David Morgan

Chief Journalist


Japan’s top five Arc heartbreaks

A brief history of Japan's tortured relationship with one of horse racing's most coveted prizes, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.

Paris is the city of romance but for Japanese racing fans it is a place of heartbreak. Like an infatuated lover, Japan’s horsemen return time after time, earnest in their attentions to the race they covet, besotted with the belief that a breakthrough victory in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe will happen this time.   

It was in 1969 that Japan’s first Arc runner, Speed Symboli, ran home 11th behind Levmoss; Meijiro Musashi was well beaten when 18th to San San in 1972, and 1986 saw Sirius Symboli finish 14th behind Dancing Brave in one of the all-time great Arcs.

But the quest has really intensified since 1999 and has seen some of Japan’s all-time greats try and fail to win Longchamp’s great autumn feature. The five encounters below are Japan’s biggest heartbreakers ranked in order of pain. 

5. Nakayama Festa – 2010

You’d have struggled to find many suitors swiping right for Nakayama Festa. The son of Stay Gold was a 22-1 shot to hand Japan its first Arc win at Longchamp in 2010, ahead of compatriot Victoire Pisa (his time would come in Dubai the following spring) at 44-1, but Nakayama Festa’s odds were some slight on a Takarazuka Kinen winner with course form and he certainly went out and proved it. 

Masayoshi Ebina had the four-year-old in a handy spot approaching the home turn but had to snatch up for a stride as things tightened around him. When the home straight opened up ahead, Nakayama Festa kicked hard for the line, took the lead with 300 metres remaining, lost it to the year-younger English Derby winner Workforce with 150 metres to go, then rallied gamely but failed by only a head in a heart-pounding finish.

The overlooked colt gave Japanese fans about 24 thrilling seconds of tantalising belief, and their closest brush with victory, but it all ended with the usual heartbreak.

4. Orfevre – 2013

Orfevre’s second stab at the Arc (we’ll get to his first, don’t worry) was an anti-climax that left Japanese hearts sinking. The exceptional chestnut had warmed up for his shot at Longchamp redemption with a breezy, three-length success in the Prix Foy at the venue three weeks prior and lined up in the big one as the 2-1 favourite. Hopes were rising skyward.  


Orfevre and Christophe Soumillon cruise home in the 2013 Prix Foy. (Photo by Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images)

But the 2013 contest was the race that cemented Treve as Europe’s darling. The French three-year-old sprinted five lengths clear of Japan’s big hope in second, and, in a double blow to Japanese dreams, the impressive Tokyo Yushun winner Kizuna, a son and heir of the great Deep Impact, was more than seven lengths behind Treve in fourth.    

3. El Condor Pasa – 1999

This one is the root of the ongoing fixation. El Condor Pasa’s tour of Europe that year brought victories in the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud and the Prix Foy; it was part of a breakout 12 months for Japanese horses in Europe off the back of pioneering Group 1 wins for Seeking The Pearl and Taiki Shuttle the previous summer.

El Condor Pasa faced by far his stiffest European test in the Arc against, most notably, the three-year-old champion Montjeu, to whom he conceded 8lb weight-for-age. But Masayoshi Ebina was unfazed by that rival’s reputation and bounced El Condor Pasa straight to the lead in an audacious make-all assault on the prize.  

With Montjeu trapped in a pocket at the top of the home straight, Ebina kicked for home and soon had almost four lengths of daylight on his rivals. The race seemed to be his until Mick Kinane forced Montjeu into clear running and the brilliant colt’s afterburners kicked in; the French-trained galloper quickened hard in pursuit, pegged El Condor Pasa back with 50 metres to go and won by half a length.

There was heartbreak in that defeat but the disappointment was matched by pride in an epic run that goes down in Arc history as one of the finest efforts by a losing horse.   

