Wind the clock back about 13 months and the racing world was in awe of a horse called CAMELOT.
The Aidan O’Brien-trained colt had already won the 2,000 Guineas, the Epsom Derby and the Irish Derby and was on the cusp of becoming the first horse since NIJINSKY in 1970 to complete the elusive Triple Crown.
But now that same horse, same name, same races won sits near the foot of the betting market for this Sunday’s Qatar Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at a massive price of 40/1.
Such odds do reflect the failure of Camelot in the final Classic of 2012, the St Leger at Doncaster, when he was beaten into second place. And also his decline since winter surgery after contracting severe colic.
But they also reflect the fact that Sunday’s Arc is a deep and star-studded renewal almost without precedence.
Over time, we have become accustomed to the reputation of the Longchamp spectacular as THE premier horse-race in Europe. For the evidence, don’t just study the names of those to have won it, but gasp, open-mouthed, at the number of brilliant animals to have suffered defeat.
OK, we’d rather the race was run on a track whose sat-nav ddidn’t follow such tight twists and turns. And OK, we’d rather the race was not so dependent on the draw, rendering wide numbers almost impossible to defy.
But the fact that the annual Parisian pilgrimage among racing aficionados is now akin to that afforded the Cheltenham Festival underlines the pulling power of the first Sunday in October. And it cannot be stressed vigorously enough how strong, competitive and truly international the 2013 race is.
Multiple Group One winners abound. The Epsom Derby hero is here. The French Derby hero is here. The King George hero is here. The Coral Eclipse hero is here. The Irish Champion Stakes hero is here. The latest Leger winner is here. The Japanese Derby hero is here. The French Oaks heroine is here. The Grand Prix de Paris hero is here. All the Arc trial winners are here. I could go on.
So who will emerge on top come 3.15 pm on Sunday?
It is not advised to be dogmatic until the draw has been made on Friday morning. A single-figure berth is of paramount importance, given that only SAKHEE and DALAKHANI have triumphed from stalls higher than eight since 2000.
Therefore those holding ante-post vouchers might well sympathise with a tale that has rather hamstrung my personal approach to this year’s contest.
The medium of Twitter which, in my view, now rules the world, can do strange things to people when they have an opinion on matters such as horse races.
Thus it was, on the day of the three main trials last month, that I posted the tweet that the race was “a match between TREVE and NOVELLIST -- the rest are not on the same planet”.
Undoubtedly rash, arguably rubbish. But I lumped on the pair, so it is with some relief that I still feel Criquette Head-Maarek’s phenomenal filly and Andreas Wohler’s class-act hold most of the aces.
Treve, owned by Sheikh Joaan, an emerging force in the owners’ enclosure, has tackled only four races in her life. But she has won each in increasingly eye-popping style and taken each step-up in trip in her stride.
Her victory in the Prix Vermeille last time was one of the performances of the season. Whether by accident or design, the three-year-old daughter of Motivator was never ideally placed, in rear on the inner, and turned for home virtually last. Yet at no stage did Frankie Dettori look remotely worried and although he was fortunate that the gaps appeared at the right time, the filly showed breathtaking acceleration to reel in a very smart leader who had kicked clear off the bend.
In a big field on Sunday, you would have to worry that she might get penned in. But now connections are sure she stays the 12f trip, there will be no need to ride her so conservatively. And although Dettori has now been ruled out by injury, his loss is countered by the recruitment of Thierry Jarnet, who knows the filly well, having steered her home in the French Oaks.
I describe Treve’s Vermeille success was one of the performances of the season because the honour for top spot must surely go to Novellist in the King George at Ascot in July.
I didn’t think I’d ever see a King George display to match that of MONTJEU in 2000, but the four-year-old German raider managed it, screaming clear from the 2f pole to clip fully two seconds off the course record.
Left trailing in his wake, five lengths behind in second, was TRADING LEATHER, who went into the race on the back of a win in the Irish Derby that blew the Epsom Derby form out of the window.
It was sensational stuff by Novellist, who has been beaten only twice in his career and is arguably still improving. Also in his favour on Sunday is the fact that he handles any ground, can be ridden any way and has the presence of a master in the saddle (Johnny Murtagh).
That Epsom Derby form is represented at Longchamp by the winner, RULER OF THE WORLD, who showed encouraging signs of a return to his best when running on strongly in the Prix Niel last time.
It would still be a surprise, though, if the Ballydoyle colt could reverse form with his conqueror that day, KIZUNA, given that the Japanese colt was said to be “just 85% fit” after a four-month absence.
