I grew up as one of the first generation for whom foreign travel became commonplace, but I was a late starter in that respect, never leaving England until I was 21 years old. In time my acquired wanderlust would be satisfied by visits to every continent, many of them memorable for a variety of reasons, but initially limited funds meant that there had to be something special to persuade me to adopt the necessary spirit of adventure.

I found that something special exactly 50 years ago, hastily obtaining a temporary passport and planning a journey by rail to Paris. I was anticipating an exciting experience; what I could not foresee was that I would witness an event that would be recognised half a century later as a landmark occasion in the history of thoroughbred racing. It was no less of a landmark in my life – an occurrence forever to be relished. I was there when Sea-Bird won the Arc.
I had been present for Sea-Bird’s Derby, which he won so effortlessly that my first impression had been that his victims at Epsom could not be up to much; after all, his runner-up Meadow Court had reputedly been only number four in the pecking order among the three-year-olds in Paddy Prendergast’s stable. But Meadow Court then won the Irish Derby. And followed up in the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes. Meanwhile, Sea-Bird had himself crushed older foes in the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud.

Second impressions had to be that Sea-Bird was outstanding; shame on me for underestimating him

Second impressions had to be that Sea-Bird was outstanding. Shame on me for underestimating him. His cantering romp at Epsom was truly all about superior class, not about the inadequacies of his opposition. But was he really so exceptional? He was not the only French colt of his generation with claims to greatness. Reliance – brother to Match and three-parts brother to Relko – was still unbeaten, and in his last three starts he had notched convincing victories in the Prix du Jockey-Club, the Grand Prix de Paris and the Prix Royal-Oak.

Sea-Bird and Reliance were at last going to meet in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, and that, on its own, represented an enticing attraction for any lover of top-quality racing, even a formerly committed homebody like me. Yet who was to say it was going to be a two-horse race? There was plenty to like about a lot of the other contenders, with 20 due to face the starter in what surely had to be regarded as a vintage field.

Twelve of the runners represented the home nation, the principals joined by seven four-year-olds and three more from the Classic generation. The other three-year-olds – Diatome, Carvin and Blabla – had all shown high-class form. Diatome had won the Prix Noailles and Prix du Prince d’Orange, also registering second places to Sea-Bird in the Prix Lupin and to Reliance in the Prix du Jockey-Club and Grand Prix de Paris; Carvin’s only recent victory had come in the Grand Prix de Vichy, but he had acquitted himself nobly when close behind Reliance on three occasions. Blabla was the only filly on parade, but she had scored a resolute victory in the Prix de Diane, and in her first season had been beaten only a short neck by Sea-Bird in the Criterium de Maisons-Laffitte.

Baron Guy de Rothschild was doubly represented, as in addition to Diatome he had Free Ride, victor of the Prix Ganay and many people’s idea of the best home-trained four-year-old. That colt’s contemporaries included Sigebert, winner of the Prix Henri Foy last time out and two others, Francilius and Demi Deuil, who along with Free Ride had finished behind Sea-Bird in the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud.

Demi Deuil, when winning the Grand Prix du Printemps, had four of his Arc rivals behind him – the aforementioned Sigebert and Francilius, in addition to Timmy Lad and Emerald, the last-named being a Boussac colour-bearer who would be joined in the Arc by stablemate Ardaban. Demi Deuil’s later emphatic victory in the Grosser Preis von Baden indicated that he was strongly on the upgrade. Timmy Lad, a tough and consistent performer over three seasons, had won six times and regularly finished in the frame in top company; he had reached an honourable fourth place in the 1964 Arc.

The only English-trained contenders were Oncidium, trained by George Todd, and Soderini, representing Staff Ingham’s stable. They were fully entitled to take their chances as the best of England’s older horses over middle distances, having finished first and second in the Coronation Cup before filling the minor places behind Meadow Court in the King George. However, their form earned scant respect from the Longchamp public, who sent Oncidium off at 75-1 and Soderini as an even more forlorn outsider at 90-1.

The Irish party consisted of a trio of three-year-olds from Paddy Prendergast’s yard. The obvious number one was Meadow Court, whose St Leger reverse had come as a shock after his triumphs in the summer, and he was joined by Desmond Stakes winner Khalife and Ragazzo, whose fine victory in the Great Voltigeur Stakes had been followed by a better display, as close runner-up to Reliance in the Prix Royal-Oak. Khalife’s presumed role was to act as pacemaker for his stable companions.

Marco Visconti was no Ribot or Molvedo, but he clearly ranked among the best three-year-olds in Italy, having shown progressive form. Third behind Varano in the Derby Italiano, he subsequently had that colt well behind when missing victory by a head against Accrale in the Gran Premio di Milano, a defeat attributed by many to jockey error.

Completing the field were an intriguing pair in Anilin and Tom Rolfe, representing the Soviet Union and the USA respectively. Anilin was a four-year-old who remained unbeaten in his home country, where he was already celebrated as the best thoroughbred ever bred there, and he was proven at the top level outside Russia, having finished third behind Kelso and Gun Bow in the 1964 Washington D.C. International.

Had there ever been a field of comparable quality for any international contest?

Tom Rolfe was heading for honours as America’s champion three-year-old. He had been third in the Kentucky Derby, won the Preakness, and was beaten only a neck in the Belmont. He had won all four of his subsequent races, most recently the American Derby at Arlington Park.

Had there ever been a field of comparable quality for any international contest? I thought not, which was why I was determined to be there to watch the drama played out. I went expecting something special, but I could not have envisaged a performance so spectacular that it was hailed by sound and experienced judges as the greatest of all time on any racecourse. I was anything but a sound and experienced judge at the time, but, having witnessed it, I acquired a reference point for everything I would ever see in my racegoing career. And, half a century on, Sea-Bird’s Arc victory still ranks as the finest performance by a middle-distance horse I ever saw. I know I shall never see one better.

Sea-Bird won that Arc by six lengths over Reliance, who was otherwise unbeaten. Diatome was five lengths back in third, just ahead of Free Ride, who had half a length in hand of Anilin, who in turn was five lengths clear of Tom Rolfe. Of course, Sea-Bird’s career ended that day; there was nothing else he needed to prove. But his victims continued to pay tribute to him, Diatome and Carvin as first and second in the Washington D.C. International, Demi Deuil as seven-length victor of the Premio Roma, Anilin as four-length winner of the Preis von Europa. They were all stars in their own right, genuine top-class performers. But Sea-Bird trounced them.

What a way to mark my debut as an international traveller!