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Olivier Peslier celebrates winning the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe aboard Solemia (Photo Courtesy of HorsePhotos.com)

America’s Best Racing Staff Writer 

PARIS, France — This is turning into quite the jinx. And wouldn’t you know? It happens as one of racing’s nice guys claims a record-tying fourth riding victory Sunday in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (Fr-G1).

But don’t feel for Olivier Peslier. His party will just be getting started as this blog is wrapping up. He still has his win and his 10 percent share of the nearly $3 million winner’s purse – give or take a big celebration tab. And he could probably use a break from all the attention.

Instead, have a little bit of sympathy for Japan.

Peslier and 41-1 longshot Solemia passed Japanese champion Orfèvre two strides from the finish line on a sodden Longchamp track to win the $5.2 million Arc by a neck.

“He was the one who won the race, in my opinion,” first-time Arc-winning trainer Carlos Laffon-Parias said. “I think Olivier made the difference.”

What a difference 15 seconds made. About that long before Solemia won, Orfèvre’s victory seemed certain. It was going to be the first time in 91 runnings of what is now Europe’s richest race that a European-trained horse did not win it.

“It’s Orfèvre now for Japan, they’re going to do it,” one of the race broadcasters said. He sounded like the TV networks during the 2000 U.S. presidential election.

No cheering in the press box? Don’t tell that to one of the dozens of guys from Japan in the media section of the grandstand who was gleefully screaming the name “Soumillon! Soumillon! Soumillon!”

Indeed, jockey Christophe Soumillon hit Orfèvre’s accelerator in the last quarter-mile turning into the homestretch. Making a big charge from near the back of the pack, Orfèvre shot through. The lead was his. The race was about to be. Orfèvre’s Triple Crown story from last year in Japan was about to have a sequel worth the price of admission.

But Peslier, the man who piloted Goldikova to three consecutive wins in the Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1), countered by finding an overdrive on Solemia. He went from right-handed urging at the top of the stretch to a left-handed whip with a furlong to go.

“She just kept going; she’s a very tough filly,” Peslier said. “Orfèvre keeps coming. He’s coming very fast. And then he stopped. Mine? She just continued. This is the difference.”

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Photo Courtesy of HorsePhotos.com

While Peslier’s handiwork steadied the 4-year-old filly’s resolve in those final 200 yards, Orfèvre’s stride was tightening.

“If he was going straight and just continued with the acceleration,” Soumillon said, “we would’ve won the Arc by three or four lengths. We would have done something amazing.”

But it was clear Orfèvre had enough of a slow track that, despite Sunday’s sunshine, was made virtually bottomless by steady rain most of the past week. The finish line could not come quickly enough. It did not – as it did not two years ago when Workforce caught Nakayama Festa to win by a head on a very soft track. Or six years ago when Deep Impact finished third, only to be disqualified entirely after a positive drug test. Or for El Condor Pasa, who led the last Arc run this slowly on a heavy track 13 years ago only to be overtaken by Montjeu in the final 100 yards.

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Japan has now had four painful losses in this race. Maybe not as painful as the Texas Rangers’ last strike that never came in the 2011 World Series. Or as lingering as Todd Pletcher’s drought was before Super Saver finally won him a Kentucky Derby (G1) two years ago. But one imagines a lot of people in Japan wondering, like the Rangers and a pre-2010 Pletcher, “What do we have to do?”

None of the Japanese horses was a chump. Each was a racing millionaire – or a dozen times that. At the current rate of exchange Deep Impact was good for nearly $12 million. Orfèvre just passed that Sunday with his $1.2 million share for beating all but one of the other 17 horses.

Part of the list of the horses Orfèvre beat without winning: Godolphin’s lone entry Masterstroke (third), race favorite and 3-year-old British classic winner and star Camelot (seventh), last year’s runner-up Shareta (ninth), defending Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) winner St Nicholas Abbey (11th) and 3-year-old Prix du Jockey Club (Fr-G1) (French Derby) winner Saônois (15th).

