and-a half minutes it’s all over, but a horse can win 5 million euros in prize money, and immortality as one of horse racing’s greats.
Welcome to the Qatar Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, one of the great events on the French sporting and social calendar, Europe’s most prestigious horse race, and the opportunity to see the best horses anywhere in spectacular action. This year, the 93rd Arc is raced on October 5, the culmination of a whole weekend of equine excitement and thrills at the legendary Longchamp Racecourse in Paris.
Both the venue and the race itself have a fine pedigree. Horse racing has been held in France since the mid-17th century, and King Louis XVI organised a jockey club and laid down the rules of racing. As horse racing became more established, Longchamp was inaugurated in 1857 on the banks of the River Seine in the Bois de Boulogne west of the city centre. Emperor Napoleon III was present on opening day, and notable artists such as Manet and Degas painted race scenes here. Its two great early races were the Grand Prix du Paris, established in 1863 and still run today on July 14, and the 1893 Prix du Conseil de Paris, which is run in October.
Longchamp swiftly became the most prestigious racecourse in France. Today, it hosts over half the country’s group one races on several interlaced flat-race courses that vary from 1,000m to 4,000m in length. It’s considered one of the world’s foremost thoroughbred racing venues. Statues of legendary horses dot its manicured lawns. On important race days some 60,000 spectators flock here to fill the stands or picnic on the grass beneath the trees as banners flutter, fashions are paraded (mais oui, this is surely the world’s chicest horse race too), and horses flaunt their form in the ring.
It’s the October weekend of the Qatar Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, however, that’s the highlight of the year at Longchamp, and indeed the climax of the European racing season. As an advertising slogan put it in 2003: ‘It’s not a race, it’s a monument.’ The 2,400m sprint race was introduced in 1920 just after the end of the First World War, and named after the city’s famous Napoleonic victory arch. Open to all thoroughbreds (excluding geldings) aged three and over, the race attracts more international competition than any other French race, with horses coming from as far afield as Japan, Australia, and the Middle East to compete.
Some 600 journalists attend; an estimated 2 billion see the race on television. With total prize money of 5 million euros going to the winner, it’s also the richest turf race in the world, having recently overtaken the Japan Cup and Melbourne Cup. Indeed, it’s now the second-richest race of any kind.
Race winners are regarded as champions, and some go on to sire other Arc winners. Multiple winners are horse racing legends: only six horses have won the demanding race twice, none since Alleged in 1978. The Arc is a first-class challenge, opening with an uphill climb, followed by a descending turn and a false home straight. The flat-out gallop to the finish line is 533m along the actual home straight, testing a horse’s spirit of endurance.
Jockeys are more successful than horses. Five have won the race four times: the latest was Olivier Peslier, taking home a sensational, still-talked-about, fourth win in 2012 on rank outsider Solemnia, which bookies had placed at 44–1.
There may be none better than the Qatar Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, but the same October weekend sees 17 other races, many prestigious in their own right. Another highlight is the Qatar Arabian World Cup, run over a distance of 2,000m. It’s the world’s richest race for purebred Arabians aged four and over, with prize money of 1 million euros. Qatari owners have won the race four times since its inauguration in 2008: twice for H.E. Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al-Thani with General, and for H.E. Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad Al-Thani with Areej and Mkeefa.
Since 2008, the Qatar Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe has been sponsored by the Qatar Racing and Equestrian Club. Last year Qatari colours had their first Arc win with three-year-old filly Trêve, owned by H.E. Sheikh Joaan bin Hamad Al-Thani. It was a fabulous win in other ways too: jockey Thierry Jarnet had his third Arc win after a two-decade drought, and the horse was trained by Christiane Head-Maarek, the only female trainer to have won the Arc. (She has won twice, but her previous win was in 1979.) Trêve hopes to return to defend her title this year should all go well with her rehabilitation following pulled muscles during June’s Prince of Wales’s Stakes at Ascot, but this year’s Derby winner, Australia, is also a top favourite.
In celebration of the sponsors, Gladiator Lawn at Longchamp racecourse features a Qatari village over Arc weekend, which showcases traditional music, crafts, and arts such as henna painting, calligraphy, and falconry. There are also displays of artefacts from Qatari museums and of present and future projects in Qatar. Prizes to be won by the general public include eight cars, free fuel for a year, watches, and holiday trips to Qatar.
Wins in the Qatar Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe don’t come easy, but leading trainer André Fabre has notched up seven over a 20-year period, the latest with Rail Link in 2006. Legendary owner Marcel Boussac had six wins between 1936 and 1949, twice with the same horse, Corrida. He dominated European horse racing for three decades and had one of the most successful breeding farms in history.