CHANTILLY, France -- His neck has filled out and his chest and shoulders have broadened, but the winsome chestnut colt is still, unmistakably, Arazi.
In the gloom of a gray morning in late March, Arazi materialized at the head of a lane deep in the woods near Chantilly. A tiny copper apparition, he moved fluidly into focus, his slight legs skimming over the heavy sand.
There was the distinctive white blaze that meanders down his face and dips over his right nostril. There were the three white legs and the neat, bobbed tail. And there, most importantly, was the trademark turn of foot that Arazi displayed with such devastation in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last November at Churchill Downs.
Arazi extended his stride as he galloped down the middle of the lane, the cool air quickening in his wake. Then, just as quickly, he was gone, disappearing into the woods that ring France's famed training center.
Francois Boutin, the esteemed French trainer who guided Arazi through his championship 2-year-old season and is now readying him for the Kentucky Derby, nodded in satisfaction at Arazi's retreating form. Has Arazi noticeably improved at 3? "It's impossible to be better," Boutin said. "He does not need to do better to win the Kentucky Derby."
Arazi will make just one start before the Derby, today's one-mile Prix Omnium II at St. Cloud near Paris. "So far, so good. His condition will improve a lot after one race," Boutin said.
And so Arazi is making his bid to become the first French-trained horse to win America's greatest race. In the process, he has caused a wave of excitement. Boutin's office at Lamorlaye has been besieged by callers, and visitors have trekked to Chantilly, about 40miles north of Paris, for a glimpse of the sensational colt.
"The French gambling people are not so much concerned about this kind of horse, but among the little world of racing people, Arazi is a real star," said Patrick Barbe, a well-connected bloodstock agent based here. "He's probably better known abroad than in France."
Arazi's training program, unorthodox by American standards, has generated just as much interest. While other Derby hopefuls have raced two, three or four times already this year, Arazi had his first serious work of the year less than three weeks ago. "He was very impressive," said one observer, Didier Krainc of L'Agence Francaise, the French thoroughbred sales company.
France has had an unusually wet winter and early spring, and Boutin is not happy about the rain-soaked course at St. Cloud. Though Arazi was nominated to Keeneland's Blue Grass Stakes as a precaution, Boutin nevertheless has selected the French race. His decision underscores his faith in Arazi's ability and his apparent recovery from minor knee surgery last November. "The ground is not good and I hate to work a horse in such deep going, but a good horse will win anyway," he said.
Plans are to ship Arazi to Churchill Downs late this month. He will travel with a stablemate named Akiki, who is expected to set the pace for Arazi in the Prix Omnium, and possibly the Derby. California-based jockey Pat Valenzuela has the Derby mount.
Skeptics raised eyebrows last fall when it was announced that Arazi would contest the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. After all, the American-bred colt had raced exclusively in France and solely on the grass. Though no one doubted his talent -- Arazi had won six of seven starts, including France's most prestigious race for juveniles -- many thought the Breeders' Cup was merely a lark for Arazi's overconfident owner, Allen E. Paulson.
Even Boutin, who won back-to-back Breeders' Cup events with the grand French filly Miesque, opposed shipping Arazi to Churchill Downs. But Paulson, a Savannah, Ga., aerospace executive who paid $350,000 for Arazi as a weanling, prevailed. In the meantime, Paulson had sold a half-interest in Arazi to Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum of Dubai, one of the world's most powerful owners. Sheik Mohammed was among those who dismissed Arazi as a crooked-legged yearling at Keeneland in 1990, but he thought enough of the slight colt to pay close to $10 million for his share, outbidding a Japanese syndicate that went to $7 million.
So Arazi was flown to Kentucky, where his performance has been recorded as one of the greatest in Breeders' Cup history. As he picked off opponents down the backside and surged clear on the far turn to win going away by five lengths, even the most hardened turf writers rose to their feet to applaud.
Comparisons to the incomparable Secretariat began, and Arazi was installed as the early favorite to win the 1992 Kentucky Derby. A few days after the Breeders' Cup, Arazi had arthroscopic surgery to remove bone spurs from his knees, raising questions about his ability to rebound in time for the Derby and whether, indeed, he would be the same horse.
But Boutin, who opposed the operation, said Arazi is progressing without a hitch. Arazi returned to France in December and resumed regular workouts in mid-February, and he has matured physically and mentally, Boutin said. "He's a little bit playful, but he has a very nice temperament," Boutin said. "Last year, he enjoyed throwing his rider. Now, he doesn't do it so often."
French training methods are rigorous by any standard. Boutin's are considered especially so. Dawn finds Arazi leaving his stall in the confines of Boutin's brick and gabled yard, crossing a narrow lane and heading into a training area of grass courses called Les Aigles. On this ground fell the footsteps of other legendary horses,among them Caro, Nureyev and Blushing Groom, Arazi's sire, who also was a 2-year-old champion.
In the company of about 80 other horses, Arazi spent a recent morning walking for a half-hour beneath the oaks. The horses trod along ancient paths, moving counterclockwise in orderly rows. Two blankets covered Arazi's flanks and he jiggled his American-style bit, eager to be off. Raymond Lamonarca, Arazi's exercise rider and groom, sat impassively on his back, bundled into a blue parka and wearing a green helmet.
Boutin, 55, walked into a clearing, wiping sleep from his eyes. He wore khaki trousers, a beige jacket and a plaid driving cap. The sometimes dour trainer appeared in good humor and laughed about a report in a British turf journal that had Arazi running in the Blue Grass. Boutin eagerly discussed the many fine horses in his 200-horse yard. Their pedigrees read like a Who's Who of the equine world.
The riders awaited Boutin's cue and then dispersed up one of the sand lanes. Arazi warmed up at a slow canter for about five furlongs, then returned at a gallop down another, undulating lane, going about seven furlongs. At the end, he trotted back into the woods and concluded his exercise with another leisurely walk. On a typical day, Arazi will log five miles and spend 90 minutes outdoors. Recently, this routine has been interspersed with twice-weekly works at a mile on a nearby grass oval.
Arazi's program is designed to build stamina; he has proved he has enough natural speed. "I've had very talented horses, but Arazi has the talent and the strength," Boutin said. "He will last."
Boutin has conditioned a roster of champions -- Miesque, Hector Protector and Nonoalco, to name a few -- and he has been responsible for Europe's top 2-year-old each of the past three years. "In class, Arazi is definitely one of the best I've trained. As a colt, he's probably the best I've ever trained."