Paris in the fall yesterday betrayed itself as a city of cruel seductions.
The pursuit of the European Turf’s richest prize can seldom have tested private loyalties, and the pride of nations, so flagrantly. And halfway down the straight it did truly seem as though first one, and then the other, might be vindicated in yielding to its temptation.
Camelot, after all, was still going strongly under Frankie Dettori.
Deliciously, moreover, the jockey who had seen fit to don the silks of his employer’s greatest rival in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe – an equitable redress, he surely feels, for the promotion of a new riding star, flamboyant but unseasoned, to share his job – was trapped by none other than Masterstroke.
This was the colt he might once have expected to ride for Sheikh Mohammed, instead partnered by his young antagonist, Mickael Barzalona. As though to reciprocate the experience and nerve of John Magnier, in asking Dettori to fill the vacancy on the Derby winner, he sat tight.
The moment he had clear water, however, it became clear that Camelot had been holed below deck. The beautiful colt, barely three weeks after his first defeat, was floundering. Instead a new illusion abruptly manifested itself — Orfevre, the champion lured from the Orient, was careering down the outside under Christophe Soumillon.
As he burst three lengths clear of Solemia, the Japanese could not help but be deceived that their romantic perseverance — not to mention their painstaking professionalism — had finally found its reward.
For a few, fleeting seconds, the racing world saw one of its last frontiers dismantled by the muscular chestnut. A dozen reverses — most painfully with El Condor Pasa, Deep Impact and Nakayama Festa — were being exorcised: the Japanese had won themselves an Arc.
Superbly prepared by Yasutoshi Ikee, Orfevre had been a lambent, leonine presence in the preliminaries.
But this was a day when the heavens themselves proved full of deceit. An immaculate autumn day was etching Paris afresh, in all her intimate extravagance, and shafts of autumn sun hung lazily in the trees over the parade ring. Out on the track itself, however, the turf would testify to the deluges flung vilely from the same firmament the previous day – and, cloying secretly under its glittering green veneer, it suddenly be gan to drag at Orfevre’s limbs and heart.
Perhaps not the most mentally robust of animals, he began to sway towards the rail.
Solemia, a 33-1 outsider whose own trainer had confined his ambitions to a place, was meanwhile maintaining a dour pursuit.
Soumillon went into overdrive, but his mount was palpably spent. It was suddenly a question of whether the post would come in time.
Agony now infected the Japanese cheers. With a couple of strides to go, Orfevre slammed into the rail.
Solemia was pitiless. She wore him down by a neck, the pair having opened up a gap of no fewer than seven lengths back to Masterstroke in third.
For the second year running, an unconsidered filly had overturned the alpha males of the European herd.
This one, moreover, had done so in conditions that demanded brute strength. Only her connections might have prompted punters, seeking a shock in extreme going, to take a closer look — Olivier Peslier, now winner of four Arcs, wearing the famous silks of the Wertheimer brothers.
And Carlos Laffon-Parias had already saddled Silasol to win the big race for juvenile fillies, the Prix Marcel Boussac — a personal triumph for both trainer and jockey. (Peslier controlled the pace perfectly and then held on, all out, from Topaze Blanche, the stable’s second runner.)
Solemia herself had been well held when third to Shareta in their trial, but Laffon-Parias felt she was improving.
“She had a hard first part of the season, so we gave her a two-month break and started to prepare her for the Arc,” he said.
“Soft ground is very important to her, but Olivier made the difference. Sometimes the jockey can make the difference, and Olivier is the one who won the race.”
By the same token, Soumillon might now repent of committing Orfevre quite so soon, though Ikee decorously resisted criticism.
Laffon-Parias argued that the result might be traced to a more fundamental deficiency, in that he reckons the Classic generation no match for the four-year-olds, and the current colts in turn lesser than the fillies.
“Perhaps Camelot is not that good,” he said.
The substance of Solemia’s improvement is now likely to be tested in very different conditions at the Breeders’ Cup, but Camelot’s trainer insists that the colt — seventh here — will show his true colours in 2013.
“It was very sporting of the lads to run him,” Aidan O’Brien said. “But he wants fast ground and it’s been a long, hard season. We’ve stretched him every way but we’ll give him a nice break now and he could be something unbelievable next year.”
Dettori concurred. “I had a perfect trip and he took me beautifully into the straight on the bridle,” he said. “But just as soon, I knew we were in trouble, and in fairness to the horse he’s been going since the Guineas.”
Great Heavens fared best of the British, pleasing John Gosden with her gameness in sixth.
“It’s very tough taking on the older horses,” the trainer said. “But she ran her heart out.”
Sea Moon finished up alongside Camelot, having never threatened after finding himself with plenty to do from a wide draw.
“He doesn’t want the ground as puddingy as that,” Sir Michael Stoute said. “Ryan Moore said he never felt smooth on it.”
On that basis Sea Moon could well pursue the winner to Santa Anita, and likewise St Nicholas Abbey, who finished 11th.
For the home team, the big disappointment was Saonois, who managed to beat only the pacemakers.
But no horse needed excuses for failing to get home here. As the golds and greens of the Bois de Boulogne dwindled into the gloaming, horsemen knew instead to rebuke themselves — for succumbing, yet again, to La Grande Illusion of their trade.