This afternoon, a five-year-old mare called Treve may make history. I wanted to write about her, so last night I went back and looked at my cherished recordings of Channel Four Racing. There were a lot of details I had forgotten. I’ve included them all. It is what the newspapers call A Long Read. I love Treve so much I could have made it twice as long. Words are hardly enough to do her justice.
This is her story:
When great horses come along and stamp their authority on the turf, there can seem to be an inevitability about them. Of course today the racing world is holding its breath, waiting for Treve to win her third Arc, because she’s Treve. Longchamp is her place; the Arc is her race.
In fact, even in her first shot at it, when she bounded into the race unbeaten, she was not the headline act. The name that few people remember except for some doleful Japanese is Orfevre. In 2013, the great beast from the east, a massive slab of a horse, all muscle and temperament and imperious shakes of the head, was the firm favourite. He was out for vengeance, having finished an unlucky second the year before. A nation expected, and thousands of Japanese fans (not too strong a word; the horse was almost worshipped) thronged into the Bois de Boulogne, waving their flags in hope. They beamed at the camera, as if they were convinced that it would be a coronation. Revenge would be theirs and the natural order of things would be put right. Treve, who had danced to victory in her first three starts, was the second favourite, but she was almost cast her into the shade.
Criquette Head had not won the race since 1979. ‘I think we’ve got a special filly,’ she said. ‘She’s got a tremendous turn of foot. We’ll try; we’ve got a chance,’ she said, shrugging her shoulders, as if acknowledging the mighty mountain that was Orfevre, the one they all had to climb. ‘We keep our fingers crossed.’
In the paddock, Treve looked very elegant and very composed, pricking her ears at the crowd, but all the cameras were focused on Christophe Soumillon, the jockey of the Japanese horse. He had refused to talk to the press at all before the race, even Clare Balding could not get a word with him. Treve’s rider, Thierry Jarnet, who looks like a horseman not a rock star, went quietly unnoticed. The Ballydoyle team, intense and concentrated, sent out Ruler of the World, the Epsom Derby winner. Roger Charlton hoped that his beloved Al Kazeem could overcome the graveyard draw, on the wide outside. There was strength and depth in the race; it was one of the great Arcs.
Out on the course, Orfevre looked like a stallion at stud rather than a racing colt. He was so vast and muscled and on his toes, his neck crested with power, his quarters almost terrifying. Treve is not a particularly small horse, but she looked like a diminutive ballerina faced with a prize-fighter. She started to get a bit revved up in the parade, held firmly by her lass and her devoted travelling head lad, a small smiling gentleman known as Le Capitaine. Al Kazeem, composed and handsome, seemed as if he was just going for a nice French holiday.
The Japanese smiled their heads off and waved their flags.
At the start, Treve was sweating. She was star-gazing, stretching her neck in the air. Jarnet was imperturbable.
The loading process at Longchamp takes ages. It was a big field, and the occasion had got to one or two. ‘I’d be a little bit concerned for Treve backers,’ said Mick Fitz. ‘She’s getting awfully warm down there.’
And: they were off.
Treve, near the back, was pulling, head still in the air, getting a bump, shunted to the outside, her stride a little scratching. And then, she started to do something almost physically impossible. She started to bounce and accelerate at the same time. She still had not really dropped down, but she was going faster, passing ten horses in a matter of seconds. Into the straight, and she had daylight, a lovely clear run up that famous stretch of turf. Ah, she seemed to say, now you’re talking. Let’s go.
She stretched, she skipped, she galloped, winding herself up so that the further she ran the faster she went. Three, four, five furlongs ahead of the rest. The mighty creature that was Orfevre was left labouring in her wake, as if wallowing in the choppy waters she left behind her. He had no answer to the filly. Nobody had any answers.
‘Treve is tremendous,’ shouted Simon Holt, as she flashed past the line, Jarnet crouched low over her neck, keeping her going with hands and heels.
‘This is one of the best performances I’ve ever seen in the Arc,’ said Johnny Murtagh. ‘These are top class horses and she put them to the sword.’
‘She’s hammered them,’ said Clare Balding, in disbelief.
The field was strung out behind her like fairy lights.
The stands rose to her. ‘Even some Japanese flags being waved as well,’ said Nick Luck, in good old British sporting approval. Treve pricked her ears and danced for her fans. Le Capitaine snatched a handful of Longchamp grass and kissed it. He hugged Jarnet so hard the jockey nearly fell off. Criquette Head was smiling a smile so intense that she lit up the racecourse. (I noticed she was toting an absolutely vast handbag. I wondered whether it was filled with carrots for her blinding filly. Treve loves a carrot.) The paddock was such a cauldron of joy that huge bouncers had to accompany Jarnet back to the weighing room, as if he were trying to get into a chi-chi nightclub.
