The agony and the ecstasy of social media

So it seems this blog is all but dead. My fault. Facebook’s fault. I resisted, in the beginning. I hated the idea of Facebook (not least because that was what the New York Times called their personnel directory, which seemed insulting and…well, impersonal). But a few years ago I cracked. My excuse was that I needed to be on Facebook for marketing purposes, which turned out not to be wrong. Facebook has been a useful tool for that. It also has been a colossal time-wasting addiction, but I digress. And it has also eaten my blog.

Facebook, for better or worse, is an extremely quick and easy way for me to update anybody who cares or claims to care about all the comings and goings in the yard, the races, the results and just random tidbits (that would contribute to the time-wasting part). I have a pretty large following there, and I have been resorting to communicating that way instead of by blog, which some of you have actually noticed. To those of you who still check back here regularly, I apologize. And once again, I will try to do better. Meanwhile, if you’re not already signed on to Facebook, just do it. It’s really not so bad. And if you’re paranoid that signing up to Facebook will open your entire private life in every intimate detail to cyberspace, don’t be. Facebook only knows what you want it to know, so just don’t tell it anything. They don’t need to know your birthday, your address or anything else pertinent. You need an email address and a name. That’s pretty much it. Sign up, “friend” me (yes, Facebook has verbed the noun) and I’ll add you to the Gallop France group there and you’ll see everything that’s going on.

Right, so some of you are still resisting. For you guys (all five of you, so I hope you appreciate it!), here’s what’s going on in a nutshell: Hard Way has resisted retirement yet again, and ran a comeback race down in the country yesterday at the ripe old age of nine. He finished third of eight runners. I had hoped he would win, because to say the competition was weak would be the nicest thing you might say. But third still requalifies him for handicaps, and he probably needed the run after six months off. Despite rock-hard ground, he seems to have come back OK.

Gorki Park also ran his comeback race, finally, after nearly six months off, and he came 4th in a 20-runner handicap in Maisons-Laffitte. He looks like he should be just as useful this year as last. He’s grown up a bit and will stretch out in distance this year – if we can find him a decent race, which is easier said than done at the moment. King Driver, our other stable banker, is just back from a short break. He finished third at St. Cloud in mid-May, but chucked off his jockey (twice!) and ran loose for quite some time around the racecourse before he got down to work. That was him telling us as clear as he could that he was ready for a vacation, so he got one. He’s back in training as of tomorrow after having spent a month at the spa  – a stud just north of us that specializes in massages and has a great water-walker to keep the muscle tone while on vacation.

Melrand and Pahlavan also had short stays there, as did Risk Well Taken, an unraced two-year-old who went for two weeks after coming up with sore shins. Risks’s stay there was nothing short of miraculous – she came back nearly 20 kilos heavier and bulging with muscle. Our other unraced two-year-old, Impulsive American, was almost ready to debut when he picked up a virus of some sort, which will set us back a few weeks. Pahlavan and Ray of Hope also got it, but they all seem to be on the mend now.

Charitable Act has been retired; his iffy joints were getting the best of him so we decided to stop while he was still sound enough for pleasure riding. Greatest has also moved on to greener pastures, but is still racing and just finished 2nd for his new connections. We wish him well – I always thought he was a good horse, but we were persistently unlucky with him. Clearly, a change was in order!

La Mer seems finally on track after having just about every problem a growing horse can have. She is back galloping, and will hopefully run a maiden in Deauville in early July. Eternal Gift has finally come down in the handicap to a mark he should be able to win from, and he’ll get a try in Amiens on Saturday. Gut Instinct also should be able to win a small race soon, but she would be better on softer ground. She has some good entries coming up, though, so I’ll have to decide whether to brave the good ground or not.

That rounds up just about everyone, I think. And reading back, I see the other problem Facebook has caused. Since I no longer write much more than a sentence at a time, it seems I’m losing the knack. I’d better get back to it, or I won’t be able to write that novel I’ve been talking about for the past two decades!

Literary License

April is the cruellest month, according to T.S. Eliot and Chaucer before him, but I beg to differ. I nominate March for that honor.

