17 Aug

Philip Sale | Monday August 17 2020, 9:26pm | Racing Comment

It is probably nothing more than a quirk of fate that John Gosden is yet to win the 2000 Guineas. Nevertheless, it remains a somewhat surprising omission from the trainer's CV.

Indeed, it remains the only British classic the master of Clarehaven is yet to win. There is little else Gosden hasn’t achieved in a magnificent 40-year training career and it would be unusual were he to ever retire without once winning the race.

When pondering Jean-Claude Rouget’s likely contenders for this year’s Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe – namely Sottsass, Port Guillaume, Soft Light and Raabihah – it is equally difficult to comprehend that France's winningmost trainer is yet to win his country's greatest race.

Surely it isn’t so? After all, this is the same Rouget who is rarely without an elite middle-distance performer and boasts four victories apiece in the Prix Du Jockey club and Prix de Diane.

Not only is Rouget yet to win the Arc, his representation has been thinly dispersed since he saddled his first runner - Millkom - some 25 years ago. The below graphic charts each Rouget runner in the Arc, along with their finishing position and starting price:

Just the 11 individual runners, then. A striking statistic given countless Group 1 winners have passed through the trainer's hands since he began in 1978 (in true Rouget style, he of course saddled a winner with his first runner).

If nothing else, 2020 at least promises an Arc for the ages - something for which the racing fraternity owes a debt of gratitude to Prince Khalid Abdullah and Bjorn Nielsen. Both owners are as sporting as they are ambitious and the planned participation of Enable and Stradivarius only adds further spice to a cross-generational contest already likely to feature Love, Fancy Blue and Ghaiyyath, to say nothing of potential runners Mishriff, Magical and Serpentine. All the right horses, all the right connections.

However, with the likes of Sottsass, Port Guillaume and Raabihah in his arsenal, Rouget will not expect to be playing the role of bystander this autumn. The first-named needs little introduction. He is a high-class colt, one of Rouget's aforementioned Prix du Jockey Club winners and he of course finished third in last year's Arc (thus making him Rouget's best-performing horse in the race to date).

Already a Group 1 winner in 2020, Sottsass was widely recognised as Europe's best middle-distance three-year-old in 2019, but equally last year's classic generation didn't measure up to the usual standard. The colt's reputation has seemingly suffered as a consequence.

Possessing a similar turn of foot to his gifted sire Souyini, whilst simultaneously inheriting the stamina and resolution of damsire Galileo, Sottsass should not be underestimated. Doubtless further improvement is needed – particular in light of his recent second behind Skalleti - but another year older and another year wiser, we can expect him to peak in October.

Port Guillaume, unbeaten in three starts before a commendable fifth behind Mishriff in this year’s Prix du Jockey Club, has entered the fray rather suddenly. Buried away for most of the colt’s classic, he flew home in the style of a horse who would benefit from a stronger pace.

Sure enough, in the Prix Hocquart, Cristian Demuro was happy to dictate from the front – tactics already employed successfully at Saint Cloud earlier this year– and won going away from Andre Fabre’s talented Ketil.

Port Guillame is quintessentially Rouget, hailing from a dynasty the trainer knows inside out. Not only did Rouget train the sire Le Havre (a Jockey Club winner himself), he subsequently guided his daughter’s Avenir Certain and La Cressonniere to classic success in their own right (the former being one of those rare Rouget representatives in the Arc). Other daughters of Le Havre successfully handled by Rouget include La Hoguette, Zghorta Dance and Commes. 

Furthermore, Rouget trained Port Guillame’s dam – Kiera – and currently trains his older brother, the five-year-old Aubevoye, a lesser talent but nevertheless placed in listed company.

Outside France, little was known of Port Guillame prior to the Hocquart and he is something a springer in the Arc market. Only time will tell how far he can go, but his assured stamina and preference for a strong pace make him interesting.

