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At a posh black-tie dinner in Maxim's on the eve of last week's 50th running of the Prix de l' Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp, the Virginia sportsman and art collector, Paul Mellon, spoke graciously of the upcoming event. He pleased his audience no end by calling the Arc the turf's greatest race, and then drew further smiles by adding, "I only hope my horse has been eating food as tasty and nourishing as this."
Mellon's Epsom Derby winner, Mill Reef, was the race favorite, and the colt, like his owner, was apparently in fine form; the following afternoon before a crowd estimated at 75,000 he sped to a three-length victory in record time. Second place in the big race went to Pennsylvania-foaled, but French-owned, Pistol Packer, making it a bang-up occasion for Americans.
Mill Reef, a shifty bay son of Never Bend and the Princequillo mare Milan Mill, will now go into the record book as the first horse bred in this country to score in the Arc. His victory, at 3-to-5 odds, was engineered by 32-year-old Trainer Ian Balding, son of the late British polo player Gerald Balding (and a nephew, incidentally, of U.S. Trainer Ivor Balding).
While Mill Reef is a product of Mel-Ion's Virginia stud, Pistol Packer—who has now established herself as France's champion filly—was bred by Mrs. John Thouron in the rolling fox-hunting country outside of Philadelphia. The filly brought 515,000 at the Saratoga Sales and was shipped to France, where she races in the colors of Mme. Alec Head and is trained by her husband.
Each year, it seems, the Arc generates increasing interest. As more foreign horses have come to challenge the French at their own game on one of the world's most testing courses, so too have come their followers—from England, Ireland, Italy, Germany, Russia, Canada and, naturally, the U.S. Last Sunday even French President Georges Pompidou turned up for his first day of racing as Chief of State. A harried track official declared, "The only person in Paris who hasn't asked for a seat is Emperor Hirohito"—and he might have, had he and his entourage been fully settled into the Hotel Crillon.
The Arc, run over Longchamp's outside course with its long hill immediately after the start, a sweeping, steep downhill turn to the right and then a straight run home of three-eighths of a mile, has been won—and lost—by varying tactics. The best way to finish first is to stay close to the leaders and save ground on the rails. And that is what British Jockey Geoff Lewis and Mill Reef did. The best way to lose the race is to, as the French put it, faire le grand boulevard. In other words, take the come-from-behind, outside route, which is the next thing to being off the course and mixing it up with the Sunday drivers in the Bois de Boulogne. This is what Jockey Freddy Head and Pistol Packer tried to do.
But tactics are not everything. A horse must, as one official noted, "be at his best on this occasion, perfectly fit. This isn't a contest of looks; there is something inside the animal that settles this race." There are reasons the Arc is so demanding. As one trainer explained, "It is the world's most difficult race, in part because of the course, but also because it brings together in the fall of the year runners who are fully mature. These are no longer inexperienced horses being tested for stamina as they are in midsummer. By Arc day they are proven stayers and already the winners of European classics."
The Mill Reef race plan was relatively simple: be among the leaders at all times, try to save ground where possible and move to the front only after turning into the homestretch. The firm going was believed to be to Mill Reef's advantage (although Ian Balding said he could handle any sort of surface). He had shipped over from England in good shape, his temperament was ideal and, despite not having started in 2� months, those who had seen the colt during his summer victories in the Derby, the Eclipse and the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes were already declaring that he was a better colt than Nijinsky and, in fact, right up there with two-time Arc winner Ribot. "I would compare Mill Reef to Ribot more than to Nijinsky," said a veteran observer, even before last week's Arc. "It is not his record but the way he wins his races. He doesn't give you a great burst of speed. Instead he gives you a steady run that accelerates progressively, the sign of a true stayer."
The first horse to show from the gate in the Arc was John A. Bell's One for All, the third American-bred entry in the race. But Jockey Willie Carson quickly took him back, and with two furlongs gone in the mile-and-a-half race it was Ossian, a pacemaker for his stablemate Ramsin, who was in front by two lengths. In the pack closest to him were Sharapour, Ortis, Hallez, Ramsin and then Mill Reef, who at no time was worse than sixth. Pistol Packer, second choice along with Bourbon at 4 to 1, was back in 12th position as the field started up the hill, and Cabrizzia, who was to finish third, trailed. Positions varied little at the top of the hill except that now One for All had moved up to seventh. But not even the wizardry of Trainer Horatio Luro, who has saddled two Kentucky Derby winners, could save the day for this son of Northern Dancer. Unaccustomed to running downhill and to his right, One for All faltered so badly that he was 16th at the bottom of the hill. He then pulled himself together to end up ninth, beaten a respectable seven lengths for all the money.
Straightening for home, Britain's champion Jockey Lester Piggott, who had gotten into so much trouble at this point a year ago on Nijinsky, had Hallez briefly in front. Outside of him was Miss Dan and to his right along the rails were Sharapour and Ortis. Behind, waiting patiently, was Mill Reef. Ranging up very fast on the outside was Pistol Packer. Jockey Lewis needed a break at this point or he might have had to swing wide and go around. Suddenly the opening came. The gap between Hallez and Sharapour widened, and Mill Reef shot through and headed toward the rail. Two furlongs from the wire he led by two lengths, and although Pistol Packer might have been a threat even then, Mellon's colt just kept grinding out the yardage. The issue was never really in doubt. Mill Reef was being pulled up as he crossed the finish line. His time was a record 2:28.3.