IF Al Kazeem can overcome the widest draw of all to win tomorrow’s blue riband Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, it will be the pinnacle of trainer Roger Charlton’s career.
The man who guided Quest For Fame to Epsom Derby glory in 1990, he believes that the Longchamp mile-and-a-half test is now the defining test of European Flat racing.
But his worry is that the chances of Al Kazeem, the sole British-trained runner in this year’s Arc, may have been compromised by the decision to run in York’s Juddmonte International on unsuitably fast ground when he was third to Aidan O’Brien’s Declaration Of War.
Does he now regret the Knavesmire run? “Yes, I do,” Charlton tells the Yorkshire Post without a moment’s hesitation.
“In all honesty, I think it was a mistake. We should have cut that one out. If he had had a break after the Coral-Eclipse, and we had used the Irish Champion Stakes in September as an Arc trial, I think we would be more fancied.”
That said, Charlton is adamant that his battle-hardened warrior – a horse that rates more highly than Quest For Fame – is one of “half a dozen” horses who have an outstanding chance of winning the Arc.
The field will be headed by Japan’s superstar Orfevre who is bidding to become the first Far East winner of this championship. His fast-finishing second last year was attributed to an unfavourable draw on the outer, the fate of the Roger Deer-owned Al Kazeem tomorrow.
Intello is probably the best of French training legend Andre Fabre’s five runners as jockey Olivier Peslier seeks back-to-back Arcs following last year’s shock success on Solemia.
German runner Novellist, the runaway winner of Ascot’s King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, will look to continue the rich run of jockey Johnny Murtagh in big races this summer.
Meanwhile, Aidan O’Brien saddles Epsom Derby winner Ruler Of The World and also Leading Light who came to prominence last month when landing the Ladbrokes St Leger at Doncaster. A late-developing colt, this year’s Arc may just be too sharp for the Town Moor hero who would become the first horse to complete the Leger-Arc double in the same season.
As both Ballydoyle horses are three-year-olds who carry just 8st 11lb on the weight-for-age scale, it leaves stable jockey Joseph O’Brien without a ride as his minimum weight is around the 9st mark.
O’Brien has called on French veteran Gerald Mosse for Leading Light, while Ryan Moore maintains his partnership with Ruler Of The World.
This is another reason why Charlton says that winning the Longchamp race is likely to be the pinnacle for any Flat trainer. While the Derby is restricted to three-year-old colts, the Arc is effectively open to allcomers and comes towards the end of the season when horses are carrying niggles – or are on the comeback trail after lay-offs.
It is a prestigious race made even more demanding by the track’s configuration – horses are constantly on the turn as they race for position and Orfevre paid the price last year.
Conversely Dancing Brave and Pat Eddery came so late – and so wide – in 1986 that the TV cameras failed to pick up their dash to the line.
That said, Charlton believes Al Kazeem is a forgotten horse after his three Group One wins in the Tattersalls Gold Cup, the Prince of Wales’s Stakes and Coral-Eclipse and heads to France as the “forgotten horse” after reverses at York and then in the Irish Champion Stakes when The Fugue prevailed.
However, the rain-softened ground means The Fugue now bypasses the Arc – Andrew and Madeleine Lloyd Webber’s horse of a lifetime is likely to head straight to the Breeders’ Cup – and Charlton believes there were legitimate excuses for that setback.
Though it had rained at Leopardstown, he said the underfoot going was still very fast and was close to being unraceable for Al Kazeem who will relish the softer conditions in Longchamp after spending most of last season on the sidelines with a serious pelvic injury.
It would also complete a remarkable rise to prominence for the horse’s 25-year-old jockey James Doyle who recently became retained rider to Prince Khalid Abdullah.
When Charlton’s longstanding stable jockey Steve Drowne was on the injury sidelines, he entrusted Doyle over more established names and the decision paid dividends with Cityscape’s victory at last year’s Dubai World Cup meeting.
Like Al Kazeem going from Arc favouritism to 16-1 on the back of one defeat at York, the protective trainer hopes that Doyle is given time to become accustomed to his new role and is not criticised because the appointment came as a surprise to many in the ultra-critical racing media.
“We build people up and then knock them down,” added Charlton. “He has earned his new position. He is intelligent and I think he is brave and he is clearly a horseman. All jockeys make mistakes, but he makes less than many.”
It is this mutual respect that enables Doyle to travel to Longchamp with confidence after riding the track last month for the first time.
“The draw doesn’t make the task any easier, but they had 8mm of rain on Thursday night which I was pleased to hear,” the jockey said. “If there were three or four pacemakers you would say, ‘we’ve got a bad draw but we’ll tuck in’, but there are no pacemakers and it makes things tricky. I’ll have to sit down, make a little plan. The more rain the better really.
“When I was growing up, the Arc was one of the races that you always watched. Just to get a ride gives you a sense of achievement.”