Talking Horses: Absence of O’Brien runners in Arc made key difference

Talking Horses: Absence of O’Brien runners in Arc made key difference


t would be stretching things more than a little to suggest that Enable was denied a third win in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe on Sunday because American beef farmers use a synthetic drug called zilpaterol to fatten their cattle for slaughter. And yes, “more than a little”, in this case, probably means “quite a lot”.

But there is also no doubt that the scratching of Aidan O’Brien’s four declared runners in the Arc, following positive tests for zilpaterol after they ate contaminated feed, made a real difference to the way that Sunday’s race played out. Without Serpentine and Sovereign, one or both of which would have ensured a solid pace, this was a very different Arc to the one we would have watched with the Ballydoyle horses in the race.

Whether it would have had a different winner too is moot. Sottsass’s name has gone into the history books and he was, by any measure, a very worthy winner, having won the French Derby as a three-year-old before finishing a close third behind Waldgeist and Enable last year. He had been trained with Sunday’s race in mind all season by the excellent Jean-Claude Rouget, and had solid form on heavy ground too. Well-positioned from a good draw just behind the sedate gallop, he was one of very few in the race who managed to find a bit more in the final quarter-mile.

Had he been keeping tabs on a solid pace for the preceding 10 furlongs, however, Sottsass would, in all likelihood, have found a bit less in the closing stages and it might have been a different set of connections on the podium.

Pace tends to be something that punters think about once they have considered the going and the trip – if, that is, they consider it all – but it is often as significant as either of those factors in determining the outcome of a race. A good, even pace also produces form that is more credible than that from a race with no pace at all.

So while it is difficult to see any positives in the desperate misfortune which befell O’Brien and his sons, Donnacha and Joseph, over the weekend, perhaps one small benefit might be less moaning by racing fans in future about multiple entries from Ballydoyle in the top races.

When O’Brien puts three or four into a Group One contest, one of them at least is almost guaranteed to lead, and not necessarily as an out-of-its-depth pacemaker either. Serpentine and Sovereign made all the running to win a Derby and an Irish Derby respectively, in both cases at big odds and after the rest of the field failed to give them enough respect. A sizeable entry from Ballydoyle is as close as you can ever get to a guarantee that a race will be truly-run, which is something that punters and racegoers alike should welcome.

The gory details of how equine feedstuffs in France, Ireland and Great Britain came to be contaminated with a bovine growth-booster that is, in any event, banned in the EU will no doubt emerge over the coming days and weeks. Gain Equine Nutrition, the company at the centre of the fiasco, said on Sunday that it was “hugely disappointed” that some of its “valued customers” had been forced to scratch from the Longchamp card, but those customers may well be looking for something more fungible than expressions of regret at some point in the future.

The French regulator certainly deserves some credit for picking up the issue with Gain products so swiftly, but had it done so even 24 hours earlier, it’s very possible that the O’Brien runners would have been clear by Sunday. The withdrawal time for zilpaterol in cattle in the States is 72 hours before slaughter, to ensure that consumers do not get a dose of it with their rib-eye (or too big a dose, at least). Had they stopped feeding Gain on Wednesday rather than Thursday, three or four of the Group Ones at Longchamp have turned out very differently.

Aidan and Joseph O’Brien’s horses in Melbourne ahead of the big spring meetings in Australia have also been tested for zilpaterol, including Anthony Van Dyck, last year’s Derby winner, who is due to run in the Caulfield Cup on Saturday week. The results are expected within a few days.

No one last long in racing without being able to take disappointments and move on, however, and all three O’Briens will also be turning their attention to the Breeders’ Cup in Kentucky next month, when the Turf will be an obvious target for some or all of the horses that missed out on the Arc. They certainly deserve a change of luck – and fewer complaints when their runners set off in front.

Monday’s best bets

Monday’s action is down to just two cards after the River Avon burst its banks and forced officials at Stratford to abandon their scheduled eight-race meeting, and conditions will be testing, to say the least, at Pontefract, which hosts the only turf card ahead of nine races at Wolverhampton this evening.

Obvious bets are a little thin on the ground as a result, but Sea Trout Reach (1.00) goes well from the front, ran a solid race on good-to-soft going last time out and could take some pegging back if, as seems likely, he gets a soft lead.

After John (2.00) is also interesting at around 8-1 in the sprint handicap. He started out in handicaps on a mark of 86 but had dropped down the weights to 71 by the time he got off the mark last time out, on his second start since switching to Rebecca Bastiman. He has been raised just 3lb for that win and could well have enough scope to follow.

Date In Vegas (3.00) should also go well on the same card, while Amor Fati (5.20) and Potters Question (5.55) are the pick of the prices at Wolverhampton later.

Quick guide

Greg Wood’s Monday tips

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Pontefract 12.00 Farhan 12.30 Tahonta 1.00 Sea Trout Reach (nb) 1.30 Nordano 2.00 After John (nap) 2.30 Hydros 3.00 Date In Vegas 3.30 Yukon

Wolverhampton 4.15 Qaarat 4.45 Lequinto 5.20 Amor Fati 5.55 Potters Question 6.30 Running Cloud 7.00 International Law 7.30 Mutasallem 8.00 Zulu Zander