Nakayama Festa, one of Japan's two contenders to racing's pinnacle Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, gave the eventual winner, English Derby champion Workforce, a run for the money Sunday at Longchamp, a run that had hearts in mouths around the world. For Japan-racing fans it was at once a huge honor and a huge disappointment . To have come so close.
Despite some roughhousing around the turn and being checked at the top of the straight, Masayoshi Ebina got Nakayama Festa to within a neck of the winner, bettering his Arc effort of 11 years ago and until now Japan's best performance -- El Condor Pasa's second to Montjeu by half a length. The challenge by Nakayama Festa to Workforce in the final stages was called a "surprise" in many postrace reports worldwide. And, considering this year's field was a huge one, with 19 horses vying for the 4-million-euro Arc purse, Nakayama Festa's run was all the more noteworthy.
The 3-year-old Victoire Pisa, under Yutaka Take, crossed the line in eighth place, but was later promoted to seventh following Planteur's disqualification. Victoire Pisa finished about 6 1/2 lengths off the winner.
Nakayama Festa took up a midfield position from the gate, then moved and out stalked forward from just before the Longchamp "false straight,." Victoire Pisa, on the other hand, eased off and looked to be saving his all for the stretch. Into the stretch Nakayama Festa lined up with the frontrunner and momentarily took the lead but was headed by Workforce, who came up strongly on his inside. The pair then took center stage as they went neck and neck, widening the gap between themselves and the rest of the field til lthe end. Though Nakayama Festa was relentless, he was no match for the equally dogged Workforce, who had shown an excellent turn of foot that had enabled him to hit the front approaching the final furlong.
A stewards' inquiry was opened because of jostling and bumping in the closing stages but Workforce was quickly confirmed as the winner giving the first win of the Arc to both the Brighton-born Ryan Moore and trainer Michael Stoute. It was the10th win for a Great Britain-trained horse. Workforce covered the 2,400 meters of soft turf in a time of 2 minutes 35.3 seconds.
"I was always very confident throughout the race," said Moore. "He was always traveling nicely and he had a very good rhythm. There was a bit of scrimmaging, but fortunately he got a nice clean run. He got a tight gap but enough room and he really wanted to do it. He put his head down and stuck his neck out at the end."
Moore, a three-time champion jockey, said, "The Derby and the Arc were probably my biggest two ambitions and this horse has supplied them both now. He's a very good horse."
Workforce's participation in the Arc had been uncertain till the last days before the race due largely to a poor showing in his last outing. Moore commented on this, saying, "Things weren't right at Ascot but the boss put him back in great shape and I was fairly confident today. Just needed a bit of luck and we had that. He's back to his best. We had a nice run through, he's very brave, the Japanese horse kept at him, but Workforce kept doing enough."
The Barbados-born Stoute said, "If you have any ambition when you start training, you want to win the Arc. We have had a lot of horses running particularly well in it without doing it, so I'm thrilled."
Japan's Ebina was upbeat, saying of Nakayama Festa, "He gave his all. I really wanted to win but think we turned in a very good run. He's still only 4 so I'd like to try again." Ebina, 41, had had to check Nakayama Festa strongly at the top of the straight and had been directly behind Fame and Glory when Planteur hit him. He tossed the rough ride off lightly with good sportsmanship. "We had some interference during the race. But, call it a little, call it a lot, that's how races are."
Ebina felt the prep Prix Foy had helped bring Nakayama Festa to 100 percent. "He was running in top form. And I too, was able to keep my cool and ride with concentration." Ebina made a point of recognizing his mount's stupendous effort, saying "I want to express my thanks to him."
Trainer Yoshitaka Ninomiya also was able to hide any disappointment and expressed his appreciation for the efforts of the Nakayama Festa team. "For two months we've worked hard, with everyone putting in an effort. We did everything that needed to be done and the horse has matured considerably. I think we all managed to work together with this one goal in mind."
Of Nakayama Festa, he said, "The horse was really calm today and I think having used him once before served him well. There was interference but, then, that's racing. Having come second again, I'd have to say that I still have something to learn. If I get the chance again, I want to take on the challenge again."
Of Victoire Pisa's run, Yutaka Take said. "The results are unfortunate. Things were a mess in front of us and I wasn't able to give him a smooth run. In the straight when I brought him out, I believed he would quicken, but he didn't."
Trainer Katsuhiko Sumii, too, called the results, "unfortunate." But, he said, "I think he did far better than he had in the Prix Niel. I want to take on the Arc next year and hope other Japanese horses will keep on coming."
French-trained horses have dominated the race with 64 wins in the Arc's 88-year history. Not only did the winner's share leave France this year, but the top five picks saw only two from the host country. The two were the 3-year-olds, the filly Sarafina and the colt Behkabad, who followed Nakayama Festa over the line in that order. Sarafina crossed the line 2 1/2 lengths after Nakayama Festa and Behkabad completed his run a length and a half later. Aidan O'Brien's Fame and Glory, who had been hit hard by Planteur 300 meters out, came in fifth.
The 3-year-old Workforce is owned by Prince Khalid Abdullah and was bred at the prince's Juddmonte Farms. Workforce is by King's Best out of the Sadler's Wells mare Soviet Moon. The win of the Arc was worth just under 2.3 million euros.
Japanese horsemen have long coveted the Arc and first took on the challenge 41 years ago -- in 1969 -- when Yuji Nohira and Speed Symboli became the first Japanese pair to take on the race. This year's bid was the ninth for Japan, the first double entry. Other than El Condor Pasa's second-place finish in 1999, all results for Japan had thus far been in the double digits. Though Deep Impact crossed the line in third place in 2006, drug tests later led to his disqualification. All but one of the 10 Japan-trained horses entered in the Arc have been ridden by Japanese jockeys. In addition, four U.K. or Europe-trained horses have been ridden by Japanese, the best result among them being a third-place finish by Yutaka Take aboard the Andre Fabre-trained Sagacity in the 2001 Arc.
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