Weather permitting

Turns out that the all-weather fibersand in Deauville isn’t very all-weather at all, because it has turned rock-hard after several days of sub-zero temperatures. Racing was canceled on Dec. 31 because of a thick layer of fog, and then canceled again today because of the hard track. Latest news is that the groundskeepers are going to try to treat it with the same salt mixture used on the autoroutes, which strikes me as not a good idea.

We are entered for Tuesday with Pixie, but I’m not confident there will be racing at all. But in case there is, she worked on the all-weather here in Maisons-Laffitte today (which is a different surface than Deauville and is handling the cold just fine, thank you). Nadege, our jockey, galloped her with Hard Way, and both worked well. Hard Way is entered for Jan. 10 – again, weather permitting. Best news is that all the horses are eating well at the moment.

I know all these weather complaints sound stupid to those who live where there is real winter, like Chicago and points north, but France isn’t equipped for this sort of thing. We’re used to maybe a week of freezing, maybe in January. Meanwhile, we’re just trying to deal with it. And ordering more firewood.

Snow day

This is what we call a good old-fashioned snow day. We got hit with freezing rain that turned into a dusting of snow yesterday, it all froze overnight so now it’s impossible to do anything with the horses. They’ll stay in their boxes, get a good brushing and a hot bran mash tonight. And that means tomorrow everyone will have to fasten their seat belts for an energetic ride.

Cocoa, the baby dobermann, is like most kids stuck inside – squirmy and bored. Prof, the wise old basset, is doing his best to put up with her, even though he’d just as soon spend the day sleeping by the fire.

All this gives me the time to do what everybody else is doing: reflect back on the year and set goals for the next one. On the big picture, I’m obsessed with the U.S. racing scene, which looked like maybe, just maybe, might change for the better after years of horrible accidents and a dwindling fan base. I have been a proponent for years of eliminating ALL race-day medication in America, and this year it looked like people were finally waking up to the fact that it might be possible. But no, in the end, it was impossible to close Pandora’s box. Most states banned the use of some steroids, everyone patted themselves on the back and that was that. They couldn’t even go all the way and ban all steroids – certain levels of four are still allowed. Given that, I highly doubt they’ll ever get to the point of banning much else, especially lasix, the root of all evil as far as I’m concerned. I will continue to add my voice to the anti-medication movement in the coming year – I still haven’t learned the wall is harder than my head.

In France, the big threat this year was pressure from Brussels to open the monopoly parimutuel betting system to competition – namely bookmakers. France is fighting, but I don’t know how long they can hold out. If bookies are allowed in, the racing system in France would face a huge threat. As it is now, we have the best return of prize money in Europe, because the PMU system puts 8 percent of the handle back in the sport. In England, bookies return just 1 percent, and racing is struggling. The fight continues into 2009.

On the home front, it’s been a big year, filled with frustration and success, which is the definition of any horse business, really. The biggest step was to leave the Herald Tribune and go professional as a trainer; this next year will be crucial in determining how wise that decision was. Given the health (or lack thereof) of the newspaper business, I don’t regret leaving it, and I’m having a fantastic time in my new adventure. The results haven’t been too shabby, either. I’ve had 34 percent of my horses run in the money this year. There are, of course, the usual hardships that happen to all trainers – you walk over to feed in the morning and find somebody on three legs, you sense a horse just isn’t “right” coming up to race day, you have to crawl up onto a horse’s back even if you’ve come down with the flu the night before. All part of the business.

So my wish list for next year:

  • U.S. racing gets its act together, appoints a national governing body and bans all race-day medication.
  • France convinces the EU that bookmakers are really not a good idea.
  • Good health for the horses, and for me.
  • Victories for my current owners…
  • which should bring a few new ones to help fill the yard.

Happy New Year to all!

Riding out the cold

We’ve been hit with a cold snap, so as of tomorrow it will be almost impossible to get much work done. Probably one of the 1,800-meter straight gallops will be usable, plus the all-weather, which means every horse in Maisons-Laffitte will be on those two tracks. Riding these days is always a challenge, because that many fresh horses in close quarters can be dangerous. Cool heads usually prevail, and everyone keeps a tight hold on whatever they’re sitting on, we all grit our teeth and dream of spring. Luckily, Hard Way and Pixie are racing fit, so we won’t need to do much until their next entry in Deauville. Pixie needs a gallop, probably on Monday, which I’ll have to get done on the all-weather. Everybody’s been double-rugged and tucking into a hot mash at night; as for me, it’s double-sweater in front of the fire with the dogs catching up on episodes of House and Boston Legal.

