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.

Continue reading “Beyond There be Dragons”

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 out to be our best year ever down in Cagnes sur Mer, performance started to fall off. And then the coughing started.

At first, we didn’t panic. Vitamin C, echinacea and slowing down the work a bit should do the trick. But it didn’t. And it was hard to tell who was sick. The horses that were coughing were still eating like – well, racehorses. They seemed happy, no fever, no nasal discharge, just coughing. And not all of them. And some more than others. We did what you do in these situations – got the vets, did the blood tests, did the scoping, did the tracheal wash and more lab testing, disinfected the boxes. Everything came back negative. And still they coughed.

Four horses seemed to have the worst of it, so I played dueling veterinarians. We followed one suggested treatment for two of them, and another for the other two. One was more aggressive, chemically – seven days of a broad-spectrum antibiotic (even though we didn’t find any infection), followed by nebulizing with dexamethazone. The other protocol was an herbal cough syrup with DMSO and iodine. Not surprisingly, the second two improved, and the first two didn’t. But the frustrating part was that the horses who weren’t showing symptoms weren’t racing well either, for the most part. And this has gone on for months.

If it’s any consolation (and it is, I suppose just a little), I’m not alone. It seems almost everyone in France north of the Loire Valley has been hit with something. Even Andre Fabre (yes, Andre Fabre!) went 135 starts without a win. Now that’s saying something. Meanwhile, the guys down south have been cleaning up. Jean-Claude Rouget is lapping Fabre at the top of the trainer standings, and Henri Pantall is nipping at his heels. Six of the top ten trainers at the moment are all operating out of bases far away from Paris.

We may or may not all be struggling with the same bug – various permutations of problems are probably floating around. My theory is that the weather has been the root of the problem. Last winter was mostly cool and wet – very wet – but there was really no period of hard frost. And as much as I hate the cold, a good freeze kills many bad things, which this year were instead allowed to grow, fester and mutate. Summer has been strange, too, with really only a week of heat. Mostly it’s been a lot of rain and unseasonably cool temperatures (with the exception of the past couple of weeks).

In any case, all we can do is wait it out. As my friend Jean-Paul Gallorini, who is just pulling out of the same bad run of form, said: “Above all, don’t change anything.” We won races before using the same feed, the same training, the same yard as we have now. We will win races again. I realize this is the voice of wisdom, but nonetheless I have been looking more closely at our feed and mostly at our hay. It’s difficult to get consistent quality in hay, and since that is often the source of dust and various molds, I’ve finally invested in a hay steamer. I’d thought about it for quite some time, but was waiting to make sure it wasn’t just the latest gadget before getting one – not the least because they’re very expensive! But it seemed time, so we’ll start using it this week. It can only help.

Meanwhile, we forge ahead. We’ve put some horses on vacation that needed it, moved along others that needed moving along, and are kicking on with the best of what we have. The horses that have resisted are still running well, and I think we’ve turned the corner with most of the others. The good form will return. Watch this space!

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 I needed to be on Facebook for marketing purposes, which turned out not to be wrong. Facebook has been a useful tool for that. It also has been a colossal time-wasting addiction, but I digress. And it has also eaten my blog.

Facebook, for better or worse, is an extremely quick and easy way for me to update anybody who cares or claims to care about all the comings and goings in the yard, the races, the results and just random tidbits (that would contribute to the time-wasting part). I have a pretty large following there, and I have been resorting to communicating that way instead of by blog, which some of you have actually noticed. To those of you who still check back here regularly, I apologize. And once again, I will try to do better. Meanwhile, if you’re not already signed on to Facebook, just do it. It’s really not so bad. And if you’re paranoid that signing up to Facebook will open your entire private life in every intimate detail to cyberspace, don’t be. Facebook only knows what you want it to know, so just don’t tell it anything. They don’t need to know your birthday, your address or anything else pertinent. You need an email address and a name. That’s pretty much it. Sign up, “friend” me (yes, Facebook has verbed the noun) and I’ll add you to the Gallop France group there and you’ll see everything that’s going on.

Right, so some of you are still resisting. For you guys (all five of you, so I hope you appreciate it!), here’s what’s going on in a nutshell: Hard Way has resisted retirement yet again, and ran a comeback race down in the country yesterday at the ripe old age of nine. He finished third of eight runners. I had hoped he would win, because to say the competition was weak would be the nicest thing you might say. But third still requalifies him for handicaps, and he probably needed the run after six months off. Despite rock-hard ground, he seems to have come back OK.

Gorki Park also ran his comeback race, finally, after nearly six months off, and he came 4th in a 20-runner handicap in Maisons-Laffitte. He looks like he should be just as useful this year as last. He’s grown up a bit and will stretch out in distance this year – if we can find him a decent race, which is easier said than done at the moment. King Driver, our other stable banker, is just back from a short break. He finished third at St. Cloud in mid-May, but chucked off his jockey (twice!) and ran loose for quite some time around the racecourse before he got down to work. That was him telling us as clear as he could that he was ready for a vacation, so he got one. He’s back in training as of tomorrow after having spent a month at the spa  – a stud just north of us that specializes in massages and has a great water-walker to keep the muscle tone while on vacation.