The month after the Cagnes winter season but before things really gear up for the main flat season, March is a tough one. The horses who have raced down south come home in varying states, some the better for it but all of them needing a bit of recovery time after working hard on the Riveria. New horses have come in, but they’re not ready for prime time and after having quite a successful time down south, it’s hard to digest a month of poor results, even if we haven’t run our best horses or had the best choice of entries. The weather doesn’t help. One minute spring is here, the sun is out and the rugs come off, and ten minutes later nature smacks you with a reality check and a frost. We end up having to change the horses’ clothes three times a day, alternating between nudity and parkas.

But April holds promise. The leaves are budding, opening day at Longchamp is right around the corner and our two-year-olds are starting to learn about speed. Most of our horses are starting to come into their coats and we have a far better choice of racing coming up in April than we had in March. We’re not over the hump with everybody – we still have some problems to solve before we’ll put our best foot forward. But there is some good racing coming up. King Driver will be back on track next week, I hope. He was ready to race 10 days ago but I had to pull him out at the last minute because he was entered in a divided handicap and would have fallen on the impossible side of the split. He’s ready to go, and will run at St. Cloud on April 8. Ray of Hope should come on from his last race and will go to Longchamp, either on April 6 or 13. Melrand is looking great and will run in a claimer in Compiegne before moving on to another handicap (assuming no one buys her, but we will do our best to defend). Eternal Gift will go to Longchamp for two races this month, as will Charlie, who I think will finally start paying his way.

We have other horses who are progressing but will need a race. New recruits Gut Instinct and April Rose will go out to the country on April 13 to see what’s under the hood before we tackle something harder. Greatest will go, too, in the hopes of finally finding the winner’s circle. He is so impressive in the morning but has been far less than impressive in the afternoon. I don’t know why, but hopefully we can turn the corner with him.

And of course hope springs eternal with unraced two-year-olds. Our American Post colt is looking very impressive, but he’s a big horse and might take a bit of time, although he seems to be growing before my eyes. He won’t be ready before June, I think, but he will be an interesting one to watch. Our filly, meanwhile, Risk Well Taken, should be a bit more precocious. She’s small but already well-developed, and if her character doesn’t get in the way, she could have some talent.

We’re not wasting time in April. Ducati will start us off tomorrow in Argentan, and he should have a good chance. He is only here on loan, so he’ll probably head back to Belgium soon, but he’s been a fun horse to have around. Then we’ll follow up with Melrand on Saturday. And then we’ll have put March behind us, and prove T.S. Eliot wrong.

For PETA’s sake

CORRECTION: The timeline on Nehro’s death is incorrect in the post. He died at five, not at three, but had been plagued by foot trouble his entire life. The fact remains that he was a victim of the system, and my comments on his treatment and subsequent death remain valid.

The racing industry across the pond in America is once again reeling from a black eye the size of a bowling ball, this time inflicted by PETA, the animal-rights group. And the response so far is the same as it always has been when a public-relations disaster strikes: Find a fall guy, distance yourself from the problem, circle the wagons and for god’s sake get those damn journalists off the premisis!

PETA sent an operative with a hidden camera into the employ of super-trainer Steve Asmussen, and the results of four months of spying are pretty damning indeed. The videos released so far show various lamentations over lame horses and various ways to medicate them into some semblance of soundness for racing. Here’s the primary problem: Pretty much everything shown so far is perfectly legal in U.S. racing. And because the source of these revelations is PETA, which has a reputation as being extreme and biased, the horse racing industry is likely to put an ice pack on that black eye and wait for things to be getter rather than trying to reform itself so a similar whacking doesn’t happen again.

Horse racing in the United States is drowning in a cesspool of medication. So much is legal and standard practice that it is nearly impossible to find the cheating that pushes the envelop even further. Racing is a victim of the American medication culture. It seems Americans have an extremely low threshold for pain and an extreme ignorance of the side effects of the drugs they take to make themselves – and their horses – feel better. Here’s a quick lesson: Pain is nature’s STOP sign. Quickly medicating a problem to ease the pain and then continuing to do whatever caused the problem in the first place can only be a recipe for disaster. Injuries need time to heal, and in horse racing, time is money.

