Deauville sorts it out

Looks like the road crews imported from the autoroute managed to thaw out the track in Deauville, because there was a full card of racing today. A mixture of road salt was harrowed deeply into the track, and judging from what I could see from the television coverage, the result was deep, fluffy, rideable stuff. If they can keep it up, there will be racing through the week, which means racing for us on Saturday. I don’t know what kind of soup this will all melt into when the weather finally breaks, but for now, it looks promising.

The only problem is we’re still in the deepfreeze in Maisons-Laffitte, with the exception of our Polytrack, which is impossible to get to on horseback from my yard. So we saddled up Pixie and Hard Way this morning, loaded them into my friend Jean-Paul’s truck and hauled them over to the track. It all went very well, and both horses showed nothing but positive effects from their mini-vacation. If we can’t get over to the track the conventional way tomorrow, we’ll do the same thing again, and on until Saturday.

The deeper track should suit Hard Way very well, but I’m less certain about Pixie. The race Saturday was really a second choice for her, because she’ll carry top weight of 62 kilos and will be going a longer distance for the first time, which is far from ideal. On the other hand, if she finishes nowhere, it will at least take her handicap mark down another kilo or more, which would really help place her this spring. Her owner and I will talk it over tomorrow morning and make a final decision.

Fibersand explained

The difference between the synthetic track in Deauville and Maisons-Laffitte has been explained by my friends at Jour de Galop, a daily Internet newsletter that is the only journalism worth reading on the French racing scene. The track in Deauville was made by a company called Viscoride and installed in 2002. It is supposed to be usable down to minus 7 degrees Celcius, but that has turned out not to be the case. It is mostly sand, blended with fiberglass fibers and a wax glue. In Maisons-Laffitte, we have an old version of Polytrack, composed of sand, fiberglass and chopped up rubber from electrical cabling all bound together with a wax sealant. The Polytrack sand is whiter and flufflier than the heavy yellow stuff in Deauville. It is supposed to be usable down to minus 10 Celcius, and that seems to be true, because we’re still using it and Deauville had to close up shop.

Deauville has been harrowing in a salt mixture for three days, and they now say the track is fine and there will be racing today. I will be watching with interest, because I still have two entries for Saturday. Unfortunately, my horses have been stuck in their boxes for the past two days, so if there is racing, I’m not sure we can run. We are going to try to get the two horses with entries out today, to do what and how I’m not sure.

Somebody responding to a post on the Paulick Report sneared at Polytrack, saying it actually stunk; this person was clearly pissed off that his precious dirt track was churned up for something safer for the horses. Can’t have that – it interferes with “speed ratings,”¬† timed workouts and all the other numbers that American punters hold dear. Well, as a trainer, I can tell you that I’m a fan of Polytrack, and I hope that when Deauville has to install a new surface (which is inevitable, since they’ve added salt to the track they have), they go with Polytrack. It’s been riding great in Maisons-Laffitte. (Now if only I can find a way to get my horses over to it….)

Welcome fellow bloggers

Regular readers may notice some new stuff to the right: the logo for a group called the Thoroughbred Bloggers Alliance and a standings table (with advertising!). I have reached out to my fellow bloggers and they have agreed to let me join their Alliance, so welcome to any of you who have found me through your favorite TBA blog. There’s a lot of good, fun, strange and just plain interesting stuff on the TBA blogs, so I’m pleased to be a part of it all. The common thread is a group of people who care deeply about the thoroughbred business, and passion should never be underestimated in this game. (Now if only I could get them to internationalize that standings table…)

Stuck

Deauville has bagged it for tomorrow, which is actually good news, because it has been snowing all day in Maisons-Laffitte. We don’t usually get snow in winter here, and if we do, it’s usually a nice-looking dusting that is gone within hours. It started coming down here about 6 a.m., and it’s now mid-afternoon and there is at least three inches on the ground. It’s beautiful, but completely crippling: all horses stayed in their boxes and most humans, if they have a brain, are staying put. The ones that are trying to drive around are pretty amusing to watch, since most people have no idea how to drive in snow.

The temperature is forecast to drop sharply tonight, which means the snow will stay around for a bit and makes it unlikely we can do anything with the horses tomorrow, either. I still have two live entries for Saturday in Deauville, and I suspect all racing will end up being canceled, but just in case, I need to have them ready. Two days in the box will not be catastrophic, since both Pixie and Hard Way are fit and ready. On the contrary, for Pixie at least, the enforced time off will do her good. (Being a filly on the light side, two days of eating and rest should help rather than hurt.) And Hard Way is just so amenable to whatever we do with him, he won’t care. But by Wednesday, we need to get back out there if there’s any hope of a Saturday race. After that, the season in Deauville is officially over and we have to sit back and wait for March. Settling into a slower winter routine is fine, with less feed and little work, but the frustration is not knowing for sure if we’re there yet. So we just have to hang in there this week and see what happens.

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.