November sucks, to put it in simple, non-literary terms. It’s dark as midnight at 6 p.m. It’s just as dark at 6 a.m., but colder. There’s no decent racing to be had – the flat season is over and winter racing hasn’t started yet. But there is a faint glimmer at the end of the tunnel, and that glimmer is Cagnes sur Mer.
Cagnes, which runs from mid-January to the end of February, is beckoning like a crocus in springtime. The days will start getting longer. It will be sunny. It will be warmer. Because of this promise of a winter escape, demand always exceeds supply for the stabling available. The letters announcing who got what were sent last week, and trainers were like kids at Christmas. “How many boxes did you get?” “How many do you really need?” “Can I have yours?” “Did you get housing, too?” “I’ll trade you my studio for three boxes.”
Scrambling for space will continue right up until the meeting starts on Jan. 16, and the first few days are always a little stressful when everybody tries to stake their claim. The best horses are put away during these dark months to await the higher quality racing in spring and summer. Winter belongs to the rest of us. And there are a lot of the rest of us.
The road to Cagnes begins in Deauville in December, and the follies of trying to get a run or two in before Cagnes have begun. Beause of the limited number of races, entries are vastly oversubscribed. So many horses want to run that France Galop puts special rules in place for who gets eliminated during the winter meetings. Entering horses becomes a complicated game of chess – you enter horses in races you don’t want to run in order to get eliminated and get a priority entry for races you do want to run. But then you have to hope your priority is valid for the race you want – it isn’t always. Horses often end up running in races that don’t suit them just because the entries worked out that way – handicaps will draw easily 100 entries.
If we get lucky, we will have six or seven horses running on Dec. 11-12 in Deauville in preparation for Cagnes. But we won’t know until three days before the race. Our stalwarts King Driver and Ray of Hope are jumping out of their skin and ready to go. King is coming off a long lay-up and Ray’s been on vacation too, waiting for Cagnes. They’ll warm up in Deauville first, we hope. Gorki Park won’t go to Cagnes and doesn’t like the fibersand, but he’ll get a run in Deauville anyway, because his handicap mark is probably too high, so while he’s in good form we can start to work on lowering it.
We have some late two-year-olds in the yard, too, and one of them is ready to see what racing is about, so she’ll look for a run next month. Grey Sensation also will come back out, and our new recruit Bleu Astral is just about ready, too. He’s the first horse for our High Street Racing syndicate, and we are anxious to see what’s under the hood.
All this gives us something to take our minds off November. Which, thankfully, is nearly over!
I just got back in from changing the horses’ clothes for the fourth time today. I turned the heat on. Then swatted a mosquito. It’s mid-November.
When a friend of mine gave me an American Pharoah t-shirt on Arc weekend, I didn’t think I would get a chance to wear it before next summer. But this past week temperatures have topped a sunny 22 degrees (71 Fahrenheit). More than half the horses had already quite sensibly grown their winter coats. A couple have resisted. Turns out they had the last laugh.
The past two weeks have been a litany of changing horses’ rugs, getting them clipped, changing the rugs again, changing our minds and going back and changing them yet again, only to arrive the next morning to find some too hot, some just right and the odd one who managed to rip off his rug in an equine version of a hot flash but then regret it around 4 a.m., when temperatures reached their lowest. Personally, I much prefer this kind of autumn weather to the rainy cold we usually get, but I do fear that Mother Nature is going send us a walloping big bill for all this heat in a couple of weeks, with temperatures likely to plunge straight into the deep freeze.
November has always been a tough month in racing, weather aside. The main flat season is over, but the all-weather winter season has yet to begin. The days are shortening and we’re losing our light. Some horses are winding down, while others are getting ready for winter racing – some too quickly. King Driver hasn’t raced since April – he had a long lay-off after some minor knee surgery. He wasn’t supposed to be ready to race again until at least December, but he’s jumping out of his skin needing a run now and we’ve got absolutely nothing for him. We’re in the same boat with Gorki Park. He doesn’t act on the fibersand so we desperately need another turf race for him, but there’s nothing suitable left and he’s in fantastic form. We’ll have to try him at a longer distance again, because that’s all we have. He won at 2,000 meters last year, but a mile is his best trip.
Ray of Hope is coming off his vacation and getting ready at a more sensible pace. He’ll have a run in Deauville in December and then head south to Cagnes, his favorite track. Preparing for Cagnes is the focus in the yard at the moment, and we should be pretty well-armed this year. Ray and King are confirmed performers there, and we’ll add new horses for our High Street Racing syndicate, along with a few new three-year-olds.
Hopefully, the weather down there will cooperate. This past year was beautiful, but two years ago it rained so much we were swimming rather than training. The current strange weather has me a little worried about what might turn up in January!
