My favorite racehorse: Deep Impact

Deep Impact wins the 2006 Arima Kinen. Photo: © Japan Racing Association.

Everyone has a favorite racehorse. As part of a new series, we've asked contributors to write about theirs. Today it is the turn of award-winning British racing journalist and author Paul Haigh.

To name the one who broke your heart as your all-time favourite might seem a little perverse, but isn’t that true of so many relationships? When we fall, we fall - and that’s all there is to it. This is particularly true of relations between otherwise moderately rational human beings and racehorses.

First time I saw my hero, or rather became aware of him, was in April 2006 in the small temporary press room above a Hong Kong clothes shop a few days before the Audemars Piguet Queen Elizabeth II Cup. Some Japanese journalists were clustered round a computer - and they were laughing. This is not remarkable in itself: Japanese people like to laugh as much as any of us. It was interesting though because Japanese racing journalists normally take their work very seriously, and here they were chuckling like a bunch of schoolkids. It was obvious from the sound of commentary that they were watching replays. It was obvious too that they were of several different races.

It didn’t take long for curiosity to have its way. The neck craned. The races were extraordinary. Every one featured the same horse. In every one he came from last or near last to circle the field, usually six or eight deep, then win going away. This happens quite often in American dirt races where the pace collapses, but usually in smallish fields - the classic example being the sensational Arazi in the 1991 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile - but these were turf races. Some of them had fields of 16 runners or more. And the same horse, using the same tactics, won every time.

How the Japanese laughed. It seemed they’d never seen anything like it either.

Being Japanese and therefore very polite, they made way to give the rubbernecker a better look. They also tried to answer questions. Who was this horse? Every time he won you could make out a word that sounded like “Impattoooooh,” with the emphasis on a final syllable extended like a South American football commentator’s acclaim for the winning goal in a World Cup.

Who was he? This, they managed to explain after a while, was not the proverbial Group horse making his way through the ranks of the ordinary. These were G1 races, and the horse not just brushing aside all opposition but humiliating them was their champion. We’ll let the commentator tell his name. It was...“Dee-eep Impact - oooooh!”

Wait a minute though. Here was a race he didn’t win. The explanation came at once. It was the already famous or infamous 2005 Arima Kinen in which he arrived just too late. Who beat him? Good horse? “Yes, yes good horse.” How good was soon worked out. It was Heart’s Cry, in March 2006 an effortless four-and-a-half-length winner of the Dubai Sheema Classic. I had no doubt Deep Impact(ooooh!) would have beaten him with a better judged ride. More importantly, the Japanese had no doubt either.

Then they played another couple of races, to show how this amazing horse had responded to that solitary setback. It was business as usual, the second of them being the Spring Tenno Sho (Emperor’s Cup) in which this son of Sunday Silence (the stallion whose arrival at the turn of the century transformed Japanese breeding) and the Alzao mare Wind In Her Hair. Once again Deep Impact came from last to swallow up the best in his native land and spit them out like pips. A horse who emulated Arazi, not once, not twice, but every time pilot error didn’t stop him. What more could you ask? How could anything in racing be more exciting?

That is the true story of how I fell for Japanese racing and in particular for one mighty horse.

Was he ever going to run outside Japan? was the next question. “Yes yes. He will run this year in Paris. In the Arc de Triomphe.”

You know how it is in cartoons when a dollar sign flashes in a light bulb over an evil looking head? Nobody in Europe knew about this horse. Nobody had yet learnt how seriously we were going to have to take Japanese racing. I’d be the first to introduce him to the local (European) audience. But first a little matter of taking as much as I could afford of the 20-to-1 and more about him in British antepost (advance) betting markets without actually selling the kids for medical experiments.

Nothing that happened in the ensuing few months did anything to sow even a seed of doubt.

Ouija Board, who’d been behind Heart’s Cry in Dubai, went to Royal Ascot and outpaced her rivals in the Prince of Wales’s Stakes. Heart’s Cry came to England and, allegedly a little undercooked, looked as though he was going to beat the brilliant 2005 Arc winner Hurricane Run and the Dubai World Cup winner Electrocutionist before just running out of steam in the last 50 yards of the King George at Ascot.

On June 25, Deep Impact himself performed his usual trick in the 11 furlong G1 Takarazuka Kinen, coming from last to win by four lengths running away. So the tiniest hint of a reason for hesitation, the possibility that he needed longer distances than the Arc’s mile and a half to show his very best, could now be forgotten. I had seen the future, and it smirked.

