A Good Effort

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.

Big Leagues

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.

Beyond There be Dragons

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.

I thought Ella Diva was quite a nice filly when I bought her out of a claiming race for my English owner. We’d been looking for a horse for months, tried to claim a few and failed, and were getting increasingly frustrated at the process. But we kept hunting, and in late June at Clairefontaine, there was a claiming race for two-year-olds that looked promising. We liked two or three on paper, and Ella Diva was one of them. When I saw her in the parade ring, she ticked all the boxes. Physically, she was just about perfect – not too big, but well put together, with straight legs, a clear eye and good, harmonious muscle. Even more impressive was her demeanor. She had only run once before, when she debuted a winner in Craon, but she was strolling the parade ring like she had done it a hundred times – calm, confident, paying no attention to other young horses acting silly.

She ran like an old pro, too, relaxing in midfield and then accelerating smartly to win when it was time to get serious. She looked like the real deal, and my owner agreed. She was in for the top price of 40,000 euros, so to be sure we got her we put in 43,511. Not too many horses get claimed for that kind of money, and the trainer said he wouldn’t defend, which made me slightly nervous until he explained that he had only paid 8,000 euros for her as a yearling, so with the two wins and selling for that price, he and his owners would make a more than tidy profit. I was even more nervous when the claiming box was opened and ours was the only bid. Turns out, I needn’t have worried.

Ella settled into our yard like she’d been there her whole life. She didn’t seem to care where she was, as long as there was a good bed to sleep in (there was) and a regular supply of good food (there was that, too). I had claimed her to race at the week-long summer festival in Vichy, and she trained up to that race perfectly. It was a step up in company, and Ella was perhaps mildly surprised at the effort required to win, because she managed it only by a nose. But win she did, so now it was time to play some serious poker. Could she step up again? We came back to Vichy two weeks later for a Listed race, the Prix Jouvenceaux et Jouvencelles. And she did it again, but showing tougher stuff this time. She was headed in the stretch, but fought back just enough to get a head in front when it counted.

And now, all of a sudden, we are in possession of an undefeated, black-type two-year-old filly. That, of course, is when the phone starts ringing. We have offers for eight times what we paid for her. The smart money says “sell.” She has done what we have asked, but only just, and she will now have to face much, much tougher company. Can she do it? The stakes have been raised considerably.

Her owners are no strangers to racing, and they know that the Good Horse comes along only rarely, if at all. If they sell, they will buy two or three more – and probably not have one as good. Or maybe they will.

We got together the other night for dinner to celebrate the Listed win. It was a family affair, there was singing, laughing and drinking out of the trophy. Selling, for the moment, doesn’t look likely. Who can blame them? The logical program for this filly is a Group 3 race in Chantilly, then on to a Group 1 try at Longchamp on Arc Day. We’re entered for Chantilly, and we’ll enter for Longchamp, too. For the moment, the owners want to go all in. Should be quite the game!

Worth the Trip

The night we were loading up to head south for our annual trek to Cagnes sur Mer in the depths of darkest January, I was thinking to myself, “I’m not doing this again. This is too hard on everyone.”

First came two stalls packed to the top with everything we need to train and race 10 horses for six weeks. Water buckets, feed buckets, saddles, bridles, rugs – oh, the rugs. Winter coats for cold nights, lighter polars for sunny days, exercise sheets, rain sheets, presentations sheets, saddle cloths…it was endless. And of course, the hay steamer had to go. And the wheelbarrow. Forks, brooms, bandages….and then, of course the horses. After nearly two hours of loading, we were exhausted and then we had to get US down. Two by train, one by car, baggage wherever it would fit.

But then Cagnes works its magic. We arrived to full sun, palm trees, an azure sea, mimosa about to bloom – a fabulous place to work. By the time the horses were tucked in their new boxes, our tack and feed rooms set up and we were installed in the sun at the cantine around a great lunch and a bottle of rosé any doubts about the trip were far behind us. The weather cooperated this year, unlike last year, when we were pelted with endless days of rain. The horses, for the most part, cooperated, too. They did what they were supposed to do. They soaked up the sun, ate like they were on vacation and worked like champions. We won three races and placed six times, for total earnings topping 65,000 euros and our best meeting so far in the five years I’ve been making the trek.

There were some disappointments, of course. Barbe a Box never ran a decent race and his owner got fed up and moved him to another trainer. Fair enough, but the horse needs gelding, and until that happens, I’m not looking for a miracle on the racetrack. We had to stop with Pahlavan because his wobbler’s syndrome made him too dangerous to continue. Gorki Park told us yet again that while he is fine with sun, he doesn’t like the sand. And Risk Well Taken is still fighting with us about whether she wants to be a racehorse. The jury’s still out on that one. But the others picked up the slack. Ray of Hope won his comeback race and then won again, just to make sure he’d keep his place in the first string. Not to be outdone, King Driver came up with the goods, and Moughjim, Eternal Gift and Impulsive American all took home checks.