The pheasant that could have ended my life this morning chose not to, for which I was grateful. Far away into my own thoughts, I didn’t see him preening alongside the trail until the last second – Hard Way was nearly on top of him, bowling along toward home in a huge extended trot. Too late to stop, all I could do was crouch lower to the saddle and hope he didn’t choose that second to fly off, which would have resulted in me flying too, probably straight into a stone wall. The pheasant stayed put, and Hard Way coasted past – he probably didn’t see him, either.
At the ripe old age of 10, Hard Way may have lost a step on the racecourse, but he is still a force to be reckoned with riding out. He is an extremely powerful, flexible horse, and he comes equiped with a turbocharged engine mounted on a four-wheel drive chassis with anti-lock breaks and an onboard satellite navigation system. He has spent his entire life training on his own in the national forest, because he doesn’t care much for other horses. Consequently, he’s still got the best legs in Maisons-Laffitte, having spent his entire life galloping through rugged terrain, jumping whatever gets in the way. He’s got a map of the entire Foret St. Germain stored in his head, and he knows exactly which trails are for trotting and which are for galloping. He’s not afraid of much, but like any prey animal, he can be startled, and when he spooks, there’s very little chance of staying aboard if you didn’t see it first.
I’ve ridden Hard Way since he was two. Now that his racing career is mostly behind him, he has been relegated to “last lot” status – meaning he gets ridden out when everything else is done, except twice a week when he has a fast workout in the training center. Our ride out at morning’s end has become almost a daily meditation session for me. We know each other by heart, Hard Way and I. Once I decide which circuit we’ll use, he sets off on automatic pilot, and I do the same. My mind wanders off into analyzing the morning workouts, deciding on entries, digesting the news, good and bad. Mostly these days, it’s been bad. This time of year tends to be that way – the main flat season has ended, winter racing hasn’t started yet, and owners are deciding what to do for the next year. We’re in a rebuilding phase again.
Ella Diva gave a game try at Group company but wasn’t quite good enough. That’s not necessarily bad news, but I might have chosen a different set of entries for her if it was completely up to me, which it wasn’t. We weren’t disgraced, in the end, but she could have done better. She’s off on her winter holidays now and hopefully she’ll come back to me in the spring and we can start again. She’s a really lovely filly and has the heart of a racehorse, which she proved in the races she won for us. But the yard feels pretty empty without her around.
A few other horses won’t be coming back to us. Miss Post Office and Casquito are off to new trainers because their owner was unhappy with the results with me. Fair enough, but both horses need a rest when they came to me in the first place, and that advice wasn’t followed until it was too late.
We’ve had a couple of new additions, which thankfully fill those holes. Grey Sensation won’t stay with us for long, because he’s destined to be sold, but we’re enjoying him while we have him. And we hope Sainte Altesse, a huge leggy unraced two-year-old with an absolutely wonderful disposition, will be ready to tackle Cagnes sur Mer.
And we finally bit the bullet and started a syndicate called High Street Racing. Birthing a syndicate in France requires the patience of Job, and every time we thought we were ready to launch there seemed to be another roadblock. I went to France Galop yesterday to see where we were in the approval process, only to find that our “dossier” had been relegated to a stack since August. “But madame, we thought you were abandoning the project because the dossier is not complete!” Really. We didn’t know that. Apparently it would have been too much effort to pick up the phone or send an email asking us for what was missing – which includes five more piece of paper giving them information they already have.
But while the French are specialists at endless, ridiculous rules and paper, it was the Americans who really threw the spanner in the works with a fresh hell known as FACTA. The American government has decided to accuse all its citizens living abroad as money-laundering terrorists and now demand that any bank doing business with an American file documents that include balances for any account that any American has anything to do with. Consequently, French banks can’t run away from Americans fast enough. What we thought would be a routine task of getting a bank account turned into a delay of several weeks while we pleaded with every bank in France. We now have a bank account (we think – we’re not actually sure yet). But all this means that we’re selling shares in High Street now, when we should have been selling them two months ago.
We had hoped to get the syndicate sold to buy horses at the Newmarket Horses in Training sale next week, but this is now doubtful. If we can sell 10 more in the next three days, we can still go ahead, so if you’re reading this and you have any desire at all to get a toe into French racing, buy a share! They’re not expensive – 5,000 euros for two years of racing with prize money distributed at the end. C’mon. What are you waiting for?
Labor pains for the syndicate and frustration with some owners aside, we’ve had our best year ever in terms of results, nearly doubling what we did last year and keeping the percentages up. We’ve won 11 races and placed 35 times with never more than 10 horses in the yard. The frustration is that we seem stuck at around 10 horses in the yard, and that’s not enough.
