With the midafternoon sun playing off his radiant chestnut coat and with jockey Steve Cauthen asking him only briefly for his highest turn of speed, the 3-year-old colt Arazi did far more than merely return to the races at a little course outside Paris last week.
In the 100 meters it took him in the final straight to pulverize a field of seven colts in the Prix Omnium II—a gallop of 1,600 meters, or a little less than a mile, around the soft turf course at the Hippodrome de Saint-Cloud—Arazi's hooves beat out a message loud and bold, one that echoed around the world. Despite undergoing arthroscopic surgery on both knees on Nov. 6, four days after his extraordinary tour de force in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs, last year's champion 2-year-old colt will be returning to Louisville for the May 2 Kentucky Derby looking like the most capable and charismatic Derby favorite since Spectacular Bid in 1979.
Indeed, the day after Arazi's five-length triumph at Saint-Cloud—had Cauthen not wrapped up on him through the final 100 meters, the colt would have won by twice that margin—some of the leading figures in French racing were viewing the performance with something close to wonder. "He's a fantastic horse," said John Hammond, the French-based trainer of Suave Dancer, last year's winner of the Continent's most important race, the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. "He's the best I've ever seen."
Maurice Zilber, the veteran trainer of such crack colts as Youth and Empery, had to reach back through three decades of history—to the great French runners Sea Bird and Allez France—to find comparisons. "This is the best horse I have seen in my whole career," said Zilber. "He has the acceleration, the great style, the class. How can they possibly beat him in the Kentucky Derby if he repeats his Breeders' Cup form?"
People have been asking this question since that memorable afternoon last fall at Churchill Downs. Arazi had already won three Grade I stakes in France—he was, by consensus, the finest juvenile to race in Europe in at least a decade—when the colt's American co-owner, Allen Paulson, took a high-risk adventure by sending him to Louisville to meet America's best juveniles. The colt's French trainer, François Boutin, had resisted the idea. Not only had the colt never raced on the dirt (grass is the medium in France), but he also had raced only on straightaways and clockwise on ovals, never counterclockwise, the North American way.
In the 1[1/16]-mile Breeders' Cup Juvenile, Arazi broke from the far outside post, number 14, and fell so far out of it in the first quarter mile that no one, not even Paulson, figured he had a chance. "I thought it was lost going down the backstretch," Paulson says. But under jockey Pat Valenzuela, Arazi swept past horses into the far turn, threaded his way through traffic like a polo pony, then fairly burst to the lead heading into the stretch, moving so fast that his momentum carried him to the middle of the track. He won by nearly five with a flourish, if you believe the official chart—by seven if you listen to Paulson, an aeronautical engineer. "I took a photograph of the finish off the TV screen," Paulson says. "Then I measured the lengths by calipers. He won by a good seven lengths."
No matter. For its brilliance and style, the performance stirred memories of Secretariat cutting up a field while winning for fun. When Paulson announced that Arazi would prepare during the winter in France for a May assault on the Kentucky Derby, the colt immediately became everyone's winter-book favorite for the race. If training a horse in France for the Kentucky Derby seemed more than unorthodox—it has never been done in the 118-year history of the race—Paulson cheerily reminded inquiring doubters that no European 2-year-old champion had ever won the American juvenile title either, so sit down and relax. "This is a super horse," Paulson said. "He can run anywhere and do anything."
Or so it seemed, until the colt's connections made the ominous announcement a few days after the Juvenile that Arazi would be spending six weeks at Paulson's 2,200-acre Brookside Farm in Versailles, Ky., following surgery to remove what was initially described as "bone chips" from the colt's knees. Trainer Boutin had urged against the operation. "It is not necessary," Boutin told Paulson. But American veterinarians saw it differently. Indeed, X-rays revealed spurs of cartilage growing along the ridges of Arazi's knee joints, raising the fear that, under the stress of training and racing, the spurs could eventually break off as painful chips. Removing such spurs is not an uncommon practice in America. Earlier that year one of Paulson's best older horses, the 5-year-old Opening Verse, had also undergone arthroscopic surgery, and he had come back to win the Breeders' Cup Mile on the day that Arazi won the Juvenile. So Paulson ordered the operation. "It was more of a preventative thing than anything else," he says.
In fact, by then Arazi was not Paulson's alone. He had paid $350,000 for the beautifully bred weanling—by the champion English miler Blushing Groom, out of the mare Danseur Fabuleux, a daughter of the great Northern Dancer—in a 1989 dispersal sale by the colt's breeder, Ralph C. Wilson Jr., the owner of the Buffalo Bills. The next summer, thinking he might get $1 million for him, Paulson entered the colt in Keeneland's premier yearling sale, but the bidding stalled early, and Paulson bought him back for $300,000. From the female side of his family—from his own dam, Danseur Fabuleux, all the way back through his great-great-granddam Dinner Partner—the colt inherited an offset knee. Seen from the front, his right knee is not perfectly straight but rather offset slightly to the right. The defect cooled prospective buyers. Like in all naturally gifted performers, however, the colt's athleticism tends to compensate for the structural glitch.
Of course, there is no way to see the complete athlete in the incomplete horse at a yearling sale. One of the buyers who turned him down was Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, of Dubai, the defense minister of the the United Arab Emirates and one of the world's leading owners and breeders of thoroughbreds. "These animals are soul and blood and flesh," the sheikh has said. "They are not machines. Sometimes you hit the jackpot. Sometimes you don't." Shortly before Arazi won the most prestigious race for juveniles in France, the Grand Criterium at Longchamp on Oct. 5, the sheikh sent his emissaries to Paulson, offering to buy half the horse for $5 million.