A few days before the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in October, the French racing newspaper Jour de Galop ran a story with the headline: 'Cirrus des Aigles Étalon de l'Arc.'
It was a clever play on words: Étalon can mean stallion or standard. The 8-year-old Cirrus des Aigles is a gelding, so not the former, but as the leading European-trained money-earner ever, he has become a yardstick by which other racehorses are measured. Especially in the Arc, as the headline implies, which excludes geldings.
As it happened, Cirrus des Aigles had already defeated the eventual top pair - the 4-year-old filly and repeat winner Trêve and the 4-year-old colt Flintshire. Given his exclusion from the almost $7 million Arc, his record earnings of more than $9 million are even more impressive. He has won 20 of his 60 career races, finished second in 21 others, and finished worse than fifth on only three occasions. The bay gelding doubled his Group 1 victories this year with three more. Somehow, at 8, he is as good as ever.
'Every year I look at the best 3-year-olds, thinking I will meet them the year after. At one point every year, the 4- or 5-year-olds get retired, and he stays,' the trainer Corine Barande-Barbe said of her stable star. 'It really is a strange story.'
On Sunday, Cirrus, as his trainer lovingly calls him, will start in the approximately $3.2 million Hong Kong Cup at the Hong Kong International Races at Sha Tin Racecourse, his sixth trip to Hong Kong and one of the few stops on which he has not won. His best finish was third, and in 2012 he had to scratch after an injury before the race. After the new year, he will most likely return to Dubai, where he won the 2012 Sheema Classic and finished second last year.
'He's not an old man, but for him I think to move and to change is fun,' Barande-Barbe said of his Hong Kong homecoming. 'In Dubai, it is the same. I think he loves that.'
Cirrus des Aigles is celebrated in French racing, but with the Arc and its trial, the Prix Foy, closed to him, Barande-Barbe has had to send him on the road. Some of his best races have come in Ascot's Champion Stakes, in England. He won the inaugural running in 2011 over seven winners of 31 Group 1 races across four continents. It was his first. The next year, he memorably pushed the undefeated Frankel to one of his narrowest triumphs.
Missing the Arc in her homeland is a shame, Barande-Barbe said, but she has quit worrying about it. 'I could hope in a six-year career they would change the rules, but they didn't,' she said with a laugh. 'The fact that he was able to beat Trêve, and she won the Arc twice - we all can think he could have won the Arc at least once.' He handed Trêve her first loss ever, in the Group 1 Prix Ganay at Longchamp on April 27.
That six-year career - which continues - is one of the most incredible in turf history. Never has such unexceptional breeding yielded such quality. His Irish-bred sire, Even Top, an English 2,000 Guineas runner-up who died in 2009, produced only 69 foals in seven crops. Cirrus des Aigles was one of only two winners on the flat. His unraced dam, Taille de Guêpe, was given to Cirrus des Aigles' breeder for free. Gelded before he ever raced, as a 3-year-old he started off in lowly races at Cagnes-sur-Mer, France, in January 2009, but by the end of 2009 was in December's Hong Kong Vase, his 17th start that year.
Barande-Barbe, 56, trains a small stable of 24 horses in Chantilly, two-thirds of which she also owns. The daughter of Parisian psychoanalysts, she found her way into horse racing through a riding club, where she met her former husband Patrick Barbe, now a successful bloodstock agent. They bought horses together, and her first, named Deep Roots, won two French Group 1 races in 1982. After 10 years as an owner and breeder, she decided to train as well.
'Many of the horses I train are horses nobody would have taken,' she said. 'Cirrus was among them.' She won the 1995 Prix de Diane with Carling, another horse whose dam was a castoff. 'I love that. It is like a fairy tale. I have to love it, because I've never had a big client come to me and say I have three Galileo colts to send to you.'
With Cirrus des Aigles, the client was his breeder, Yvon Lelimouzin, now 74. Lelimouzin was a jockey until a serious accident ended his career at 24. He joined France Galop's maintenance crew overseeing the Chantilly gallops known as Les Aigles, or the Eagles.
As a France Galop employee, he was not allowed to own horses, but he could breed them and a trainer, like Barande-Barbe, could rent the horse from him in return for a percentage of the earnings. Friends of his gave him mares, like Taille de Guêpe, or sold him inexpensive stallion shares. For Cirrus des Aigles, Lelimouzin chose Even Top largely because the French national stud farm, where Even Top stood, was close to where Lelimouzin kept Taille de Guêpe. He and his cousin, Benoît Deschamps, raise their horses at a farm on the border of Normandy and Brittany.
'It's very natural there,' Barande-Barbe said. 'And people are very natural too.' She laughed. 'Their horses arrive and look wild, with very long hair, and they have never gone in the horse box before. They lived outside.'
Barande-Barbe also trained Mesnil des Aigles, Cirrus des Aigles' oldest brother, a handy horse who won about $275,000. During his career, she sold half of her share to Jean-Claude-Alain Dupouy, then a new owner introduced by friends. Dupouy and Barande-Barbe were partners on several other horses, including a young Cirrus des Aigles, until Dupouy persuaded his longtime friend Xavier Niel into racing. Niel is the billionaire entrepreneur behind the telecom operator Free.
Looking back, Barande-Barbe amiably resigns herself to living with a champion. She has not missed a day with Cirrus des Aigles since he arrived at her yard in November 2007. 'It is just as if he is mine - except for the money,' she said with a laugh.