Hard Way makes progress

Hard Way (or Pencap to some of my American readers) finished 6th of 16 runners today in Deauville, running really well for what was essentially a schooling gallop and finishing just out of the money. (The French call 6th place the “place du con”; the nicest translation is the imbecile’s spot. There are other nastier translations, but I’ll spare you.) He clearly learned from his run at Fontainebleau what is supposed to happen on the track, so this time instead of sleeping in the gate, he panicked and jumped out practically first. Luckily Nadege was able to move him behind a couple of otherhorses, but he got stuck boxed in on the rail and started to panic again – he had never been in such a tight spot with so many other horses before. So he pulled a bit on the backstretch, although he relaxed in the turn and got a couple of deep breaths in, which allowed him to show – again – nice acceleration in the straight. He looked a little shell-shocked after the race, and I think he actually galloped at what might be close to a top speed for him for the first time. But by the time he finished blowing, about 15 minutes or so, he was looking pretty pleased with himself and started to relax again. Like Fontainebleau, he will learn quite a bit from this race; now we just have to see if he keeps his cool and handles the next few days of recovery well. He only needs one more race to qualify for a handicap mark, and there’s another 2,400 meter race pretty much like today’s on Jan. 10, so if all goes well that will be his next target.

Pixie, meanwhile, will wait until Jan. 6 for her next run. I scratched her for Friday, because there were just too many points against her. She would have been running  a longer distance against older horses for the first time in the Tierce handicap, which is the most-watched daily race in France. On top of it, she’s gone slightly sour on her feed again and had a small stone bruise on her front right foot, so there’s no point in pushing her for Friday. The handicap on Jan. 6 is restricted to three-year-olds (well, they’ll be considered four after Jan. 1) and is for horses that haven’t won 20,000 euros this year, so that limits the competition a bit. It will also give that stone bruise another week to heal and give me a chance to get her eating up again. Plus the distance is 1,500 meters, which we know suits her. I think she will stay 1,900 or 2,000, but maybe a try at that can wait until the spring.

Meanwhile, back at the yard…

My big decision of the week is where to send Abwaab next, after his fifth-place finish in Deauville. We have two choices next week: A 1,500-meter handicap on the fibersand or a 1,000-meter handicap on the grass straightaway. Neither distance is ideal – I think he is best at 1,200 to 1,400 meters, but there are very few races like that at the moment, and he is fit and ready to run. But I’m not sure he has the puff for 1,500 meters and I’m not sure he’s fast enough for 1,000 meters.

The 1,500-meter race is for horses rated 28 and under, which we just make at 27.5. That means we’d be running against easier company than in the 1,000-meter open handicap.  At the moment, I’m leaning toward the longer distance, and I’ll need to commit by Saturday since the race is next Wednesday. Watch this space…

Meanwhile, the other horses are coming along. Pixie is the star of the show at the moment. She is really shaping up nicely and I hope to run her by the end of the month or early September latest.

Hard Way has been back home now for just over a week. He hasn’t changed a bit – after breakfast he lays down and sleeps the morning away, oblivious to horses coming and going around him. But has a lovely big gallop, and if he can keep his Mr. Cool attitude, he’ll be a joy to handle on race day.

It’s clear big Tyke needs time and patience. He’s still a big gangly thing and he’s taking it easy during what appears to be a growth spurt. And Amour keeps on progressing steadily, building back her fitness.

Arlington and the joys of Lasix

I stayed up late watching the Arlington Million meeting last night, where horses either bred or trained in Europe swept the top races. I have fond memories of Arlington from my days in Chicago, and I’m still holding out hope that one day all race-day medication will be banned and I might actually run a horse there. But for now, racing authorities in Illinois, like everywhere else in America, allow the drugs, and some European trainers traveling to big U.S. meets feel compelled to lose them or give an advantage to their locally-trained competition. But some trainers stick to their standards, and I was thrilled to learn that Spirit One, trained here in France by Philippe Demercastel won the Million without the use of Lasix.

Dermot Weld, on the other hand, used Lasix on Winchester in winning the Secretariat Stakes. Despite repeated claims that there’s nothing performance enhancing about Lasix, Winchester, who had what could only be described as an uninspiring career before Saturday, blew away the field when given the drug for the first time. Winchester went into the Secretariat, a Group 1 race, with only one win from five starts, that coming in a maiden race at Leopardstown in Ireland.

Hats off to Mr. Demercastel for showing the Americans how to do it right. As for Mr. Weld, he just did what most other American trainers do: Go for the needle because nearly everyone else does. Every runner in the Secretariat Stakes and the Group 1 Beverly D ran on Lasix. In the Million, four horses in the field did not — and one of them was even based in America. Maybe there’s hope yet.