2. Orfevre – 2012

We’ve all seen the video by now: the Japanese racing fans gathered around a TV, the excitement as Orfevre cruises up on the outside, the joy as he pulls to the lead on the bridle, the ecstasy as he takes the lead…and then the despair as he throws it all away.

Where El Condor Pasa’s defeat set a new determination to win the Arc, Orfevre’s soul-destroying first Arc loss in 2012 tipped preoccupation down the slope towards obsession. Orfevre should have won but he did not, and the emotions around such an outcome are powerful.

The headstrong chestnut – another from the ‘mad’ category – was still sparring with Christophe Soumillon for his head as the field travelled towards the home turn. When they hit the straight, Orfevre tanked up quickly to lead and was in front with a full 300 metres still to race; at that point the colt veered markedly to the inside rail and then surrendered a clear advantage as the unheralded filly Solemia charged past, straight and true, to snatch victory from Japan’s grasp.     

1. Deep Impact – 2006

Orfevre’s 2012 loss was a heartbreaker, for sure, but Deep Impact’s loss six years earlier was crushing. Japan’s greatest jockey Yutaka Take has said that the brilliant bay was the best horse he has ever ridden and the great champion’s record gives no reason to doubt.

The son of Sunday Silence had won ten of his 11 starts going into the 2006 Arc. A triple crown winner the previous year, his only defeat came that December, as runner-up to Heart’s Cry in the G1 Arima Kinen. His four-year-old season only emphasised his talent and brought Group 1 wins in the Tenno Sho Spring over 3200 metres and the Takarazuka Kinen at 2200 metres.

Deep Impact powers home in the 2006 Japan Cup. (Photo by Getty Images)

Deep Impact was an outstanding champion, beautifully compact but with a devouring stride; his genetics imbued him with stamina and speed in an exciting blend. He was loved and admired by Japan’s racing fans to such a degree that they invested their hopes into his Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe attempt like no horse before or since.

When it came to the race, Deep Impact was the favourite in a small field of eight. Take stalked the leaders and shifted three-wide, anticipating a winning strike in the home straight. The rider asked Deep Impact to go for it with 350 metres remaining but although he quickened to lead, the expected surge did not happen. Japan’s hero boxed on to finish third behind Rail Link; Take has since said that the horse was not at his best and coughed in the week before the race.

But the heartbreak was compounded when Deep Impact tested positive for a banned substance, Ipratropium, and was disqualified. He bounced back with sublime victories in the Japan Cup and Arima Kinen before a phenomenal career as a stallion, but that day in Longchamp will forever hold painful memories for his devoted fans. 

Flirting on the fringe

There was combined heartache in the 2014 Arc when three of Japanese racing’s biggest stars arrived with buoyant expectations. Their hopes deflated rapidly, though, when the local heroine Treve hit top gear in the home straight.

Gold Ship was a champion at home, albeit in the madcap mercurial mould, whose Group 1 haul prior to his Arc attempt included two classics, the Arima Kinen and back-to-back wins in the Takarazuka Kinen; Harp Star had won that year’s G1 Oka Sho and had Gold Ship in second when winning their Arc prep, the G2 Sapporo Kinen; and Just A Way was the world’s top-rated racehorse, rolling into Paris off a four-win streak that included a wide-margin Dubai Turf victory.

The Japanese trio were in the last five turning for home, with Harp Star outpaced at the tail. All three tried to make it work, and Harp Star rallied late on to finish best in eighth, but the challenge from Japan proved to be a non-event.

Then there was Makahiki: ten years on from his sire Deep Impact, could he be the one? The Tokyo Yushun winner rocked up at Longchamp and wooed plenty of suitors with a short-odds win in the Prix Niel. In the Arc itself, the colt proved to be a letdown and trailed home 14th of 16. He was still racing in August, when last in the G2 Sapporo Kinen, but his only win since September 2016 came in October 2021.   

Montjeu gets the better of El Condor Pasa in a desperate drive. (Photo by Jack Guez/Getty Images)



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