‘We bred her, it’s like part of the family, she’s a sister to me,’ said Head. ‘I was going to retire, but now I’m not retiring.’
Nobody was retiring. It was the start of something special.
The next year, everyone expected Treve to establish herself as the empress of all she surveyed. She was continually sent off at odds-on; she continually lost. On one astonishing occasion, she was beaten by a 22-1 outsider. At the Royal Meeting at Ascot she never looked happy and bombed out in devastating fashion, finding nothing. In the stands, Le Capitaine clutched his head in anguish. She had niggles: it was her back, it was her feet. She was not right. All that dazzling athleticism had gone, leaving a good but ultimately ordinary horse. There were mutterings. Perhaps Criquette Head should give up; perhaps her beautiful queen would never be the same and should abdicate her crown.
The Heads do not give up. They are the great French racing dynasty. Treve had known nobody else in her life: they bred her, nurtured her, trained her, loved her. Criquette Head, dauntlessly cheerful, worked quietly behind the scenes, drawing on all her skill and experience, and sent her girl back to Longchamp as an outsider. No more odds-on for this one; she was now the maybe horse, tilting at windmills.
‘She has not been the same filly this year,’ said Clare Balding, sadly.
‘A shadow of her former self, ‘ said Mick Fitz. ‘She hasn’t moved the same, it all looks laboured for her.’
Channel Four showed a melancholy film of her sorrowful season, shot in moody black and white. At the end, words appeared on the screen, superimposed over a picture of her dear head, looking thoughtfully out of her stable door. ‘Rien dans la vie est noir ou blanc.’ Treve’s vie was all shades of grey, now.
The Japanese, undaunted, were back, with three runners. The talented Ruler of the World was back. Amazingly, the glorious campaigner that is Al Kazeem was back, having shot blanks at stud and gone back into training. Avenir Certain arrived unbeaten, with two classics under his belt. Kingston Hill was there, the sweet-natured grey, fresh from his Leger triumph. The newest glittering girl on the block was the fleet Taghrooda. There was no nailed-on favourite; everyone said it was one of the most open Arcs for years.
Jim McGrath, that canny old expert, looked hard at the Japanese challengers. As he talked, the horses were walking round quietly in the pre-parade ring, away from the crowds. All the runners had just one handler with them, but Treve had two, her faithful lass and the devoted Capitaine on the other side. He was so small (I wondered if he were an ex-jockey, or started out as a work rider) that he had to trot to keep up with her. He ran his hand down her neck, over and over again, stroking her, loving her. She nodded her head, as if in acknowledgment or approval. She is a neat, pretty filly, perfectly proportioned, but when you see her like this, relaxed and responsive, she is not a wild beauty. You would not pick her out of the paddock, not now. For Le Capitaine, she is the pick of everything.
All the Channel Four pundits were building up a head of steam for the team from Japan. The Japanese have loved the Arc for so many years, wanted it so badly for so long, turned up in their thousands, enchanted everyone with their enthusiasm and their sportsmanship. In British racing, we are used to the familiar Irish faces, the Australian raiders, the German stars, the brilliant Wesley Ward who brings his battalions all the way from America. Japan, oddly, does not feature. Japan goes to France, waving its flags and banners. They don’t want the Derby or the Eclipse or the King George. They want the Arc.
The odds began to shift. Taghrooda hardened as favourite at five to one. Treve was eleven to one. She had only started once in her life at eleven to one, in her second race. The days of odds-on were far behind her, in some dreamy past. There was a faint sense that even that eleven to one was sentimental money. There was a drifting, unspoken idea that she was running for nostalgia, that her trainer was listening to her heart, not her head. Head had told one newspaper that she thought the owner was letting her run the filly ‘so as not to disappoint me’. The feet had been fixed, but the question of the back was still a very Gallic, quizzical, shrugging ‘huh-mm’. Nobody quite knew whether Treve would be at her proper, physical best.
Interestingly, the French were keeping faith. She was eleven to one in the British betting, but three point seven on the Parimutuel. (The Parimutuel is like the Tote; no human makes a book, the odds are simply reflected by the number of people backing any particular horse.)
The press, in this fascinating race with no single story in it, suddenly decided that the fairy tale was their headline. All the cameras and microphones which last year were pointed towards Soumillon and Orfevre were now clustering like hornets round Head and Jarnet. Frankie Dettori, in a sporting gesture, gave Criquette Head a big kiss and his trademark blinding smile. Ryan Moore, who famously lets his riding do the talking and is gloriously taciturn with the press, was charmingly captured chatting and laughing to one of the Japanese jockeys, gesturing expansively. There was no headline act, no one talking horse. As the parade started and the beauties came out onto the track, nobody knew what was going to happen.