On all known form, Soft Light is likely to be nothing but an outsider if taking his chance in the race. An Authorized half-brother to the classy City Light, he was a meritorious yet well-beaten sixth in last year’s Arc. He is still to strike in nine attempts since breaking his maiden on debut, but has nevertheless amassed over £100,000 in prize money.

Next to his more than respectable run in the Arc, Soft Light’s second in last year’s Prix Hocquart and fifth in last year’s Grand Prix de Paris stand out as career highlights. Always campaigned in the very best of company, he can be expected to run his race again if connections dare aim so high. Whatever his fate, Soft Light remains an admirably consistent horse.

But what of Raabihah? Lightly raced and therefore something of an unheralded player in the Arc, could it be that Hamdan Al Maktoum's filly is truly the one to finally break Rouget's duck? Given the strength of opposition, this may sound fanciful, but there are grounds for optimism.

Firstly, there is this year's Diane. Raabihah may have waved goodbye to her unbeaten record at Chantilly, but she lost little else when finishing a half-length fourth to Fancy Blue.

The two fillies immediately in front of her - Alpine Star and Peaceful - had previously won the Coronation Stakes and Irish 2,000 Guineas respectively. Fancy Blue subsequently won the Nassau Stakes at Glorious Goodwood, whilst more recently Alpine Star finished runner-up to Palace Pier in the Prix Jacques Le Marois.

It is surely significant that Raabihah was the least experienced filly in the Diane - something clearly not lost on Demuro who, whilst always handy, was seemingly reluctant to make too much use of an immature, twice-raced filly. A word in his ear from Rouget perhaps? Alas, we can only guess.

Nevertheless, Demuro's sensible handling of Raabihah ought to pay dividends in the long run. The jockey's relatively sensitive riding of his filly suggests he understands her potential.

Rouget was dejected after the Diane but he was purring again after the Prix de Pysche, having watched his filly win Deauville's 10-furlong contest with ease. “She’s clearly a Group 1 filly,” said the trainer, adding “Today there was Raabihah and the rest and I think she’s the best filly in France.”

As if that wasn’t enough, Rouget eulogised yet further. “I haven’t trained a filly as good as her since Stacelita and that was why I was so down after the Prix de Diane.”

High praise indeed, considering the fillies who have passed through Rouget’s hands - many of whom are charted above. And yet, we could still add Elusive Wave, Germance, Valyra, Ervedya and Qemah to that list.

Perhaps most significantly, Rouget also handles the flashy, unbeaten filly Tawkeel for the same connections. Boasting a four-from-four record, she is already a Group 1 winner and is targeted at the Prix de l'Opéra on Arc weekend. That Rouget should nevertheless speak more highly of her stablemate merits special attention.

Out of the unraced mare Garmoosha, Raabihah is bred for the job. Her sire Sea The Stars needs no introduction, likewise his  own dam, the exceptional Urban Sea. Both Arc winners, of course. Raabihah's second and third dams – namely Eswarah and Midway Lady – each won the Oaks.

Damsire Kingmambo enjoys a special partnership with Sea The Stars, with the pair throwing winner after winner. These include high-class performers Cloth Of Stars (2nd behind Enable in the 2018 Arc), Chemical Charge and Zelzal - himself a Group 1 winner for Rouget. 

At the time of writing, Raabihah is still considered a relative outsider for the Arc, and yet, paradoxically, everything points to her having a fine chance in the first week of October. 

Before that, she will take in the Prix Vermeille, likely to be run as nothing but a trial but by which point we will surely know more about her true place in the pecking order.

It took Rouget 30 years to win his first classic (he then won three in the same season!) and numerous successes have since followed. Maybe the stars will finally align in 2020 and - a quarter of a century after his first dalliance with the grand old race – one of Europe's finest trainers will finally win the Arc. 

If John Gosden would kindly oblige in next year's 2,000 Guineas, the pieces can finally be placed in a racing jigsaw some 40-years in the making.

| Raahibah profile | Raahibah wins the Prix de Pysche at Deauville |Latest odds for the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe |


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