In one exerpt of PETA’s video, Asmussen’s assistant trainer Scott Blasi is swearing a blue streak over the state of the feet of a horse called Nehro, who was a favorite for the Kentucky Derby. From what I could understand between the repeated use of the word “fuck,” the horse’s feet were in a terrible state. (By the way, “fuck” is also one of my favorite words, as anyone who knows me can tell you. I do believe, however, that it should be used in a grammatically correct sentence that includes at least two three-syllable words.) Blasi was fighting against time to get this horse to the Derby. I can understand the pressure he was under. But he and his team made every wrong decision for this horse, and he ended up dead of colic not long after. A major cause of colic is stress, and the stress of having to deal with constant pain in his feet probably pushed this horse over the edge – that and the litany of drugs he was given to ease the pain.

Blasi took the fall; he was fired yesterday. Asmussen has closed ranks, and Kentucky Derby press passes exclude access to his barn. The various alphabet-soup organizations that run American racing have all issued statements saying they’ll look into the allegations and abuse will not be tolerated. Everyone will keep their heads down until, like the scandals before them, this one blows over. But this issue hinges on the very definition of abuse. Many involved in U.S. racing think we’re abusing horses over here in Europe because we do NOT allow them to be medicated to ease the pain on race day. I’ve also heard the argument that when somebody pays $1 million for a yearling, it better turn into a racehorse, even if it needs a little “help” along the way. It’s impossible to argue with anybody who thinks like this, because it’s like trying to reason with a toddler.

I’ve been trying to support efforts to reform U.S. horse racing for years, but I’m starting to lose hope. As an American who grew up watching the Triple Crown races, it is so sad to see the sport drive itself into a brick wall, then back up and do it again, and again. Eventually, there will be nothing left to crash. And that would be a shame.

 

A River Runs Through It

I know it’s March. But I want to talk about January and February, because I never got a chance to yet because it all happened so fast. I moved most of the yard down to Cagnes sur Mer for the winter season. The point of this exercise is to A) give everyone a change of scenery, sort of like a vacation of sorts, a concept that doesn’t really exist for horse trainers; B) escape the frozen winter around Paris to get some sun on the horses’ backs and get an advantage in training for the spring season and c) make some prize money. Well, at least we managed to get C done.

Cagnes this year was a muddy, rainy mess, and it never so much as thought about freezing in Paris, so that defeated points A and B. We took nine horses down and in the unending deluge, it all turned out to be quite a bit of work. There was precious little sun, and no leg up on training over the horses who stayed up North, who, for the most part, were drier than we were. Despite it all, we had a good season. Only one win, thanks to the appropriately-named Ray of Hope, but 10 places and 71,000 euros and change in prize money. We were second a lot, which was frustrating, but it still put money in the bank.

And in the end, we did get a bit of sun. But overall it was a much calmer affair this year, with days of rain dampening spirits and all of us hunkered down trying to dry off, only to go out and get soaked the next day. The inner training tracks were flooded a lot of the time, which meant we were all stuck hacking along the main fibersand track, a surface that doesn’t do much to maintain muscle tone on a horse. Drainage pumps were working full time to keep the place from going under water, and that presented problems of its own. In order to get from our boxes onto the main track, we had to pass a drainage hose – which sometimes was spurting water and sometimes not. Any horse person reading this sees where this is going, right? By the end of the meeting, we swore someone was sitting in a booth somewhere with a hidden camera, pressing the button just as our horses had to pass. I challenge any dressage rider to do more perfect pirouettes than we were forced to sit through because of that drainage hose. I was the only casualty, in the end, a victim of my own overconfidence. Ray of Hope and I were already safely passed the danger (I thought) when blurp went the hose, sending King Driver behind me into a spin, and Ray thought King needed a dance partner. I missed the downbeat  and ended up on the ground. Charitable Act was in the middle and just stood there rolling his eyes, wondering what all the fuss was about.

Then there were the trotters, although there seemed to be fewer of them this year, which was a relief. Most of our horses got used to the clatter of sulkies trotting up behind them after a few days. Charitable was the exception. He didn’t care much for the trotters from the start, and his esteem for them did not grow as the meeting wore on. Luckily, he was not a declared runner the day the track decided to run a trotting meeting and a galloping meeting at the same time, with alternating races 15 minutes apart. This seemed like an insane idea when we heard about it, but in the end it wasn’t all that bad. There were a few short tempers around the vet boxes were the doping control was done, because it was far too crowded and the trotting drivers had to leave their sulkies elsewhere. One gave up and just drove in to the stabling area, scattering the gallopers everywhere. A fistfight nearly ensued, but it was diffused and the offending trotter was seen off.