My regular readers (yes, both of them) had started to get so sick of the way I went on about this wonder I’d found in the East they started referring to him as “Paul Haigh’s horse.” Ridiculously flattering but not entirely absurd when one hack beats the drum about one horse and will not put down the sticks.

Cut to Chantilly mid-September, and that same hack has a long and friendly interview with the wonder horse’s trainer Yasuo Ikee, a quiet modest man, who seemed -- unless something was being lost in translation -- to be exuding quiet, modest confidence. (In retrospect though, was there something more significant about his diffidence?) This was followed by a strange and actually illicit one-on-one with the mighty beast himself at his secret stall. To say I felt privileged is an understatement. Deep Impact was half turned, looking as though racing was far from his mind, sporting an undercarriage that would have made Catherine the Great blink. At the second click of fingers he deigned me a long flat look, like a shogun examining a homeless beggar, but with less interest in his eye. I was sure I was looking at the best horse on earth. So was he.

“If you look long enough at the abyss the abyss looks back at you.”

Cut forward again to Arc day itself. Estimates vary on the number of Japanese who had made the long pilgrimage to Paris, but the general figure is reckoned to have been between 6,000 and 9,000. Nearly all of them were young. Some looked as though they were still in their teens, and every one had paid his or her own way to see their hero reach his apogee.

They nearly all arrived at Longchamp for the opening of the front gates, because that’s the way it’s done in Japan: You have to get there early when a hero horse is running to take possession a spot adjacent to the winning post. Then they nearly all had a bet - with the result that at first show for the championship race of Europe Deep Impact was 1-to-9 favourite.

Later the market adjusted so he started joint favourite at 9-to-4, but the idolatrous thousands from the Land of the Rising Sun had already made their statement. This was going to be Deep Impact day. The rest might just as well stay in the box.

What happened in the two and a half minutes after the gates opened for the 2006 Arc has already been covered pretty comprehensively. Yutaka Take, himself an idol of Japanese racing fans, adopted unusual tactics on their champion. Instead of holding him up for the standard late surge, he kept him up with the bunch before hitting the front early in the straight, then rode him with unexpected tenderness. Perhaps Take was smarter than we thought.

James Willoughby explained in a superbly illuminating piece a couple of weeks ago why the Deep Impact-style strike from last place may work well in Japan, where the pace is nearly always strong, but works less well in Europe, where the pace is often muddling and followed by a sprint for home. Anyway, the new tactics did not work for Deeep Impactooooh.

Just when this non-objective observer and several thousand others camped at the winning post prepared ourselves for triumph Take pressed the accelerator briefly and - nothing happened. Was Yutaka looking after him? Did he know the champ wasn’t quite himself and didn’t want to bully him? Or did his mental strength in a finish desert him at the crucial moment, as it has once or twice in major races outside Japan? No-one has ever been told. But the subsequent disclosure that Deep Impact had been suffering from a respiratory problem and his disqualification from even his close third place because traces of medication remained in his system lends a bit of weight to the first explanation.

Back in Japan, Deep Impact ran twice more and was again the glorious one so many of us had expected to see at Longchamp.

In the Japan Cup, he and Ouija Board started their runs almost simultaneously, and he was two lengths in front of the dual Breeders’ Cup-winning mare and gone in about as long as it takes to put those words on the keyboard. His last appearance on a racetrack was in the biggest betting race in the world, the Arima Kinen, and he won it as he pleased.

A couple of years later, Frankie Dettori, who rode Ouija Board in that Japan Cup, told me: “You know you were right about that horse. That wasn’t him in the Arc. He was a machine.”

Maybe Frankie was right. Maybe he was being kind. Anyway, they don’t pay out on whether you were right or wrong.

There is a tailpiece. Deep Impact is now the dominant sire in what is by most indicators the world’s dominant racing nation. On Dec. 7 his 2,178 starters passed six billion yen in prize money for 2014, in Japan alone. This figure compares with his majestic sire’s record of  9.3 billion yen for 2005: a total from 3,071 starters towards which Deep Impact made by far the most significant contribution.

The thriller, my hero, my favourite, and I can still see him staring me down from that stall in Chantilly, flat eyed and indifferent to my very existence, the most exciting horse I’ve ever known.

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