Treve stalked in front of the stands with her head bowed, her Capitaine by her side, as collected as a dressage pony. ‘It really is a privilege to be here,’ said Mick Fitz.
Down at the start, Treve had her customary little sweat on. None of the pundits were talking about her, unlike last year. She gently heated up without the spotlight on her, and went early into the stalls, her ears discreetly pricked. The loading went on, as slow as ever, the jockeys chatting and joking to each other as they waited in the gate. Channel Four showed another shot of the Japanese, waving their flags.
Anything could happen. Nobody knew. The pundits, cleverly, made no predictions. The crowd roared, the gates snapped open, the vast field of twenty charged away.
Anything could happen.
Treve won at a flat out gallop, scorching away from the field like a shooting star. She hugged the rail so tightly she must have seared the paintwork, and when Thierry Jarnet said go she put on her sprinting shoes and left them flailing in her wake.
Simon Holt, one of the best callers of any race, practically fell out of the commentary box. ‘Well, would you believe it?’ he cried, his voice rising. ‘Treve, after a troubled season, has won her second Arc. She’s had brittle feet, she’s had training problems, she’s been off colour, she flopped at Royal Ascot and she’s won again.’
Jarnet punched the air and ran his forefinger down the filly’s mane.
Simon Holt was writing a sonnet, unable to stop. ‘What a training performance, has there ever been a better training performance, because this filly has been out of sorts all season.’
‘That,’ said Clare Balding, ‘is absolutely extraordinary.’
Treve, who did not want to pull up, found herself back by the stalls, leaping and dancing, as if she wanted to go back in and start all over again, just to show them all over again.
The Capitaine ran out onto the course, his hand on his heart, as if he feared the poor old ticker might just fly out of his chest, or stop, or seize up. An enormous security guard, another of those nightclub bouncer types that they don’t have on British racecourses, came running up beside and wrapped his arm around the diminutive Frenchman and they walked on smiling together.
Thierry Jarnet, the hardened veteran of the weighing room at the age of forty-seven, burst into tears on national television. He put his hand up to his face, to hide the emotion, utterly overcome, as his fighting filly cavorted underneath him.
Jarnet, a complete gentleman and a great horseman, probably the most popular man in the French weighing room, had ridden Treve in her early races, and then given his place to Frankie Dettori when she changed owners. Detorri was injured before that first Arc so Jarnet took the ride, but he was off again in the next season, until Criquette Head put her foot down and said Jarnet and the filly belonged together. He had educated her as a two-year-old and in her early three-year-old campaign, and he knew her better than anyone. This was quite a brave decision as Dettori was a marquee act as well as a brilliant jockey, but Head’s astute judgement was rewarded.
The tears were perhaps for that, for that show of loyalty. Perhaps they were because of his love for the filly, for his pride that she proved all the doubters wrong. Perhaps they were because, after a burst of wild success when he was a younger man, he had slogged through some blank years, and now, way beyond the age when most sports people have retired, he had won the most valuable race in Europe for the second time.
‘Just bring me a large plate,’ said Mick Fitz, delight in his voice, ‘because I am going to eat humble pie. This is one of the greatest training performances of the modern era.’
‘Criquette Head would not give up,’ said Clare Balding.
The trainer, who would not give up with her battling girl, is not only a member of the most storied family in French racing, but the only woman who has ever won the Arc. She has won the Arc once, twice, three times. She had now won it with a horse that pretty much anyone else would have given up on. Criquette Head is an extraordinary woman, yet, if you saw her in the street, you would think that she was absolutely ordinary. She is affable, smiling, chatty. ‘She talks to everyone,’ Clare Balding said, in awe, obviously having had trouble in the past with getting recalcitrant connections to speak on camera.
Head never dresses up for the races, walking about in a sensible coat with a sensible bag. She is philosophical, and insists that she does not suffer from nerves. She has an enchanting, self-deprecating laugh. She is quizzical, and thoughtful. She loves her horses, knows her horses, and, as the decision to run Treve in this stellar race shows, goes into battle for her horses. She never gives up.
Dear old racing is still, largely, a man’s game. There are brilliant women, in the saddle, in the training stables, behind the scenes, but they are in a minority. To win the Arc is a career-defining achievement. Some of the best trainers in the world have not managed it. To win it as a woman is a whole other ball of wax. It is fitting that Criquette Head writes her name in the history books with a filly; two grand girls together.
