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The Greatest Race Ever... Dancing Brave's Arc

In a sun-kissed garden, the drooping branches of a weeping willow move ever so gently in the warm breeze, while a lawn tennis court stands empty but inviting. Inside a house that dates back to 1860, a man looking forward to a lunchtime round of golf calls his wife "darling" and sits by a table on which a plate of buttery shortbread biscuits provides a tempting morning treat.

The scene could scarcely be more British. It also provides the most perfect setting from which to savour stories of a fabled sporting afternoon in Paris.

That October Sunday remains so celebrated and cherished that Dancing Brave's astounding triumph in the 1986 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe topped the poll in a Racing Post reader vote to determine what you consider to be the greatest horserace ever run.

There was stiff competition to Khalid Abdullah's superstar in our democratic exercise, yet he had faced similarly tough opposition at Longchamp. It is difficult to believe many deeper fields have ever been assembled for Europe's supreme Flat race. What Dancing Brave did to the creme de la creme in the space of just a few exhilarating seconds remains one of the sport's defining moments.

Pat Eddery was riding, Guy Harwood was watching. On that occasion it was from a snug position in Longchamp's grandstand, where Khalid Abdullah and the owner's then racing manager Grant Pritchard-Gordon shared a small viewing box with the man who partly dipped out of the family motoring business to become a hugely respected racehorse trainer. Now, Harwood is about to watch the race again, but this time on television at his home in Coldwaltham, less than three miles from the Pulborough yard where he masterminded the career of Dancing Brave.

Aided by innovative thinking that shook up the status quo, he trained numerous other titans of the turf. Those comfortingly familiar thoroughbreds are brought back to life on the walls of a home Harwood shares with wife Jan, but it is Dancing Brave who inevitably takes centre stage. In the couple's sitting room is a painting that depicts the son of Lyphard passing the Arc's winning post in front. A few feet away he is depicted in Newmarket's paddock under Harwood's long-serving stable jockey Greville Starkey. Looking on in admiration are Harwood, Abdullah and Pritchard-Gordon, while in the background stands the pre-knighted Michael Stoute, whose Shahrastani had such a memorable rivalry with the Brave.

"That picture has no financial value but it means the world to me," says the now 83-year-old Harwood, still chairman of a business that employs over 900 people and still delighted to talk about his finest work.

"I agree that Arc was probably the greatest race ever run, certainly in Europe," says Harwood. "All the connections of all those Group 1 winners didn't just hope they were going to win, they thought they were going to win. It was a race of champions."

It was also the third and final showdown between Dancing Brave and Shahrastani. Victories in the King George and Arc gave the most famous parrot-mouthed horse in history a two-one verdict. However, what happened on the first Wednesday in June, when Shahrastani and an inspired Walter Swinburn held off the fast-finishing Dancing Brave, ensured the runner-up – successful in the 2,000 Guineas and Eclipse either side of Epsom – is remembered not just for his iconic wins but also his agonising Derby defeat.

Surprisingly, then, there is a photograph of Shahrastani beating Dancing Brave at the foot of the vanquished trainer's staircase.

"You can't ignore it," says Harwood. "That's what happened. It should have been my Derby day. There's no doubt he should have won. I was devastated, of course I was. It was a travesty of justice."

For Starkey, who set his mount what proved to be an insurmountable task, it was cruelly the race with which he was then forever most associated. From that day until his death, he avoided talking about it in public.

"Greville had quickly established Dancing Brave wanted holding up in his races because he had that great burst of speed, as he showed in the Arc," says Harwood. "The problem at Epsom was the pace was slowed between the seventh and eighth furlongs. The whole field concertinaed, so when they quickened he ended up the last to get going and with a lot of ground to make up.

"I actually think if Greville had believed he could have got there he would have done. I think he spared the horse in the closing stages of the Derby. How do I know, though?

"If the Derby had been run at a true pace all the way, he would have won comfortably. It was just an unfortunate incident – and I never ever publicly recriminated Greville for his ride at Epsom."

Starkey enjoyed some consolation at Sandown and only forfeited the coveted seat at Ascot due to injury. He was once again in the saddle when Dancing Brave recorded a ten-length Goodwood win 23 days prior to the Arc, but come the biggest day of all he was one of those annihilated by his old friend.

