Despite the somber layer of rain clouds that hovered menacingly over the Bois de Boulogne last Sunday, the day of the 49th running of the classic Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe will go into the French records as one of the most glorious in the history of Parisian racing. In record numbers the elegantly dressed crowd poured into the new, modern Longchamp from every racing-conscious locality in the world, including New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Italy, Germany and Russia. They came in special planes from England and Ireland, and after hundreds of Americans had joined the scene a wandering punter might well have believed he had stumbled into the paddock at Santa Anita or Belmont Park.
The lure that drew this holiday throng was, of course, the opportunity to be on hand as Charlie Engelhard's undefeated wonder horse Nijinsky ran his victory string to an even dozen by whipping as fine a field of international runners as has been herded into one starting gate in a long time. Canadian-bred Nijinsky had done everything asked of him in his 11 previous triumphs. He had won the British Triple Crown by coming from behind and accelerating in the last furlong to score one close decision after another. "Why, he's never been off the bit," boasted many in his legion of followers. "No telling what he'll do if he really gets threatened."
"That's just it," said those in the rival camp. A one-run colt like Nijinsky, they felt, might be able to get by with his dramatic finishes under Jockey Lester Piggott when there was only an ordinary bunch of nonstayers to beat, but if he had never found himself at the end of a mile-and-a-half race in a head-and-head stretch duel how could he be proclaimed a super horse?
That ultimate test came on Sunday in a race that will be talked about and debated for years. And when it was over, amid screaming and hysteria, Piggott and Nijinsky found themselves beaten a head by the top team in French racing—Trainer Fran√ßois Mathet and Jockey Yves Saint-Martin. Their French Derby champion, Sassafras, an 18-to-1 shot owned by Mr. and Mrs. Arpad Plesch, had beaten the odds-on favorite to take the Arc and its $248,000 winner's purse.
A shock, yes, to owner Engelhard, Trainer Vincent O'Brien, Jockey Piggott—and possibly to Nijinsky himself. But the result is not all that surprising when one considers Nijinsky was making his first start over Longchamp's tricky up-and-down course and, further, that the French jockeys' manual does not include the phrase, "After you, Mr. Piggott." Longchamp, as Piggott himself well knows, is a difficult course. A good horse can afford to take chances and even yield ground on the long, sweeping right-handed hill if he is facing an inferior field. But when there is speed from quality runners, one cannot risk losing a yard. In this race 29-year-old Saint-Martin achieved his first Arc victory with a superior, ground-saving ride every yard of the way. Piggott, on the other hand, rode so confidently and lost so much ground throughout much of the trip that, had Nijinsky been the winner instead of the loser by that narrow head, the credit would have been his and not his rider's.
Before the race the French, who have done nothing startling in international racing this year, more or less adopted Winston Guest's Sea-Bird colt Gyr as their own, even though he is a Kentucky-bred. There was a good deal of consideration given to the Italian Derby winner, Ortis, and a little hope held out for Stintino, Grandier and even the 1969 Epsom Derby winner, Blakeney. So little was said about Sassafras (of more than 30 professional handicappers, none picked him) that Trainer Mathet was prompted to comment, "The French press is underestimating him. I think I'm estimating him about right."
Even in the walking ring Sassafras and Saint-Martin were all but ignored. Every eye zeroed in on Nijinsky, a big bay with three white feet and a cocky look about him. He was led by two lads at his head, while a third, armed with an umbrella, guarded the right flank and made himself useful by striking out at the 50 photographers who blocked his path. Nijinsky was greeted in the post parade by applause from one end of the stands to the other. The remaining 14 starters got mostly dour looks.
At the start only Grandier came away poorly, losing perhaps three lengths to the rest of his field. He never did much running after that and finally finished ninth. Up the long, tiring hill the field galloped, heading for the woods known as Le Petit Bois. The second Italian horse, Lar, took the lead, followed by Winston Guest's other entry, Golden Eagle, both of them in the field only to insure an honest pace. Saint-Martin brought Sassafras away perfectly and lay third, just ahead of Ortis. Gyr was back in the 10th spot, and behind him, with only three horses trailing, was Nijinsky, a leisurely 12th. The order did not change much when they came out from behind the woods. Ortis moved up to third, while Sassafras held the rail in fourth. As they reached the crest of the hill and started the downhill right turn Nijinsky trailed the pacesetter by 10 lengths.
At the bottom of the hill the pace picked up. Lar and Golden Eagle were ready to retire honorably, while Ortis, who might well have done a little more, also chose to surrender. Now it was Sassafras on the lead, followed close by the filly, Miss Dan, and suddenly Gyr, who darted between tiring horses to become a serious threat. As the field fanned out for the three-eighths-of-a-mile run home Nijinsky was hardly to be seen. Piggott had kept him three horses wide all the way down the hill, losing ground with every step, and when he was finally sighted again on the straightaway it was astonishing that 10 other horses were between him and the rails. Piggott had gotten himself mixed up in the very middle of the pack on the last turn and been forced to drift back and forth behind a wall of horses looking for an opening. He even had to check his horse before he finally did get through.
Then, as the crowd began a frantic roar, Piggott and Nijinsky at last got to the business of running. They overtook Gyr and Miss Dan with little trouble, making up some six lengths within an eighth of a mile. But there was Sassafras, winging away on the lead, and Saint-Martin using his stick and every ounce of his strength and skill to keep him there. Piggott was working on Nijinsky, too, and the last furlong of this classic was a magnificent battle. Foot by foot, Nijinsky gained on Sassafras. With a 16th of a mile to go, Nijinsky poked his nose to the front for the first time all day, and those who had seen him before were certain of the finish. "He's got him! He's got him!" was the shout. Lester had done it again.
But Lester hadn't done it again. Yves had. Side by side they fought those last desperate yards, and at the wire, with Nijinsky either tiring after his first close combat or Sassafras coming on again, it was Yves in front of Lester by a head. Two lengths behind them came Miss Dan, in a rather remarkable performance of her own. She beat Gyr by a length and a half for third place, while the same margin separated Gyr from fifth-place Blakeney. Sassafras' time of 2:29.7 was less than a second off the track record set by Levmoss a year ago.
As the post race dusk fell over Longchamp, contrasting moods were everywhere evident. One Irish horseman said bravely, "It is not only a sad day for Ireland, England, Canada and the United States. It is a sad day for all racing when the best horse gets beat." Yves Saint-Martin was sipping champagne with the Longchamp stewards and members of the Jockey Club. He had confided to his happy owners, "I didn't win this race as much as Piggott lost it." And outside, old soldier Mathet, the most successful trainer in French racing, was starting to walk, alone, to his car. An elderly lady, who actually seemed to have tears in her eyes, tapped him gently on the shoulder, and he turned to face her. "Bravo, Monsieur Mathet!" she exclaimed.
At the end of a stretch duel that exhausted both horses and a record crowd, Sassafras leads Nijinsky to the wire in the Arc de Triomphe.
Mme. Plesch and her classic winners.