So don’t blame the quality of the horse. And this time don’t blame a Japanese jockey who does not know his way around Longchamp. Soumillon, from Belgium, was supposed to be the solution, having been there and done that with two Arc victories in the past decade.

“Christophe Soumillon rode him perfectly,” trainer Yasutoshi Ikee said. “Orfèvre performed brilliantly but sadly had nothing left to give at the end.”

Want to blame luck? Go for it. If Orfèvre had not drawn the outside starting gate, and if the track had not been rated so slow, who knows?

A year ago when Danedream won, it felt like summer, the track was said to be as hard as a billiard table and the race was run and won 13 seconds – or 65 lengths – faster. Sunday was pleasantly crisp and all, but descriptions of how the course belied that were turning into an industry all their own. The terminology handed out in French said “collant.” Punch that into the Google translator, and words like “sticky” and “tacky” show up.

A sunny Sunday was preceded by a Saturday that had a half-inch of rain. That’s on top of what fell on the track Friday. And Thursday. And Wednesday. And you get the idea.

It’s too bad, too. Because any of the 52,000 who showed up just Sunday not knowing what the weather was beforehand would have been forgiven if they had busted out a college-football tailgate and looked forward to some open-field running.

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Arriving early at Longchamp meant coming in as joggers passed the track on the trails through the Bois de Boulogne – the huge park where the course is situated. Imagine Belmont Park being dropped into Central Park. Or Golden Gate Fields into Golden Gate Park. But the joggers were on pavement, not on the 1½ miles of Longchamp that the Arc runners had to navigate.

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But it was still a festive enough day. It was not quite Kentucky Derby-style, complete with spring colors and flesh just waiting to be tanned. This was more often a case where black was the new black. If anything was a common denominator to every other red-letter, dress-up day at the track, it was the hats. There were more than a few to catch the eye – or even strike it directly if one were not careful.

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With flowers and trees more strategically placed than planted, Longchamp offers plenty to distract the eye from its aging grandstand, which is now due to be replaced after the 2014 Arc. (It was once due to be replaced after this one.)

One race won’t miss the new grandstand. The five-furlong Prix de l’Abbaye (Fr-G1) sprint is run on a straightaway near the backstretch about a fifth of a mile away. That’s no exaggeration. It is more than 1,000 feet from the nearest seat to that side of the course. Lacking a ride on an actual horse in the race, the best way to watch it is the less than satisfying television feed from cameras as far away from the horses as the nearest fan.

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You want quirky? This place offers it with a pub called “Le Pub,” on-course shops that sell politically incorrect furs and tote boards that are priceless. Seriously, there are plenty of TV monitors that show the odds before the race. But if you want to know what your horse paid, go cash the ticket. Want to know what it would have paid if it had not lost? Bet on a winner next time.

Quirky does not begin to explain a lot of the race results Sunday. Not with the course conditions the way they were. Connections for the victors in the Breeders’ Cup win-and-you’re-in races – Gordon Lord Byron in the Prix de la Forêt (Fr-G1) (Breeders’ Cup Mile [G1]), Olympic Glory in the Prix Jean-Luc Lagardère (Fr-G1) (Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf [G1]) and Ridasiyna in the Prix de l’Opéra  (Fr-G1) (Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf [G1]) – sounded polite but unexcited by the prospect of going to Santa Anita Park next month for races highly unlikely to be contested on squishy, tacky, “collant” turf. And John Gosden, trainer of already-qualified Izzi Top gave a definite no when asked about bringing the upset loser of the Prix de l’Opéra to California.

In a way, maybe this was just one of those weird days that was simply not emblematic of what normally goes on around here – except, of course, for the Japan jinx. On a drier day, maybe Solemia does not even challenge for an Arc victory. And maybe Peslier goes a 14th consecutive year without tying the riding record.

As strange as this day was, though, it would not be a surprise to hear someone left the Louvre saying they replaced the “Mona Lisa” with “Dogs Playing Poker.”

FASHION RAN THE GAMUT AT LONGCHAMP

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