This Side Up: Arc of Achievement Unites Brant and Mellon

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Sottsass won the Arc for Brant Sunday | Scoop Dyga

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When Ettore Sottsass was asked which of his many diverse achievements had given him most satisfaction, he gave a shrug. “I don't know,” he said. “Life is a permanent project. It's a passage from one thing to another.”

The Italian designer and architect transcended disciplines in a fashion not dissimilar to his compatriot Federico Tesio, whose singular genius was as stimulated by his furniture workshop as by his breed-shaping stud farm.

And there's a corresponding breadth of engagement to the man who wrote to the widow of Sottsass, asking permission to honor his memory with a Siyouni (Fr) yearling he had bought at Deauville in 2017. Peter Brant has assembled his stable with the same curator's eye as he has his art collection; and the same quixotic awareness that no masterpiece can ever achieve perfection, can ever fully requite the yearnings that sustain his twin passions.

The success of Sottsass (Fr) in the G1 Qatar Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe on Sunday was certainly a masterpiece, in the technical craft of his trainer Jean-Claude Rouget. And it belongs in the same gallery as Brant's unique achievement in breeding a GI Kentucky Derby winner, Thunder Gulch (Gulch), as well as his sire and dam. Already, however, the project has its next passage, with Sottsass now starting a new career at Coolmore.

For just as the work of Renaissance masters has far outlasted the span of any human life–creators, preservers, collectors–so our own humble endeavors, from one generation of horsemen to the next, will endure in the genetic complexion of the breed, as recorded across the centuries in the Stud Book.

Brant is rightly proud that Thunder Gulch, winner of the definitive test in dirt racing, was delivered by a mare imported from Europe. The obvious, reciprocal challenge would now be to breed a dirt champion by his Arc winner.

Asked this week whether that is something he'd like to attempt, someday, Brant gave a chuckle.

“Someday?” he said. “Try, like, three or four months from now. I mean, sure. That doesn't mean I have to be right. I was right once, doesn't mean I'll be right doing it again. But I'm certainly going to try.”

With the far-sightedness that has sustained his business empire–not least in adapting to the wild societal changes eroding demand for its original base, newsprint–Brant absolutely grasps the vitality available in dismantling perceived barriers between the transatlantic gene pools. It's often been done before, after all, not least in the transformative impact of Northern Dancer's speed-carrying dirt blood on European Classic racing.

Brant bought Shoot a Line (GB) (High Line {GB}) after seeing her finish a plucky second to the great Ardross (Ire) in the 1981 Gold Cup at Royal Ascot, over two and a half miles, and had her covered by Northern Dancer's son Storm Bird. The resulting filly, Line of Thunder, was sent to Luca Cumani in Newmarket.

“She was a classic-looking, old Thoroughbred type,” Brant recalled. “And what happened is history. I bred her to Gulch, who won the Met Mile twice and the Breeders' Cup Sprint. He could carry his speed, he was third in the Belmont Stakes and ran second to Personal Ensign in the Whitney, but going a mile-and-a-quarter, mile-and-a-half, was really not his thing. He was a very fast, very sturdy horse. And from Line of Thunder he got Thunder Gulch.”

On the same basis, Brant made sure that his White Birch Farm recruited staying females from the Weinstock dispersal and also the Wildenstein sale.

“A lot of times you'll go to sales in Kentucky and they'll say: 'That's a grass horse, you don't want that, we want to win dirt races,'” he remarked. “But I believe that staying blood is very important, if you want to win any of those Classic-type races, from a mile up to a mile-and-a-half. You definitely need speed as well, because often they are a product of pace: sometimes no pace, sometimes too great a pace. It's the ability to quicken that is so important.

“But so many stallions had great speed–horses like War Front, maybe a horse like Constitution–and if you breed speed to them you're going to have trouble in those middle-distance races. I believe you need to get some Classic blood in there with it. Yes, a lot of times you'll breed to a stayer, and the progeny goes more towards the female and you're out of luck. But you do need a combination. Especially over two or three generations, you need that classy staying blood somewhere.”

Sottsass himself, of course, is by a fast horse in Siyouni (Fr) out of a Galileo (Ire) mare. Up until Sunday, Brant confesses, he had wondered whether the colt's optimal range might fall short of the Arc distance. But the demands of the race on the day–not especially strongly run, perhaps, but calling for unyielding dynamism through heavy ground–actually showcased assets that may combine well with dirt-bred mares; and, someday, give Sottsass some traction as a crossover influence.

As is well known, this is Brant's “second time round” on the Turf. But his ardour for the Arc traces back to his earliest enthusiasm. His heart was first won by weight-carrying New York stalwarts like Kelso and Carry Back, so he knew of the latter's fish-out-of-water bid for the 1962 Arc. What really brings things full circle, however, is that his first personal experience of the race came nine years later, when Paul Mellon–whose aesthetic sensibilities similarly found a common margin between art and the Thoroughbred–became the first American to own the winner.

Though still in his early 20s at the time, Brant was in Paris to produce “L'Amour,” a minor cult movie by Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey. (He collaborated with Warhol on many projects and his publishing stable still includes Interview, a magazine founded by the pioneering artist in 1969.) Finding himself in a café one Saturday afternoon, Brant noticed the racing from Longchamp on a television in the corner. He realized that the Arc was the next day, and resolved to head out to the Bois de Boulogne.

