He took the biscuits for Seamus McGrath - Sports Illustrated Vault | SI.com
Publish date:

He took the biscuits for Seamus McGrath

At better than 50 to 1 an Irish colt named Levmoss and a jockey who thought he had no chance won the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, Europe's richest race over the toughest uphill, down-dale course in the world

Traffic conditions were even more frantic than usual in Paris last Sunday, and strangers found themselves sharing taxis as 40,000 racegoers battled their way out of the hot city through the shaded, winding roads of the Bois de Boulogne to Longchamp's immense and beautiful racetrack. There, for the 48th time, some of the world's finest Thoroughbreds would shortly contest the mile-and-a-half Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. In one such cab a couple of fellow travelers introduced themselves. The little guy allowed as how he was an Australian jockey named William Williamson, whose main claim to fame in Paris was that a year ago he had won the Arc on Vaguely Noble. The other man said his name was Everett Clay and that he was the publicity director of Hialeah racecourse in Miami, a famous city in the Southern part of the United States. The taxi chugged and sputtered on.

If Williamson had been an American jockey on his way to Hialeah's Flamingo Stakes, Ev Clay would have been able to recite not only what the lad had eaten for breakfast that morning but also what marks he had once struggled to achieve in eighth-grade math. But Clay had no real form on the Aussie and settled instead for a typical question: "What chances have you got today?" Williamson didn't take long to come up with his answer. "I'm riding the third and fourth races and I haven't any real chance in either of them." So casual was his reply that he neglected to note that the fourth race was, indeed, the Arc itself.

A few hours later, as Clay battled for position in the packed stands in an almost futile attempt to see what went on in the Arc behind the woods and over the distant hills, he suddenly became aware that his taxi mate was about to achieve a sensational upset on an Irish long shot named Levmoss who had gone to the post at the sky-high odds of 52 to l. In one of the most stirring finishes ever seen in this greatest of European classics—and certainly over the most difficult up-and-down terrain for any runner to handle—Williamson somehow got Levmoss to hold out by three-quarters of a length over the onrushing English mare Park Top. Three lengths away was the French Grandier, a length ahead of another long shot, Lady Sassoon's Candy Cane. Behind them came the favorite, Prince Regent, and 19 others from six countries.

Unless the Arc has a real standout, such as a Ribot, a Sea-Bird or even a Vaguely Noble, it usually provides its audience with some major surprises. The two biggest surprises last week were the magnificent performance—Williamson's prognostication notwithstanding—of Levmoss and the failure of Countess de la Valdene's Prince Regent to make a better showing of it. Still, the Prince hadn't raced since winning the Irish Sweeps Derby in late June and there are those who feel that any Arc contender should have a stiff preliminary within a month or six weeks of this difficult assignment. The countess herself, a sister of the brothers Winston and Raymond Guest, is more inclined to go along with her highly successful trainer, Etienne Pollet. Says she, "Pollet doesn't believe in running his good horses on the hard turf during the hot summer, for that's when they are most apt to break down. He would far prefer to wait until September for their hard training. What bothers me, however, is that there are often too many starters, including some who clearly do not belong. Oh, well, we'll have a good gallop, but the results are in the laps of the gods."

Well, last Sunday the Irish gods out-hustled the French gods, and the Longchamp starter got slightly the better of Jockey Geoff Lewis on Prince Regent. For when the field of 24 came away from the gates down by the Old Moulin and started on its way up the hill behind Le Petit Bois, there was Prince Regent dead last and nothing for Lewis to look at but 23 rumps up ahead. Lester Piggott, who had won the first three races on this dreamy, cloudless, blue-sky afternoon, had Park Top in the middle of the pack, while the pace was being set by the Italian Bonconte di Montefeltro, the Epsom Derby winner Blakeney and, oddly enough, Levmoss. This toughie, owned and trained by Seamus McGrath, had been discounted by most as an Arc threat on the grounds that the classic would be—of all things—too short for him. Levmoss had firmly established his reputation as the top stayer in Europe through victories in the 2½-mile Ascot Gold Cup and the 2½-mile Prix du Cadran. But Owner-Trainer McGrath crossed up the experts in the days before the Arc by putting some speed works into his charge and then giving Williamson instructions to go with the pace, set it if need be and not to rely on a late run.

So well did Williamson and Levmoss complement one another's natural talents that, with the Aussie skillfully saving ground throughout on the rails, Levmoss was never worse than sixth and was always within striking distance. With him in the first bunch as the field reached the top of the hill before starting the charge down the long right-hand bend that eventually leads to the three-eighths-of-a-mile uphill homestretch were Bonconte, Chaparral, Blakeney, Remand, Shoemaker and Goodly. Park Top was well back, with Prince Regent still loitering among the loiterers. Turning for home the speed that had carried the early leaders this far deserted all of them save Levmoss, who now astounded the huge gathering by opening daylight between himself and his pursuers. Piggott was working his way frantically with Park Top to get running room on the outside, while Lewis was now barreling through the middle with Prince Regent, over and around tired horses. But for him there was simply no more time and no more room. For Piggott, however, there was one more chance, and he rode Park Top furiously to achieve it. Two furlongs from the finish he was in 10th place. Then he began flying with his brave mare. She passed eight horses in front of the stands but could not quite reach the ninth. It was far from a disgrace for Park Top, for in gaining his victory Levmoss was forced to break Soltikoff's 7-year-old Arc record with a superb clocking of 2:29.

"No, I don't think we'll try the Washington, D.C. International at Laurel," said McGrath later, as he watched Levmoss win again on the televised rerun. "He's been good to us; he's done just about everything we've asked of him and he should probably have a nice long rest instead of going to America." Certainly McGrath can afford to give his winner a rest after his $213,400 victory. In fact, the McGrath clan cuts things up pretty nicely already in Ireland. Brother Joe breeds the horses, Seamus trains them and brother Paddy runs the Irish Sweepstakes. "I've had a lot of good horses," said Seamus, "but I think this one takes the biscuits. In fact, I know he does." Even Jockey William Williamson would have to agree on that.