Look at the race replay and you see Starkey glancing to his left from the back of Shardari as the irresistible winner sweeps by at ridiculous speed. In a carrot to tempt Eddery into accepting an offer to become Abdullah's retained jockey from the following year, Dancing Brave's King George-winning jockey was asked to renew the partnership in the Arc. It was an invitation he could not and did not refuse.

"Greville was a great stable jockey and I was very lucky to have him," says Harwood, whose loyalty to Starkey continues to be fierce. "He was a fantastic judge, whereas a lot of jockeys couldn't tell you if it was Christmas or Easter.

"When Pat was appointed as Abdullah's retained jockey, I had 30 or 40 of the prince's horses. From my point of view, and from the overall point of view of Greville riding for me, that was a bad day. It didn't help Greville's confidence. It wasn't a good thing."

When Harwood thinks of Dancing Brave, he still associates him most with Starkey, not Eddery, yet in the days leading up to the 1986 Arc his primary concern was the weather. Significant rain was forecast in Paris. Had it arrived in quantities sufficient to cause deep ground, he would have feared for the chances of an animal blessed with a blistering turn of foot.

The rain never came, leaving the Longchamp track officially firm. Conditions were much bleaker at home. On the morning of Sunday, October 5, Harwood and Pritchard-Gordon had been due to take a small plane from Shoreham to Paris. An unexpected heavy sea mist made that impossible. The pair commenced a mad dash to Southampton, managed to catch a flight and then prepared to win the calendar's most prestigious Flat race.

And what a race it was. Up against Dancing Brave – sent off red-hot Pari Mutuel favourite thanks to the unwavering support of thousands of British on-course fans – was an array of equine brilliance. Shahrastani lined up as one of four runners for the Aga Khan, whose contingent also featured York's International winner Shardari and runaway Prix Vermeille heroine Darara. Acatenango and Sirius Symboli were heavyweights from Germany and Japan, while Triptych was well on her way to becoming one of the modern era's most outstanding mares. She was not, however, France's chief hope. That, undoubtedly, was Alec Head's sublime Prix du Jockey Club victor Bering.

"It was a race of exceptional quality," says Harwood. "Alec was absolutely certain his horse could not possibly get beat, but, like him, I was super confident of winning. I had never been more confident on the day of a race that I had a horse at his best. He was in perfect condition, absolutely at his peak."

The omens could not have been more positive. Pritchard-Gordon had never known a trainer so bullish. That trainer, however, was soon to suffer an unpleasant flashback to Derby day.

"On arrival at the racecourse, we went straight into the weighing room to see Pat," recalls Abdullah's then principal lieutenant.

"Guy asked just one question: 'How are you going to ride him, Pat?' The response was obviously not as expected. 'I will be the last to challenge,' said Pat. I vividly remember Guy's face fading to a whiter shade of pale before he turned on his heel and strode out without any further comment.

Even now, it looks like a ride of remarkable daring.

"Darling, it's extraordinary," Harwood shouts to his wife as the Racing Post's Sam Hart presses a few buttons on a remote control. "He's just pulled up Dancing Brave's Arc on YouTube!"

We then watch the race twice from start to finish. At the first viewing, Harwood points out how much ground Dancing Brave had to make up on turning for home. He shakes his head, almost in disbelief, when the colt sprints past his rivals in the middle of the track, making a move partially missed by those watching on Channel 4 due to a less than exemplary effort from a local cameraman whose attention was fixed on runner-up Bering.

"I could see the Derby happening all over again," admits Harwood.

"I was watching from the grandstand, although my hand was probably shaking too much to see what was going on. Suddenly he appeared – and when he did I definitely gave him a shout. I suppose when he stormed into the lead I felt relief more than anything. I was wound up. I wouldn't have liked it to have gone wrong for a second time.

"The performance was mind-blowing. Pat never moved on him until a furlong and a half out. There's also no doubt it was a fine piece of riding by Pat, especially given the quality of that race. He knew to wait, he knew what the horse could do and he had enormous confidence in the horse."