Melrand and Pahlavan also had short stays there, as did Risk Well Taken, an unraced two-year-old who went for two weeks after coming up with sore shins. Risks’s stay there was nothing short of miraculous – she came back nearly 20 kilos heavier and bulging with muscle. Our other unraced two-year-old, Impulsive American, was almost ready to debut when he picked up a virus of some sort, which will set us back a few weeks. Pahlavan and Ray of Hope also got it, but they all seem to be on the mend now.

Charitable Act has been retired; his iffy joints were getting the best of him so we decided to stop while he was still sound enough for pleasure riding. Greatest has also moved on to greener pastures, but is still racing and just finished 2nd for his new connections. We wish him well – I always thought he was a good horse, but we were persistently unlucky with him. Clearly, a change was in order!

La Mer seems finally on track after having just about every problem a growing horse can have. She is back galloping, and will hopefully run a maiden in Deauville in early July. Eternal Gift has finally come down in the handicap to a mark he should be able to win from, and he’ll get a try in Amiens on Saturday. Gut Instinct also should be able to win a small race soon, but she would be better on softer ground. She has some good entries coming up, though, so I’ll have to decide whether to brave the good ground or not.

That rounds up just about everyone, I think. And reading back, I see the other problem Facebook has caused. Since I no longer write much more than a sentence at a time, it seems I’m losing the knack. I’d better get back to it, or I won’t be able to write that novel I’ve been talking about for the past two decades!

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 come home in varying states, some the better for it but all of them needing a bit of recovery time after working hard on the Riveria. New horses have come in, but they’re not ready for prime time and after having quite a successful time down south, it’s hard to digest a month of poor results, even if we haven’t run our best horses or had the best choice of entries. The weather doesn’t help. One minute spring is here, the sun is out and the rugs come off, and ten minutes later nature smacks you with a reality check and a frost. We end up having to change the horses’ clothes three times a day, alternating between nudity and parkas.

But April holds promise. The leaves are budding, opening day at Longchamp is right around the corner and our two-year-olds are starting to learn about speed. Most of our horses are starting to come into their coats and we have a far better choice of racing coming up in April than we had in March. We’re not over the hump with everybody – we still have some problems to solve before we’ll put our best foot forward. But there is some good racing coming up. King Driver will be back on track next week, I hope. He was ready to race 10 days ago but I had to pull him out at the last minute because he was entered in a divided handicap and would have fallen on the impossible side of the split. He’s ready to go, and will run at St. Cloud on April 8. Ray of Hope should come on from his last race and will go to Longchamp, either on April 6 or 13. Melrand is looking great and will run in a claimer in Compiegne before moving on to another handicap (assuming no one buys her, but we will do our best to defend). Eternal Gift will go to Longchamp for two races this month, as will Charlie, who I think will finally start paying his way.

We have other horses who are progressing but will need a race. New recruits Gut Instinct and April Rose will go out to the country on April 13 to see what’s under the hood before we tackle something harder. Greatest will go, too, in the hopes of finally finding the winner’s circle. He is so impressive in the morning but has been far less than impressive in the afternoon. I don’t know why, but hopefully we can turn the corner with him.

And of course hope springs eternal with unraced two-year-olds. Our American Post colt is looking very impressive, but he’s a big horse and might take a bit of time, although he seems to be growing before my eyes. He won’t be ready before June, I think, but he will be an interesting one to watch. Our filly, meanwhile, Risk Well Taken, should be a bit more precocious. She’s small but already well-developed, and if her character doesn’t get in the way, she could have some talent.

We’re not wasting time in April. Ducati will start us off tomorrow in Argentan, and he should have a good chance. He is only here on loan, so he’ll probably head back to Belgium soon, but he’s been a fun horse to have around. Then we’ll follow up with Melrand on Saturday. And then we’ll have put March behind us, and prove T.S. Eliot wrong.

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 the pond in America is once again reeling from a black eye the size of a bowling ball, this time inflicted by PETA, the animal-rights group. And the response so far is the same as it always has been when a public-relations disaster strikes: Find a fall guy, distance yourself from the problem, circle the wagons and for god’s sake get those damn journalists off the premisis!

PETA sent an operative with a hidden camera into the employ of super-trainer Steve Asmussen, and the results of four months of spying are pretty damning indeed. The videos released so far show various lamentations over lame horses and various ways to medicate them into some semblance of soundness for racing. Here’s the primary problem: Pretty much everything shown so far is perfectly legal in U.S. racing. And because the source of these revelations is PETA, which has a reputation as being extreme and biased, the horse racing industry is likely to put an ice pack on that black eye and wait for things to be getter rather than trying to reform itself so a similar whacking doesn’t happen again.