When it was time to go home, I think we were all ready.  We’ve got some good prospects for the spring season, a couple of brand-new two-year-olds and a full yard to take us forward.

The Year in Review

New Year’s Eve, 2013. Hard to believe time is going by so fast – and anyone who chances to read this is likely thinking the same thing. It’s been five years since I took out my public license, and the numbers have gone steadily in the right direction. This past year was my best so far, and I’m confident next year will be better – perhaps much better. I had my first runners as a public trainer in September of 2008. I had only four horses in the yard, and we finished the year with two wins, seven places and 45,527 euros in earnings. In 2009, my first full year, we had five wins and 16 places for 90,930 in prize money. This year we had seven wins and 34 places for earnings of 238,141 euros. We have retained a faithful core of owners who have been with us since the beginning, and attracted new faces to the game. Everyone seems to appreciate the small, friendly ambience of the yard, and many of my owners have become friends – not just with me, but with each other. A few have dropped away, but that is inevitable. We wish them well and forge ahead.

Enough with the serious stuff. With a hat-tip to one of my favorite humor writers, Dave Barry, I’ve decided to try to undertake a short Year in Review, with the highlights – and the lowlights – month by month. I hope you all take this in the spirit it was intended.

January: Gorki Park becomes our first runner of the New Year, with a less-than-inspiring 10th place in Deauville. Magical Flower, on the other hand, shows a talent for sprinting and starts, miraculously, to make money. Blue Lilac starts off a short and fruitless racing career. She has many talented relatives, but sadly seems not to have inherited any of it herself. We move the crew south to Cagnes sur Mer, escaping Maisons-Laffitte just as the entire training center freezes solid. Those left behind are not amused to see us on Equidia, sunning ourselves next to the Mediterranean as Eternal Gift, Magical Flower and Deep Ocean all bring home checks.

I turn 50, and another trainer who thinks they know me better than they do decides to hire a stripper for the occasion. A good time was not had by all, but mercifully, the many cell-phone videos that are taken that night seem not to have made their way to wider distribution.

February: We start off the month with a road trip to Marseille, only to find that the racing actually takes place in a glorified bull-ring. Unless you have an inside draw, you’re cooked. Eternal Gift is drawn wide, and is not amused. Neither are we. Back to Cagnes, where Deep Ocean, Grey Falcon and the ill-fated Blue Lilac all run disappointingly. We decide it’s the jockeys’ fault and head to the bar for a mojito or three. Magical Flower saves the day with a come-from-behind win no one saw coming. We have more mojitoes, and decide we are in love with this jockey. Gorki Park shows signs of understanding the game, Blue Lilac shows no sign of understanding, Grey Falcon just gets prettier in the sun, many owners come to visit and many more mojitoes are drunk. I learn to drive trotters.

Santarini comes up with a chip in her right knee. So the vet clinic operates – on the left one. The following week they correct their mistake, so we get a two-for-one deal. When we pack up to go home, we leave Santarini behind to recuperate, and Blue Lilac behind to try her luck with another trainer. On the way back to Maisons-Laffitte, we make a stop in Lyon, where Deep Ocean returns to his winning ways.

March: Deep Ocean seems to like Lyon, so we no sooner get settled back in Maisons-Laffitte than we put him on a truck and head back in the same direction. Deep wins his second handicap in a row, and his owners think I am a miracle worker. I smile, toast the victory and enjoy the moment, which I know can’t last. Deep is riddled with arthritis and is operating at the limits of what he can do. I have explained that to his owners many times, but flush with victory, they are busy booking their table on Arc day completely over-estimating the situation. Eternal Gift and Gorki Park go to Amiens and find they don’t like it there. Eternal Gift asks to be relieved of the burden of manhood. We grant his request.