The Big Horses in America

As much as I like to write about my own horses, anyone who knows me knows I have plenty of opinions about racing in general, and particularly racing in the United States.

The American racing press (which is mostly online these days) has been abuzz this week with Big Brown’s victory in the Haskell and the decision to run Curlin in the Woodward at the end of the month, leaving a possible bid for the Arc, the premiere race in Europe, in the dust. Racing fans seemed relieved with Big Brown’s win and cheered Jess Jackson’s decision to put Curlin back on the dirt; both owner and fans were quick to proclaim Curlin a world champion. Americans have a way of doing that – declaring themselves a “world champion” without ever leaving their own country. Curlin did venture abroad once, to win the Dubai World Cup. That, apparently, was all the proof Team USA needed to proclaim world supremacy.

The trouble with horse racing is that it’s impossible to crown anybody “world champion.” The Americans call the Breeders’ Cup the World Thoroughbred Championships, but it is always run somewhere in the United States, with U.S. rules, which means drugs, and plenty of them. Some brave European owners venture to America, lured by the fame and huge purses on Breeders’ Cup day. Most of them, unfortunately, choose to dope up, because if they don’t, they feel they are giving the American horses and edge. A few have resisted and won anyway. Now THOSE horses are the true champions.

I’m sure Curlin is a fabulous horse, but I would love to see him run truly drug-free. Even though Jess Jackson has come out against the use of race-day medication, Curlin, like just about every other horse in America, runs with Lasix (and possibly other drugs; the use has become so accepted and permitted that most states no longer require reporting them to the fans). Race-day drugs are not permitted in Dubai, but insiders know that testing is….well, let’s just say selective. I’d like to see Curlin run in Europe, where he would most certainly have to run clean, to see what kind of racehorse he really is.

Meanwhile, the buzz about the two big American horses will continue, right up to the Breeders’ Cup. Racing authorities have made noises about limiting medications, and most taken the first and important step of banning steroids. But until ALL of the drugs are banned, there can be no such thing as a “world champion” horse.

A decent run in Deauville

Abwaab finished 5th today in Deauville, which means he brought home a little cash and was faster than 15 other horses (there was a field of 20, the usual size for handicaps here). He had won at 1,200 meters in England, but I hadn’t tried him at that distance yet, so this was a good effort, especially on the straight course. I’ll probably look for something around the same distance next time – and he’ll let me know when that will be. Meanwhile, he’s back home in his box, tucked into dinner, and he’ll have a walk and some grazing tomorrow.

The track in Deauville was fantastic, exactly the kind of going he needs. So let’s hope for victory next time out!

No luck in Vichy, so on to Deauville

Abwaab’s trip to Vichy last week was unfortunately unsuccessful. I’m starting to call him Goldilocks, because he needs everything just right for him to run his race. The track in Vichy was unfortunately rock-hard, despite the official going rating of “good to soft.” There had been racing the previous night, and the track was left full of ruts and holes, which was not at all to Abwaab’s liking. We’ll see if he likes the track at Deauville a little better. He is entered to run the 1,200-meter handicap there next Tuesday. It’s a shorter distance for him, but he won at this distance in England, so maybe he can pull something out here.

The new arrivals are coming along. Pixie looks like the real deal, and I hope she can be ready to run in Deauville in late August. She still needs to settle down a bit — she seems to have a philosophical opposition to trotting and thinks the only galloping worth doing is worth doing fast — but she’ll get it. Tyke will need more time; he seems to be in a bit of a growth spurt, which is a good thing, so we’re not asking too much of him yet. Amour is rebuilding her fitness base after her three-month vacation, so she’ll let us know when she’s ready to step up to harder work.

Settling In

Well, the two new three-year-olds have been here for about a week, as has the returning Amour Creole, and they are finally starting to settle in to the routine. Cape Tycoon’s favorite part of his new surroundings seems to be the feed bin, while Pixie and Amour are a little more focused on when they can get out and stretch their legs. Pixie has been quite a handful, because she hadn’t been ridden for about a month before coming here. Amour, despite having spent three months on vacation, thinks she should be back to full gallop, so the challenge is to convince her that we have to work up to it gradually.

Abwaab runs at Vichy on Thursday, and we’ve had to change jockeys because our regular, Gregory Benoist, isn’t available. I’ve put up Davy Bonilla, best-known for piloting Marchand D’Or to  Group 1 success. I’m hoping Abwaab handles the expected hot weather and the transport OK, because he’s in very good form at the moment and I think this is a good race for him.