As the rain splashed ever so gently on Paris' Bois de Boulogne last Sunday afternoon the crowd of 65,000 that gathered at Longchamp to witness the 52nd running of the Prix de l' Are de Triomphe let out noises that sounded like a cross between a groan and a cheer. The groans were for France's 3-year-old filly champion, appropriately named Allez France, who after going to the post under champion Jockey Yves Saint-Martin as the 3-to-1 favorite, had to settle for second place in the world's richest thoroughbred race. And the cheers rose almost simultaneously in a generous salute to England's riding hero Lester Piggott, who brought home Irish-bred but British-owned Rheingold by a convincing 2½ lengths.
It was small wonder that Piggott, after four previous Arc failures—including a pair atop Park Top and Nijinsky, two horses who never should have lost—put on his best smile. He rode triumphantly into the winner's enclosure and, after dismounting, allowed that this Arc victory had given him as much satisfaction as any race in his distinguished career. It was certainly his richest. To Owner Henry Zeisel, a 59-year-old Vienna-born violinist and Royal Air Force officer—by his own reckoning—went a record-winning purse of $263,719. Even in defeat Allez France rewarded Owner Daniel Wildenstein with over $100,000.
"On paper," French Trainer Alec Head remarked before the race, "this Arc doesn't seem much. But we often say that, and then it usually turns out to be a very good race, the kind of race nobody understands before it happens and the kind of race they love to see happen. The fillies Allez France and Dahlia, both bred in the U.S., might be good, but the Arc is often the sort of race where the improving horses, like San San a year ago, jump up and surprise us. In this Arc there will be 27 runners, and many of the potentially best horses can be trapped in difficult traffic."
Surprisingly, despite the crowded going on the demanding up-and-down Longchamp course, there could be few excuses for the losers. Dahlia, a daughter of former Arc winner Vaguely Noble, was squeezed back of the leaders, but this might just as well have been blamed on an injury to her left hind leg suffered while running fifth behind Allez France two weeks earlier in the Prix Vermeille. After winning the Irish Oaks and then whipping males in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes this summer, Dahlia also could well have had too much racing.
For the rest it was a fairly even run. Piggott, who for years never seemed to believe trainers who reminded him of how important position can be in the Arc, this time had Rheingold in fifth place (never was he worse than seventh), with Allez France tracking him three places behind. At the top of the hill behind le Petit Bois and before the long, sweeping right-hand descent, it was Authi and Direct Flight in the lead. Hard to Beat, a favorite last year when he finished eighth, also ranged to the front at this point and eventually hung on to finish third.
Piggott boldly made his bid with Rheingold midway down the hill, moving from fourth to third on the yielding and tricky turf and then taking the lead on the outside as the field leveled off for the straight three-eighths-of-a-mile run home. Saint-Martin drove Allez France, who had been as far back as 12th on the downslope, through on the rail, and she gamely but futilely took up pursuit of the victory-bound Rheingold. But even her 118 pounds to Rheingold's 132 was of no help. Allez France, a daughter of another Arc winner, Sea-Bird, finished four lengths in front of Hard to Beat. The time, 2:35⅘ was far off the record of 2:28[3/10] set by Mill Reef in 1971 and tied last October by San San, who finished this Arc well back in the pack.
Two American-based jockeys came over to ride in the Arc, but neither will have much to boast about in the Belmont Park jocks' room. Angel Cordero, unaccustomed to going to the post without the aid of a lead pony, allowed Hurry Harriet to get away from him on the gallop down to the gate and had to dismount to adjust his saddle. Eddie Belmonte swung so wide coming down the hill on El Famoso that for a moment it seemed he was either looking desperately for the parking lot or for the Paddock Bar where, shortly before the Arc, he was trying the champagne.
At odds of 17 to 2, Rheingold's victory was a surprise to most of the 6½ million Frenchmen who bet over 85 million francs on the race. But nothing much surprised winning owner Zeisel, whose only loss of the day was his seat—he never found it. Turning to a friend before the Arc, Zeisel said, "I'm so nervous I can't even find my horse in the post parade. Tell me what happens. If Rheingold wins, I'll jump right over the railing." If he could find the railing.
Rheingold, for all his detractors, has some pretty fair credentials. A year ago he was beaten by the barest of noses by Roberto in the Epsom Derby, and he has twice won the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud in Paris. The 4-year-old was bought by Zeisel as a yearling in Ireland for ¬£3,000. Zeisel has 14 horses in training in England with Barry Hills, but he is vague about their potentials. What he is sure about, and tells anyone within earshot between sips of champagne, are the nightclubs he runs on London's Oxford Street, his stints as an Austrian cavalry officer and as an RAF squadron leader and his time spent as "premier violinist for the Vienna Philharmonic." Once at a rehearsal, he says, and one has to believe him, "Toscanini turned to me and said, 'For a 17-year-old you play a bloody good violin.' My favorite piece in those years was Wagner's Das Rheingold, so that's what I named this horse."
Such tales may or may not be believed. Henry Zeisel could not care less. What he is trying to decide this week is whether to accept an invitation from Laurel President John Schapiro to run Rheingold in the Washington, D.C. International on Nov. 10. "I don't know why we couldn't go," he said. "Rheingold can win. Even if he doesn't, we'll have a very good time."
They better start chilling the champagne at Laurel.