If U.S. Ambassador to Ireland Raymond Guest were shopping around for the toughest race in the world in which to close out the career of his 3-year-old champion, Tom Rolfe, he could hardly improve on the choice of France's Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, the up-and-down mile-and-a-half classic on the turf of Longchamp next Sunday, October 3. Guest admits that sending any horse to Paris, even the far better than average Tom Rolfe, is like stepping up to the plate with a two-strike count. "And I couldn't have picked a tougher year," he reflected last week, during a lull in a hasty visit to the States.
As he sipped a mixture of champagne and orange juice (which he calls a Bucks Fizz because it is served at London's Bucks Club) and paced the floor of his New York apartment, the Ambassador ticked off on the fingers of one large hand the leading contenders in the Arc field: "You've got the winner of the Epsom Derby, Sea Bird, who might be a really great colt. You have the Irish Derby winner, Meadow Court, and the French Derby winner, Reliance. And against them all you've got my little fella, winner of the American [not the Kentucky] Derby."
This might well turn out to be one of the best Arc fields of all time. An astonishing and pleasing aspect is that all four of these top colts have American blood. Tom Rolfe is by Italy's Ribot but out of a Roman mare, Reliance is a grandson of Relic, and Sea Bird and Meadow Court are grandsons of Native Dancer and Tom Fool, respectively.
Warming to the challenge ahead, Guest added a typically sporting viewpoint: "No matter what happens to my little fella, I believe that international racing is feasible. I'm on the International Committee of The Jockey Club, and it's my duty to do something about it, especially if I happen to have the best horse."
Tom Rolfe may indeed be the best horse ever sent from here on this rugged assignment. At the Arc distance he certainly looks to be a closer thing than Career Boy, who finished fourth in 1956, or Carry Back, who was 10th in 1962. Last week, in winning the American Derby at Arlington Park, he set a track record of 2:00[3/5] for the mile-and-a-quarter. The two most encouraging aspects of that fine performance (his ninth win in 12 starts this year, incidentally) were that he showed he could make the pace if necessary and, as Bill Shoemaker put it afterward, "He was so hard to pull up; in fact, he ran faster for a half mile after passing the wire than for the half mile before it." Rarely has Shoe, who will be making his first riding trip to the Continent, been so high on any horse.
Trainer Frank Whiteley, who is not eager to tackle the Europeans on their grounds and under their conditions, would keep both himself and Tom Rolfe at home, if the choice were his. "He's done practically everything we've asked him to do so far," he said at Belmont recently. "Maybe we shouldn't be squeezing this lemon dry." This week, nonetheless, Whiteley, a groom, an exercise boy, a blacksmith and a special watchman, plus all necessary straw, hay, oats, water and odds and ends of equipment, will accompany Tom Rolfe on the flight to Paris. Shoemaker, in the week before the Arc, is scheduled to have at least three mounts over the main course at Longchamp, which means he should become familiar with the disconcerting hill on a sharp right bend that leads to the three-eighths-mile run for home. Tom Rolfe, says Guest, "will be cantered up and down it until he knows every foot of the course, and I expect that he'll cover the last mile at a good, fast clip at least once during his week there before the race."
Going to the plate with two strikes against you is no more prudent in horse-racing than in baseball. Guest says, however, "We may not win, but Tom Rolfe, who is all heart, will be there, and we should all have some fun."