Magical Flower comes back from Cagnes with a slight suspensory injury, which wouldn’t necessarily have been career-ending, but we decide she’s rather be doing something else, preferably in the reproductive department. She meets the man of her dreams in Kendargent, and gets in foal on the first jump. We are not surprised.

April: Grey Falcon keeps getting prettier but not any faster. Gorki Park, on the other hand, comes into his own, just missing victory at Longchamp. Deep Ocean is forced to step up in class to the big Quinte-Plus handicaps, and starts what turns out to be a string of fourth-place finishes. His owners are starting to get unhappy with the situation, and I’m starting to think Deep’s best days are behind him. I claim Gold Knight for new English owners. It seemed like a good idea at the time…

May: Gorki Park finds the winner’s circle at St. Cloud and follows it up with a third at Longchamp a two weeks later. He’s definitely hit his stride. Grey Falcon comes around, too, missing victory by only a nose in Angers. Gold Knight, on the other hand, runs a clinker at Chantilly and buyer’s remorse starts to rumble in the back of my stomach.

June: Eternal Gift runs his first race as a gelding and finishes dead last, having slowed down in the final turn to look for his missing equipment. Gold Knight continues to disappoint, although I can’t find anything actually wrong with him. Hard Way makes his seasonal return out in the country in Durtal, taking Grey Falcon along for company. The Falcon takes another check, and Hard Way runs a respectable 6th; the race is too short for him, and the jockey takes nearly a lap to pull him up. Deep Ocean runs fourth again. Owners grumble. Gorki Park finds another paycheck in Chantilly and Eternal Gift starts to forget his past life, getting up for fifth in Amiens.

July: Good old Hard Way starts our best month off right with a victory at Longchamp – my first as a trainer. It turns out to be his only financial contribution to the yard for the year, but it was the one that counted the most. Grey Falcon again just gets nosed out of a win, this time in Maisons-Laffitte, and Eternal Gift knocks one out of the park – also at Longchamp, helping me make up for lost time. We head to Vichy for the week-long festival and in between spa treatments, Deep Ocean runs fourth again. Owners grumble. Gold Knight runs slightly less bad than he had been, and that, along with many cocktails, cheers up his owners – and me. King Driver runs his comeback race and is third, leaving me smiling for days. He is finally, finally turning into the horse I thought he could be.

Greatest joins the team from the July Newmarket sales.

Hard Way and Grey Falcon go to Chantilly for what turns out to be a fiasco. It’s 100 degrees in the shade, and neither horse wants any part of the proceedings. Grey Falcon manages to extricate himself from his racing bridle between saddling and going to the paddock, and Hard Way is performing airs above the ground. Miraculously, the horses are shoveled onto the track with their jockeys, but no good comes of it. We finish 6th and nowhere.

August: Deep Ocean finishes out of the money. Owners grumble louder. King Driver and Eternal Gift take a road trip to Moulins, and both come home with money. No such luck in Deauville for Hard Way and the increasingly frustrating Gold Knight, but King Driver hits the board again in Chantilly. We hit the road again with Not Bad for a Boy, a horse that was a good two-year-old but has shown no interest in racing since. The race we find is in Chateauroux, and the competition can’t possibly get any easier. There are only eight runners, and they are not holding Arc entries. One is a scratch because the jockey jumps off on the way to the start, leaving only seven. We manage to finish 6th. But a few minutes after the race, there is an announcement: The filly who finished 4th was disqualified because the jockey failed to weigh in. We erupt into cheers. We get moved up to 5th, meaning Not Bad takes a 350 euro check! We find Not Bad a new job, where he doesn’t have to run fast.

September: Gorki Park comes up with the goods again at Longchamp, but Eternal Gift shows he’s not really a sprinter, after all, failing to fire on the 1,400-meter course. Hera Eria, who came from another trainer, runs a catastrophic race in Evreux, apparently terrified of being between other horses. We lower our sites for Gold Knight and send him out to the country, where he manages to take checks in Craon and Sable-sur-Sarthe. Deep Ocean is out of the money again, and the owners are finally grasping that the end of his career is probably here. My miracle-worker status has, not surprisingly, eroded. Santarini runs a comeback race and makes it clear that despite knee surgery, she’d really rather not be a racehorse.  We debut Greatest in an absolute bog in Fontainebleau, and nobody has a good time in the downpour. We give Hera another try, this time with blinkers so she can pretend she’s racing on her own. It helps, but not enough to get her in the money.

