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So You Think

One thing we do know about So You Think is that, whatever razzamatazz the French manage to concoct in the lead up to this afternoon’s Qatar Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, however dense the noise they succeed in drumming up, however exuberant the crowd is, however enthusiastic, it will be nothing compared to the cacophony that the son of High Chaparral faced when he lined up as 2/1 favourite for the Melbourne Cup at Flemington exactly 11 months ago today.

It is this background from whence So You Think has come. New Zealand-born he may be, but he spent the first dozen races of his life on Australian soil, and it was the Australian crowds that he wooed. Okay, so he didn’t win that Melbourne Cup, but in a way it didn’t really matter. It was his third Group 1 race in 10 days and there was always a chance that the two-mile trip would stretch his stamina beyond its limit. And he had already achieved superstar status by winning six Group 1 races, including the Cox Plate, the Arc de Triomphe of Australia, twice.

If the ball had bounced straight on instead of a little to the side, he would probably be on track in a bid to become the first horse to complete a hat-trick of wins in the Cox Plate since the legendary Kingston Town (1980-82). And even with his transfer from Bart Cummings’s yard to Aidan O’Brien’s, even after he traversed the equator and made Ireland his new home, there was still talk of going back to Moonee Valley for a hat-trick bid at the end of this month. In the end, the co-ordinates set to today: Paris, Arc de Triomphe.

In truth, there were myriad alternatives. The Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot in two weeks was an option, the Champion Stakes on the same day was an option. But you can understand why So You Think is in Paris today. Europe was always favoured. Of course, there was the Kingston Town windmill at which to tilt in the Cox Plate, the legendary status that could have been achieved, but it wouldn’t have been easy, travelling back half way around the globe. Also, there was little to be gained in terms of commercial value as a stallion by going back to Australia. His position in the minds of Australian breeders is already assured.

The QE2 would have been difficult, dropping back down to a mile and taking on Frankel at his specialist distance, and not much more would be proven if he won the Champion Stakes, given that So You Think is already a triple Group 1 winner over 10 furlongs in Europe. Both of those races are in two weeks’ time, and both are still options, depending on how today goes, but today is the day.

There is much to be gained by winning an Arc. Not only is the Arc the premier all-aged championship race on the European racing calendar, it is also run over a mile and a half, and So You Think has never won over a mile and a half.

There has been much debate this week surrounding the Ballydoyle colt’s stamina for today’s task, simply because the only time he has been tried at a distance in excess of 10 and a half furlongs, he has come up short. That said, that was over two miles, and, on breeding, it would surprising if he didn’t stay today’s trip. He is by a Derby winner out of a mare who won a Group 2 race over 10 furlongs, and he seems to be settling better in his races now than he did when we first saw him at The Curragh in May, which gives him every chance of staying.

When he beat Workforce in the Eclipse at Sandown in July, albeit over 10 furlongs, he seemed to out-gallop him rather than out-speed him. Also, he looks like he is built for stamina – in truth, he looks like he would get three and a quarter miles on easy ground – and you suspect that, if he does come up short today, it will not be because of a lack of stamina.

So You Think is not a project without precedent. It is not the first time that Coolmore have taken what works in Australia and tried to make it work in Europe. Invariably, with the assistance of the wizardry of Aidan O’Brien, it has. Haradasun was a dual Group 1 winner in Australia before O’Brien trained him to win the Queen Anne Stakes at Royal Ascot in 2008, and he now stands at Coolmore Australia. Starspangledbanner was also a dual Group 1 winner Down Under before he joined Team Ballydoyle and won the Golden Jubilee and the July Cup last year. He now flits between Australia and Ireland as a stallion – $44,000 in New South Wales, €15,000 in Fethard – and the entire assignment has been rendered a complete success.

Project So You Think is shaping up that way as well. While it is difficult for any flat racehorse to achieve the superstar status up here as that in which So You Think basked Down Under, he did arrive with a tall reputation and much ruaille buaille, and he has lived up to it thus far. Okay, so he didn’t beat Snow Fairy in the Irish Champion Stakes as easily as the critics would have liked, but he never really looked in danger of defeat. He has now won four of the five races that he has contested in Derrick Smith’s colours, three Group 1s.

Interestingly, when he was beaten, by just a neck by the subsequently ill-fated Rewilding in the Prince of Wales’s Stakes at Royal Ascot, O’Brien put his hands up directly afterwards and said that it was his fault, that he had left him slightly short.

“I’d put it down to trainer error,” O’Brien said after the race. “All I can do is apologise to everybody, and hopefully I won’t make the same mistake again.”

It was a brave move. In so doing, not only was the trainer endeavouring to shoulder the blame for the horse’s defeat, but he was heaping pressure on the horse’s next run. That next run was in the Eclipse, where So You Think picked up last year’s Derby winner Workforce inside the final furlong, and went on to beat him by half a length.

There will be pressure this afternoon as well for sure, and So You Think has the age stat (14 of the last 17 winners of the Arc were three-year-olds) and a wide draw to overcome but, on form, he deserves his place towards the head of the market.

Given that there was no Irish-trained winner of the Arc between 1978 and 2000, it is remarkable that So You Think is bidding to become the third Irish-trained winner of the race in five years. He may be New Zealand-bred and Australian-raced, but this afternoon, he races for Ireland.

© The Sunday Times, 2nd October 2011