‘Hats off to this team,’ said Mick Fitz, his voice filled with emotion.
Thierry Jarnet, his tears forgotten, lifted both arms to the sky, looked at the packed crowd, pointed at his filly. The stands exploded; the crowd went wild. The Queen was back in her castle. She shook her head at the roiling noise, almost crossly, as if to say: you should have kept the faith.
In the hysterical volcano that was the paddock, Harry Herbert, racing manager to Sheikh Joaan Al Thani, was asked by Clare Balding: ‘Can you believe that?’
He smiled, like small boy who has just come downstairs to find a pony under the Christmas tree. ‘No, no. If we’d all listened to Criquette all the way along, yes, you’d believe it. She’s never lost faith in this filly. And this week, she rang me up and she said I’ve just seen a piece of work and this filly is back.’
More smiling. ‘She rang the Sheikh and I rang the Sheikh.’
‘Will she be retired?’
‘She’ll be retired now for sure. It’s off to stud and decide on the lucky husband.’
As this interview was going on, there were shots of jubilee running over it: Jarnet in the weighing room, drenched in champagne, kissed by his valet and his fellow jockeys. As the marvel of the occasion sank in, there was a poignant tinge to it all. This was goodbye to Treve. She had come roaring back from the wilderness, she had silenced all her critics, she had proved the woman who loved her most was right. As Harry Herbert said, so happily, she had nothing left to prove. But that meant the glory was gone; we would see her no more. She would go to stud and pass on her brilliance to her babies. Those who loved her would have to wait three years to see the little Treves.
Then, away from the crowds and the cameras and the press, the Heads and the Sheikh had a meeting. Papa, the patriarch, said that the really good fillies got better as they got older. The Sheikh listened and decided. Treve would run at five, a mare now, strong, assured, all grown-up. ‘She’s very good-natured, and she likes people, she likes being surrounded by people,’ said her devoted trainer. All the little twitches and glitches seemed to be a thing of the past. Nobody talked about the brittle hooves any more, or the back. Treve was the complete article.
She came out in 2015 and swept all before her. In the Prix Vermeille, her prep race for the Arc, she fought for her head in the early stages, having an interesting conversation with Thierry Jarnet. I imagined it like this:
Treve: ‘Can I go now?’
Jarnet: ‘Not yet, my darling.’
Treve: ‘But I want to go faster.’
Jarnet: ‘Just wait until we are round the bend.’
Treve: ‘But I am a lion against donkeys. And I want to run.’
Jarnet: ‘Oh, all right.’
Treve: ‘Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.’
And she was gone. Soaring into her own private twilight, into that other place where the great ones live, into a little world of her own.
She won that race, against good horses, by stretching lengths, on the bridle. Papa Head is right. The good fillies do get better. They grow into mighty mares. A great thoroughbred mare is perhaps greater than any creature I know: more brave, more beautiful, more fascinating, more moving.
And now, that mighty mare takes her tilt at history.
No horse has won three Arcs. She’s got the usual battalions against her: the Group horses, the Derby winners, the fast improvers. The ground is not in her favour. It’s lovely weather in the Bois, and Treve prefers a little give. She does not like to hear her hooves rattle. Longchamp is always a cavalry charge, and she might get shut in, bumped and bored. The gaps might not come for her.
Golden Horn, who is on ratings the best horse in the world, might do for her, despite his fatal draw on the wide outside. (Ironically, he has Frankie Dettori in the saddle, the man who was jocked off Treve, and Frankie is on a roll, having a new dawn of his very own.) The stellar New Bay has the world at his feet, and may still be getting better. An iron may go, as it did for Olivier Peslier yesterday, so that he had to sit like a trick rider for four furlongs, his whip between his teeth, readjusting his tack in the middle of fast-run race. She might get boxed in, take a false step, clip heels. She might, bathetically, have an off day, as all thoroughbreds sometimes do. That is part of their mystery.
Nobody knows what may happen.
But if Treve could soar into her own new, blue horizon, if she could defy the statistics, laugh at the fast going, write those books anew, oh, oh, oh, I should shout and cheer and cry.
It seems inevitable, that Treve is here, on the cusp of history. It seems inevitable that all those who love her are here; the ones who watch her from a distance, in awe and wonder, the ones who know her well and work with her every day. This is her place; this is her race. But none of it was inevitable at all.
I can’t put up a picture of Treve, because of copyright, about which I am very strict. Here instead is my very own queen of hearts, too slow to be a champion racehorse, only the champion of my heart. This was taken this morning, as I thought and dreamed about the Arc.