Pretty much the entire yard will get a chance to race over the next three days, which will give us a chance to see how what sort of team we’ll bring to Cagnes sur Mer this year. Most our horses are coming back after a break, and we are really looking forward to see how they’re doing because they’re flying at home.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.