Pritchard-Gordon has vivid recollections of those magical moments in the loge with his boss and Harwood. He had also been standing next to Abdullah in Longchamp's paddock 12 months earlier when the announcement was made that the owner's Rainbow Quest had been awarded the 1985 Arc at the expense of France's Sagace. Longchamp's French customers did not respond to the news particularly well, mirroring the mood of Sagace's characteristically less than gracious owner Daniel Wildenstein. "They can throw the stands at me, but I will keep smiling," said Abdullah to his racing manager. Twelve months later, he was a winner in less controversial but no less sensational circumstances.

Dancing Brave and Pat Eddery surge past Gary Moore on Bering (no 14) to win the 1986 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe Gerry Cranham

The tiny Longchamp boxes had room for only three people at the front and three more behind. Luxurious they were not.

"It was a bit like packing sardines into a tin," says Pritchard-Gordon. "I sat in between Prince Khalid and Guy as we all followed the race closely through our binoculars.

"Entering the false straight, Guy started getting agitated. As the field approached the final straight, his mutterings became very much more distinct. 'What the f**ck are you doing, Pat?' was audible to me. Prince Khalid asked me: 'What is Guy saying?' Fortunately the crescendo of noise from some unbelievable partisan shouting drowned out the need to reply."

Ah, yes, the shouting. After the Arc was won, Flat racing's version of the Barmy Army continued to show enthusiastic vocal appreciation. There was cheering, roaring and applauding. Some alcohol may have been taken.

"It seemed as if the paddock at Longchamp was an entirely English crowd," says Pritchard-Gordon. "The reception was phenomenal. Memories of the different atmosphere a year earlier were soon forgotten.

"Prince Khalid remained quiet as usual, but the broadest of smiles on his face said it all. He always stated that he wanted his horses to do the talking, saying: 'I'm just a guest in these countries and it is not for me to make a comment.' As ever, Prince Khalid nailed it."

Then and thereafter, Harwood has been much happier to comment. The sound on his television is currently muted but he has fond recollections of the soundtrack to that autumn afternoon.

"There was terrific support for him from the English racegoers at Longchamp," he says. "By then he had already proved himself to be a champion. They wanted to see their horse win. I think every English person who went to Longchamp that day went there to see Dancing Brave win."

They were very likely more animated than the winning trainer. "I'm not emotional," he explains, describing himself as "a fairly cold fish". He is also not wrapped up in himself and stresses the important work done by others, not least James Delahooke, who with considerable inspiration bought Dancing Brave as a yearling for $200,000. "He was a very important part of my success and a very important part of Dancing Brave's story," says Harwood, who also concedes opting for one last run in the Breeders' Cup Turf – it resulted in a deflating fourth place – was an error.

"We thought we could walk on water but when we got to America I could never rehydrate him," he says. "I should probably have withdrawn him – and Khalid wouldn't have stopped me. With hindsight, it was a mistake to go there."

It is testament to what Dancing Brave did in Paris that many people have forgotten about America. They also say little about his time as a stallion, which began at Dalham Hall – Abdullah sold a 50 cent interest to Sheikh Mohammed after the Derby – before a transfer to Japan, at which point, ironically, his European progeny began to excel in Europe. He even became a belated Derby winner, courtesy of his Abdullah-owned son Commander In Chief. Sadly, all too soon and still in exile, he died of a heart attack at his Japanese stud in 1999, by which time Harwood was already a former racehorse trainer having handed over to his daughter, Amanda Perrett, three years earlier.

The retired trainer but active businessman now has to get ready for 18 holes. He has been reminded of a day in Paris that none who witnessed – either in person or on television – will ever forget. He can head off to the first tee knowing he is associated with the winner of what racing fans have deemed to be the greatest ever race.

Given Dancing Brave's Arc triumph led to him being awarded an International Classifications rating of 141, 1lb more than the official marks given to Frankel, Shergar and Alleged, the 1986 Arc hero is also officially the greatest horse, at least since rankings began in 1977.

No wonder, then, that as we leave Harwood tells us how much he adores those pictures of Dancing Brave that take pride of place on the wall.

"I was hugely privileged to have trained him and I still love talking about him," he says. "We had a lot of good horses but he was the best because he could do it at any trip. He could have won the July Cup had we tried him in that. He was a champion.

"I do think it's wonderful that your readers have placed his Arc above all the other races. It keeps him and me in the limelight –although he doesn't need any help. This year alone he has entered the Hall of Fame and now his Arc has been voted the greatest ever race.

"Dancing Brave is back in the news. That makes me very proud."


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