When the season ended, we didn’t want to come home (not least because it meant packing up everything we’d brought down). But it wasn’t just the wonderful weather that was making us drag our heels. Last year, when we got home almost everybody got sick, horses and humans alike. It took us six months (and a hay steamer) to get the ship righted. Reality and the racing calendar meant that we had to go home, so we did. But what a difference a little sun makes. This year, everybody got home same and healthy, and we saw the proof yesterday at St. Cloud: we scored our first double when King Driver and Gorki Park both won their races, taking advantage of the fitness they build in Cagnes. Moughjim also was in the money again in Lyon. Only Ray of Hope told us he really didn’t want to leave Cagnes. He was never traveling when he ran in Deauville last week, but the fiber track there is a considerably harder surface than the track in Cagnes, and he never found his action. We’ll try him on a yielding turf course and he’ll find his winning form again.

We’ve had five winners so far this year, which puts us ahead of all of last year, and we’re just getting started. Spring is finally coming to Paris, and we’re ready for la vie en rose!

Let’s Cook!

The day I wheeled the hay steamer off the truck, you’d think I’d just brought in the first motorcar of the industrial era. A small group of curious onlookers crowded around the new, mysterious machine with a mix of skepticism and apprehension. Chantal, the landlady of our stable, immediately started pacing the yard. The machine would consume two things she holds most dear: Electricity and water.

“You’ll need a special outlet for that. It’s going to take a huge amount of power,” she said, pacing around the steamer unit at a safe distance. I left her alone to digest the new contraption to go and watch the lot of horses I had just sent out to work. When I returned, she was measuring the length of the steamer box itself, an imposing, black casket-like box that could hold a bale and a half of hay or two bodies, if you were so inclined. “Where will this go? How much steam will come out when you open it? Where is the instruction manual?”

I continued to go about my work, and after the next lot, she had brought down her husband, Alan, to survey the situation and had read most of the instructions. “You’ll need a longer hose, too,” she decided. She spent most of the day fretting about how it would all work, and the next day our electrician friend came to install an outlet – and a meter so we could pay our share of the cost. “It’s not that big of a deal,” he said. “You mean I don’t need to build that nuclear power plant in the back yard?” I asked. Chantal, overhearing, stormed away. It was time to get started. We filled up the reservoir, put the first bale in the coffin, snapped it close and hit the button. An hour later, we popped it open to see the results, and they were impressive: The hay smelled wonderful and it was dust-free.

Mark, an owner who also doubles as our yard man, took to the new machine with the fervor of Heisenberg. He set his cell-phone alarm for every cycle, calculated how many bales we’d need for the day, came up with a system of rotating them through and – most importantly – kept water in the thing so it wouldn’t burn dry. We were cooking. And I’m sure it’s a coincidence, but the day we started feeding steamed hay, the horses started running better. We sent out six runners in the week after we started using the machine, and every one of them made money. Now this is what we’re more used to around here, and we desperately needed it after a dismal run of luck.

Fanoos started us off by hanging on to 5th place in a very hot condition race in Fontainebleau. She was only beaten a length and would have been closer if she hadn’t slowed down to watch the horses walking in the stabling area just next to the course about 200 meters from the finish. Gut Instinct followed up with fourth a couple of days later in Nancy, and then Hard Way won in Chantilly. It was the old man’s fourth career win and put him over the 100,000 euro mark in earnings. It also broke our losing streak. Just 20 minutes earlier in Craon, Alice’s Dancer finished 3rd in a Listed race, surprising us all. It was a fantastic run and fulfills our objective of getting some black type for her breeding career. Barbe a Box and Impulsive American rounded out the results, with both of them finishing fourth – Bbox in Lyon and the Imp in Maisons-Laffitte.

So it seems that we’ve turned a page, at least for now. We still have some problems to solve, as usual, but the recent run has made everyone breathe a little easier. Even Chantal, who has been convinced that maybe the new machine is harmless. And apparently quite helpful.

Bitten by the Bug

We’ve had an extremely disappointing summer, weather-wise and race-wise – the two are probably related. We’ve had a few places and the odd win here and there, but horses that should be winning aren’t, and some of our runners are turning in downright humiliating performances. It all started this spring. After what was starting . . . → Read More: Bitten by the Bug

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 . . . → Read More: The agony and the ecstasy of social media

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 . . . → Read More: Literary License

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 . . . → Read More: For PETA’s sake

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 . . . → Read More: A River Runs Through It

High Street Racing

Join the new French thoroughbred racing syndicate. Find out more at highstreetracing.com.