So it was that he saw Mill Reef beat the wonderful French filly, Pistol Packer, with Caro (Ire)–subsequently such an important stallion at Spendthrift–fourth.

Europe's championship race, then, is woven into some of the defining strands of his life: some tracing to those heady years in the vortex of the Beat Generation; others, to the Parisian fashion community that long worshipped his wife, the model Stephanie Seymour.

“'L'Amour' was a great, low-budget film that did very well, and is still kind of a classic today,” Brant said. “And, yes, we had a lot of fun. It was wonderful moment. As a matter of fact, one of the stars in that movie was Karl Lagerfeld, who became the big designer for Chanel. At that time he was working for Chloé, the Paris fashion house, so there were a lot of fashion people in the film.”

Not that Brant could ever get Warhol interested in the Turf. His cousin, Joe Allen, who bred War Front, was also friendly with Warhol and commissioned him to do a portrait of his very first racehorse, an ex-claimer. And the Wertheimer family asked him to depict Ivanjica, their 1976 Arc winner–a work you will today find in the office of a certain Kentucky farm owner, of similarly rare discernment.

“I'm not sure how thrilled the Wertheimers might have been, at the time, with his Ivanjica,” Brant noted wryly. “Andy's way of doing those portraits was to take a polaroid, and then silk-screen it, and paint over that. Now even the new book about President Carter has Andy's portrait on the front. He was always way ahead of his time.”

Brant has always tried to be one step ahead, too, having seen repeatedly how the establishment eventually adopts the avant-garde. But he rebukes any assumption that Mellon–whose foundation of the Yale Center of British Art accommodated much sporting art of the old school–was merely anglophile and conservative in his tastes.

“He might have been interested in Stubbs, but that would have been because of his interest in horses,” Brant explained. “But he was a great collector, of all periods; all the way through the 20th Century from Cezanne to abstract expressionists like Mark Rothko.”

In Mellon, with whom he served on the board of the racing museum in Saratoga, Brant could admire an exemplar of philanthropic capitalism. Like Mellon, of course, Brant has also stabled horses with master horsemen on both sides of the Atlantic; and Sottsass has now made a significant new contribution to the tradition, long associated with Mellon, of Americans embracing European grass racing and its bloodlines. Both on and off the Turf, then, there is a very direct cultural succession between the owners of Mill Reef and Sottsass.

Certainly last weekend was a vivid consummation of Brant's return to the sport and, while there was a bittersweet element in not being able to travel to Paris, that did not diminish the delirium as he watched the race with his wife at their Connecticut home.

“You know something, I can't say I would have had any better a time anywhere else,” he said. “We were yelling and screaming so much, it felt like the house was shaking. I just couldn't believe this dream had come true.”

Brant says that he never goes into any race with confidence, but Ger Lyons had given him plenty of hope after taking responsibility for the horse, with Rouget confined to France by COVID restrictions, for his prep run in Ireland.

“After that race Ger said: 'Your horse is going to run terrific in the Arc,'” Brant explained. “The instructions [from Rouget] were to make sure the horse would be tighter for the Arc, and that was the way [jockey Colin] Keane rode. Jean-Claude had really been pointing at the Arc from the beginning of the year. I think that speaks very well of the trainer, and very well of the race. If you really want to win the Arc, you can't have anything else on your mind. You can't say, 'Well, we've run well here, let's go the Arc.' You can't go as an afterthought, and if you make a mistake along the road you probably won't be winning. It's so gruelling, both in the conditions you might get and the field. That's why I feel it would be very hard to do better than winning this race.”

But there are always new horizons, with horses no less than in art.

“Winning a race, any race, you figure that you are pretty close to achieving some kind of perfection,” Brant mused. “But you will always get beat more than you win. It's a great game, and a fantastic passion for a lot of people: these wonderful, noble animals. Like art, it's all about that passion. Because that's what you really need, for it to be fun and for it to be successful.

“Right now, I'm feeling very good that I can take the decision to retire Sottsass in one piece, sound in wind and bone, and not looking like he's come back from the war. He's going to stud in the way he deserves.”

Breeding, of course, is a long game; and Brant espouses the long view. He urges optimism, even in such disturbed and disturbing times. Yes, he is dismayed to see responsible journalism swamped by the trash-talk of social media, not least from a boyhood friend he can no longer recognize in the Oval Office.

“But I'm very optimistic,” Brant insisted. “I hope we will soon be able to look on all this in retrospect. In the meantime, people have to be vigilant: listen to science; wear masks, isolate, trace. But I think we're going to have learned a lot, especially about leadership, from this whole experience.”

If the fate of newsprint is one eloquent measure of a changing world, then so is that of typewriter. The classic machines he designed for Olivetti helped to make the name of Ettore Sottsass. But even as the world changes, genius abides. Sottsass urged that various disciplines were only separated by technique; that all design reflects your ideas about life, about individuals and society. It didn't matter whether you were making a glass vase or a photograph.

So let's celebrate the fact that an American, in 2020 as in 1971, has seen through artificial distinctions–between dirt and turf, speed and stamina, Europe and America–and reminded us all of the transferable essence of a great Thoroughbred. The “permanent project,” in horses and horsemen alike, is class. And, though our world may constantly be changing, it is surely a better place for the legacy of a man like Mellon; and, likewise, for the one now being cultivated by Peter Brant.

 

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