On the upside, we have some good things to look forward to. King Driver has come back from vacation and looks better than ever. He is absolutely flying on the gallops and I can’t want to see him back in action. We don’t have much choice for entries in November, but we hope to get him out somewhere mid-month. Ray of Hope also had a layoff and looks much the better for it. Cagnes will be the primary objective for both of them, but they’ll be ready to race a bit sooner.
Gorki Park had a short vacation and came back a winner at St. Cloud. He’ll try to do that again on Sunday, and he has a very good entry. And even Risk Well Taken, who has done everything possible not to live up to her name, seems to be showing a bit of spark, so you never know.
Hard Way is still ticking along, but he did have two good chances to win and didn’t fire in either of them, so eventually I suppose he will retire. He’ll have a couple of more tries yet this year, though. He still seems to want to run. Maybe there will be a strategically placed pheasant next to the racecourse. That should do the job.
Ella ran a pretty gutsy race for her first try in Group company yesterday in Chantilly. She finished fifth, in the end, picking up our first paycheck in a Group race, despite a less-than-ideal trip – both on the racecourse and in the truck getting there.
No one wants to see your best horse walk off the horse box with blood streaming down their face, but these things do happen. About midway between Maisons-Laffitte and Chantilly, Ella lost her balance. Maybe something startled her. Or maybe she fell asleep. Or maybe she was reaching to find that tiny blade of hay that might have been tucked waaaayyyy down in the corner. For whatever reason, she fell on her nose and smacked the top of her head, opening up a tiny wound just where a vein passes. It was superficial, and she walked off the truck like “what? What’s everybody looking at?” But she did look like she’d been in a boxing match, or like a kid who fell of a bicycle.
By the time we cleaned her up and stopped the bleeding, it was clear she was suffering no ill effects from her stumble. She was on her toes and ready to run – probably a little too ready. The first four races of Ella’s career were run in relatively quick succession – the longest time she had between races was three weeks, after we bought her, and she won her Listed race not even two weeks after winning her conditions race. This time, she’d been off the course for more than five weeks, and it showed. She was more keyed up than usual, and we let her decide how she wanted to race rather than have a fight.
She ran just off the shoulder of Antonoe, the winner, for three-quarters of the race. Antonoe is an extra-terrestrial, with a stride a mile long. “We were taking three strides to every one of hers,” our jockey said after the race. When the serious work started in the stretch, Ella gave it a game try but couldn’t stay with the others. Still, she never stopped trying and was beaten a total of six lengths. In her wake were Penjade, who she already beat once before in Vichy, and Alinstante, the English rader. She was making some effort to close on the fourth-placed horse, but wasn’t going to get there.
Ella was blowing a bit after the race, but she came back fine overall. This morning, she was supple and sound, and did some hack cantering like nothing had happened yesterday. She has a bit of racing ahead of her yet this year. The logical step would be to go back to Listed company in the Criterium de Lyon on Sept. 24. If she runs well there, a try in the Marcel Boussac is still a possibility if the ground turns soft to heavy. If not, she has other Group possibilities between now and November, when she’ll go on her winter holidays.
She’s a game filly, and she proved she has a right to take on the best. And for her next trip, she’ll be wearing her crash helmet on the truck.
You know you’ve jumped into the deep end when you bring an undefeated horse to the racecourse and you go off the longshot.
Ella Diva has done everything we’ve asked so far, but tomorrow we’ll see what’s really under the hood. Luckily, she can’t read the program, because she’ll be standing in the starting gate next to a slick miss trained by Andre Fabre who cost 720,000 euros as a yearling. On her other side will be a royally bred Khalid Abdullah filly trained by Pascal Bary. The two of them are supposed to finish first and second in the race, the only question is in which order. Ella doesn’t know that, though, so she will do her best to crash the expensive party.
Four other horses are also fighting for the scraps. None of these fillies has run a mile, so there are a lot of questions to be answered tomorrow. What we do know is this: Ella likes a fight, and she needs a decent pace. The problem is who will set it. None of the horses are necessarily front-runners, so we might run the risk of having to go in front. I hope not. Six other trainers are going to bed tonight hoping not, too. Well, maybe not – Andre Fabre is probably going to bed tonight wondering about his next polo match. He’s done this so many times I can’t imagine he worries about anything one way or another. Not so for us. This is our big day. We’re hoping our little filly does her best, and we hope her best is good enough to keep her in the mix. Stay tuned.
We are heading into uncharted territory. Finally, after seven years of training, we have a Good Horse. And that means the weeks ahead are about to get quite interesting.
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