October: We head to Angers for what turns out to be a disappointing day: Santarini really isn’t interested in racing, and Deep Ocean can’t get out of the ground with his arthritic legs. He runs respectably, but it’s clear we should stop with both of these horses, so we do. Angers later in the month turns out to be the final venue for Grey Falcon, too, who is a victim of arthritis in both front knees. All three horses have found good retirement options – not easy for Deep, since he’s still a colt and not sound for riding. The Falcon and Santarini will both be in light work with owners who appreciate them.

On a better note, Greatest runs a decent race in Compiegne, and we add ear-plugs to Hera’s headgear, which seems to do the trick as she strides out for a second-place finish. Eternal Gift is our representative at Longchamp on Arc weekend, and he runs 5th in the handicap on the Saturday. King Driver places again and then finally hits the winner’s circle in Compiegne.

Charitable Act joins the team from the Newmarket Sales.

November: We decide to send Gold Knight to the sales, and the week before he miraculously hits the board in Lyon, which helped tremendously to move him along. Greatest still can’t quite make money, but does show some promise in Lyon, finishing in the first seven twice. Hera can’t confirm her second in Compiegne and seems to need better ground, and Hard Way just isn’t interested in racing at the moment, making November a tough month. Brightening things up slightly is the private purchase of Ray of Hope, a horse I’d had my eye on for some time.

December: Banker King Driver saves us again, running two places in Deauville. In eight races this year, he’s never been out of the money. Hard Way officially goes into semi-retirement. He may run again in the spring, but he may not. He’ll let us know. Hera turns in the most impressive gallop we’ve seen, and then pulls out lame the next day. Whatever has been bothering her from the start has become a much more serious problem, and she heads off to brood mare duties.

New recruit Ray of Hope runs a nice first race, finishing in the money even though we were sort of trying not to be; he came to us with a high handicap mark, and I wanted to see if he deserved it or not. Turns out he does. Charitable Act runs in the money, too, in his first race for us. Gorki Park fizzles, though, so will go on vacation for a few months to recharge for spring. Greatest still hasn’t made money, but I still believe he will.

We claim Melrand, a two-year-old filly who is a very nice prospect for the meeting in Cagnes, which is just around the corner. Two new yearlings go into pre-training and will join us in March….

Which brings us back to a new January. Hard to believe I need to be packing for Cagnes. One thing is certain this year: On my birthday, I’m staying home!

 

Meanwhile, back at the track…

France Galop backed down in the face of a very strong labor movement and for now, they have taken closing Maisons-Laffitte off the table. They sure haven’t backed down on Longchamp, though, and briefly posted a very high-end (read expensive) video previewing the “New Longchamp” on their web site. The film was hastily taken down, . . . → Read More: Meanwhile, back at the track…

A note from the Field Marshal

Back when the Internet was very young and I was still working at the International Herald Tribune (which no longer exists, sadly), we only had one computer in the newsroom that was connected to this new marvelous invention. The concept of interactivity was new and fun, and we were all agog at even the most . . . → Read More: A note from the Field Marshal

Here’s to a great Arc party!

We’re still recovering from another Arc weekend, but it was a great party and what an amazing race. Our paddock-side group grew to 28 people this year, as we gathered owners, potential owners and breeders from far and wide – a few Americans, plenty from England, a dash of Luxembourg, some Canadians (!) and even . . . → Read More: Here’s to a great Arc party!

Like an old friend

This blog has become like the letter to an old friend that you really want to write, but there’s so much to say you keep putting it off. Tonight, I’ve conquered my procrastination so here we go, starting back to front.

This has been a tremendously tough week, because we had a lot of runners . . . → Read More: Like an old friend

The Party Moves South

Our movable racing feast will move South on Saturday when Eternal Gift and King Driver race in Moulins. Everybody else seems to be in Deauville, which seems an ideal time to go elsewhere looking for winners. Eternal will run a mile handicap and try to confirm his victory at Longchamp. He should race well, because . . . → Read More: The Party Moves South

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