To watch 20 horses ploughing through belting rain at Longchamp on Sunday, colours and coats indistinct in gloom and flying mud, it was a challenge to know what was going on – let alone appreciate the wealth of backstories the 2022 Prix de la Arc de Triomphe was delivering.
In the end, Europe’s most prestigious race was won by English mare Alpinista, who started as the 33-10 favourite. But that wasn’t half the story.
The gunmetal grey was sired by Frankel, possibly the best thoroughbred to have raced, and is the first five-year-old mare to have won the Arc since 1937 – and the eighth female victor in the last 12 runnings. Alpinista has been sparingly raced, with 15 starts since her debut as a juvenile in 2019. Ten wins, including six Group 1s, are the proceeds.
Before Sunday, her trainer said he thought she’d run well – as long as the ground didn’t have too much give (it was officially declared “very soft”). Her trainer also says she has improved with every run in the last two years; her jockey says she “surprises” him every time; her groom says she has “the heart of a lion”.
The French press hilariously describe Annabel Willis (23) as a “stable girl”; Brit journos wimping out with “minder”. Willis joined trainer Mark Prescott’s yard as a teenager, was allocated yearling Alpinista a year later and has been the star’s constant companion for four years.
A highlight of the Arc TV coverage was Willis jumping up and down as Alpinista passed the post, then running onto the turf, arms spread wide, to embrace “the sweetest horse”. Later Willis said: “I feel like, if she were a person, she would just say, ‘Let’s get on with the job’. So, she has to hold my hand quite a lot.”
A Racing Post writer describes Luke Morris as “deeply unassuming”, while another hack quips you wouldn’t buy a used car from him – as he’s the “hardest working jockey in England”.
From a family line of jockeys, Morris isn’t exactly a journeyman, having won a clutch of Group 1s, but he does shy from the limelight. And he is loyal. Eleven years of dedication to the smallish Prescott operation was amply rewarded in the Paris deluge. His ride was described as “impeccable” by many a scribe.
Morris and Alpinista had a big advantage from the No 6 stall, allowing them to position well for the trip. Said Morris: “She has towed me into the race and I was able to sit on her until nearly the furlong pole. The last week I must have watched 25 Arcs and I’ve not seen one sit to the furlong pole, so she is extremely special.”
Kirsten Rausing is familiar to South Africans as she’s had horses in training in Cape Town for many years. She is ranked among the top 10 richest women in the world and might be the richest in the UK nowadays. The money comes from the Swedish Rausing family who invented Tetra Pak, which transformed liquid packaging in the 1960s.
It is said Kirsten is the most influential person in what is now the Tetra Laval group, but her obvious passion is racing – with three stud farms, hundreds of horses in training and as a dedicated office holder in the top echelons of the sport.
Sir Mark Prescott, 74, wasn’t knighted by racing fan Elizabeth but inherited his baronetcy. He is one of the great characters of the game. After a brief career as a jumps jockey, and near-paralysis after a bad fall, he became the youngest trainer in Newmarket in 1970, at historic 50-box Heath House stables, where horses have been trained since the 17th century.
Some 53 years later he is the oldest kid on the block and a revered institution – still with just 50 horses, from 59 fiercely loyal owners. Prescott is hailed as racing’s finest raconteur, with archival knowledge and sharp wit. He’s also “eccentric”, “old school” and “a martinet”, renowned for getting the best out of ordinary horses and planning long-range for big wins, placing runners in races with great thought.
He rises every morning at 3.30am to be on the gallops – neatly shaven, always with a tie, even if denims complete the outfit. Woe betide anyone arriving late with chin stubble. On Sunday, he said: “I always thought the best day of my racing life was when I rode a winner on my first ride at 15 or 16. It had no chance of winning, and it won. I had a girlfriend and we walked out down the track, and there was an old man banging in divots and he said: ‘What won the first?’ And I said: ‘I did,’ and I thought it was the best moment of my life, but this is every bit as good.”