Indeed trainer Shozo Sasaki expressed amazement that his charge was able to quicken up to prevail, guaranteeing further improvement.
If he can avoid the mysterious ‘bounce factor’, the son of Deep Impact might well represent Japan’s best chance of landing at last the Arc prize they so covet.
A better chance than ORFEVRE, the current favourite, I hear you cry? Well yes, actually.
Kizuna is far more straightforward than Orfevre who, by his trainer Yasutoshi Ikee’s own admission, has temperamental quirks that cannot be ironed out.
They are quirks that cost him last year’s Arc when he lost concentration and drifted right into the rails when clear and heading for an easy victory.
If he couldn’t win last year, which was a poor renewal, why should he win this? Especially when you factor in physical vulnerability, which forced him to miss an outing earlier this year after he bled during a routine piece of work.
Orfevre still bolted up in his prep race, the Prix Foy, three weeks ago, but quality opposition was thin on the ground, so I’d rather rely on the evidence of two killer stats, which confirm the five-year-old is a risky proposition, particularly at short odds of 5/2. Of the last 60 losing horses from the previous year to have contested the Arc for a second time, all have been beaten. And since 1975, there have been only two winners aged older than four.
During that same time-span, French trainer Andre Fabre has landed the race seven times himself. And he’s back with two more stabs this time round, courtesy of FLINTSHIRE and INTELLO.
The former burst on to the scene in midsummer when appreciating a step-up to the Arc trip. But he was a soundly beaten favourite in Kizuna’s Prix Niel when unable to quicken out of the Soft ground.
The latest weather forecast suggests the surface will be much more to his liking on Sunday. But even so, the Fabre yard have always regarded their French Derby winner, Intello, a superior animal.
Formbook study and visual impressions back up that view. This is a seriously classy colt. One quick enough to finish on the heels of and in front of top-class milers in the Group One Prix Jacques le Marois at Deauville in August.
I have no doubt that he has the ability to be on the premises in the Arc. The big question-mark hanging over his credentials relates to stamina. He’s never tried 12f and although he’s by Galileo, the Danehill dam was very much a miler.
Sure to stay the trip are the two challengers from the UK, AL KAZEEM and THE FUGUE, plus the probable number one from the O’Brien yard, LEADING LIGHT.
After his glory-days at Royal Ascot and in the Eclipse, Al Kazeem looked ready-made for the Arc, a race trainer Roger Charlton has made no secret of harbouring a burning desire to win. The step-up to 12f with give in the ground would suit. All he needed was a summer break and a quiet pipe-opener in either the Juddmonte International or the Irish Champion.
Sadly, instead, the five-year-old son of Dubawi was sent on both assignments. To York on fast ground connections had said they would never risk again, and to Leopardstown only three weeks later as part of a rushed change of plan.
Both displays were worryingly flat, suggesting this Sunday’s task might be beyond a colt who has been on the go since April.
The Fugue was the filly who profited from Al Kazeem’s Leopardstown labours, underlining his rival’s decline by comprehensively reversing the form of their previous clashes.
She cannot handle ease in the ground but, at her best, as in last season’s Nassau Stakes at Goodwood, she is electric and her CV is firmly stamped ‘Group One Material’.
Leading Light provides the final, fascinating piece of the 2013 Arc jigsaw-puzzle.
A lot of rot was written and spoken before his Leger win, giving the impression, just because he’d won the Queen’s Vase at Royal Ascot over 2m, that the son of Montjeu was a grinding stayer.
Did the doubters not see his sparkling win on fast ground over 10f at the end of May? A performance that, in my view, should have booked him a ticket to the Irish Derby? Did the doubters not realise that his dam had the speed to win a Queen Mary Stakes over 5f?
As it happened, a potent combination of pace and stamina got him home at Doncaster -- and could well be effective again at Longchamp, especially if he’s allowed the run of the race in front, which seems likely.
Personally, in an Arc of the highest class, I’d be surprised if Leading Light was good enough to win. But “the lads” at Coolmore have stumped up 100,000 euros to supplement him for the race, which means he must finish at least fifth to get them their money back.
In truth, in any normal year, no-one would be happy with fifth. But such is the amount of stardust that has been sprinkled over this season’s Arc, it’s a position almost certain to be occupied by a very good horse.
BY RICHARD ‘SCOOP’ SILVERWOOD, @ScoopSilverwood