Horse racing in the United States is drowning in a cesspool of medication. So much is legal and standard practice that it is nearly impossible to find the cheating that pushes the envelop even further. Racing is a victim of the American medication culture. It seems Americans have an extremely low threshold for pain and an extreme ignorance of the side effects of the drugs they take to make themselves – and their horses – feel better. Here’s a quick lesson: Pain is nature’s STOP sign. Quickly medicating a problem to ease the pain and then continuing to do whatever caused the problem in the first place can only be a recipe for disaster. Injuries need time to heal, and in horse racing, time is money.

In one exerpt of PETA’s video, Asmussen’s assistant trainer Scott Blasi is swearing a blue streak over the state of the feet of a horse called Nehro, who was a favorite for the Kentucky Derby. From what I could understand between the repeated use of the word “fuck,” the horse’s feet were in a terrible state. (By the way, “fuck” is also one of my favorite words, as anyone who knows me can tell you. I do believe, however, that it should be used in a grammatically correct sentence that includes at least two three-syllable words.) Blasi was fighting against time to get this horse to the Derby. I can understand the pressure he was under. But he and his team made every wrong decision for this horse, and he ended up dead of colic not long after. A major cause of colic is stress, and the stress of having to deal with constant pain in his feet probably pushed this horse over the edge – that and the litany of drugs he was given to ease the pain.

Blasi took the fall; he was fired yesterday. Asmussen has closed ranks, and Kentucky Derby press passes exclude access to his barn. The various alphabet-soup organizations that run American racing have all issued statements saying they’ll look into the allegations and abuse will not be tolerated. Everyone will keep their heads down until, like the scandals before them, this one blows over. But this issue hinges on the very definition of abuse. Many involved in U.S. racing think we’re abusing horses over here in Europe because we do NOT allow them to be medicated to ease the pain on race day. I’ve also heard the argument that when somebody pays $1 million for a yearling, it better turn into a racehorse, even if it needs a little “help” along the way. It’s impossible to argue with anybody who thinks like this, because it’s like trying to reason with a toddler.

I’ve been trying to support efforts to reform U.S. horse racing for years, but I’m starting to lose hope. As an American who grew up watching the Triple Crown races, it is so sad to see the sport drive itself into a brick wall, then back up and do it again, and again. Eventually, there will be nothing left to crash. And that would be a shame.


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 of scenery, sort of like a vacation of sorts, a concept that doesn’t really exist for horse trainers; B) escape the frozen winter around Paris to get some sun on the horses’ backs and get an advantage in training for the spring season and c) make some prize money. Well, at least we managed to get C done.

Cagnes this year was a muddy, rainy mess, and it never so much as thought about freezing in Paris, so that defeated points A and B. We took nine horses down and in the unending deluge, it all turned out to be quite a bit of work. There was precious little sun, and no leg up on training over the horses who stayed up North, who, for the most part, were drier than we were. Despite it all, we had a good season. Only one win, thanks to the appropriately-named Ray of Hope, but 10 places and 71,000 euros and change in prize money. We were second a lot, which was frustrating, but it still put money in the bank.

And in the end, we did get a bit of sun. But overall it was a much calmer affair this year, with days of rain dampening spirits and all of us hunkered down trying to dry off, only to go out and get soaked the next day. The inner training tracks were flooded a lot of the time, which meant we were all stuck hacking along the main fibersand track, a surface that doesn’t do much to maintain muscle tone on a horse. Drainage pumps were working full time to keep the place from going under water, and that presented problems of its own. In order to get from our boxes onto the main track, we had to pass a drainage hose – which sometimes was spurting water and sometimes not. Any horse person reading this sees where this is going, right? By the end of the meeting, we swore someone was sitting in a booth somewhere with a hidden camera, pressing the button just as our horses had to pass. I challenge any dressage rider to do more perfect pirouettes than we were forced to sit through because of that drainage hose. I was the only casualty, in the end, a victim of my own overconfidence. Ray of Hope and I were already safely passed the danger (I thought) when blurp went the hose, sending King Driver behind me into a spin, and Ray thought King needed a dance partner. I missed the downbeat  and ended up on the ground. Charitable Act was in the middle and just stood there rolling his eyes, wondering what all the fuss was about.

Then there were the trotters, although there seemed to be fewer of them this year, which was a relief. Most of our horses got used to the clatter of sulkies trotting up behind them after a few days. Charitable was the exception. He didn’t care much for the trotters from the start, and his esteem for them did not grow as the meeting wore on. Luckily, he was not a declared runner the day the track decided to run a trotting meeting and a galloping meeting at the same time, with alternating races 15 minutes apart. This seemed like an insane idea when we heard about it, but in the end it wasn’t all that bad. There were a few short tempers around the vet boxes were the doping control was done, because it was far too crowded and the trotting drivers had to leave their sulkies elsewhere. One gave up and just drove in to the stabling area, scattering the gallopers everywhere. A fistfight nearly ensued, but it was diffused and the offending trotter was seen off.

When it was time to go home, I think we were all ready.  We’ve got some good prospects for the spring season, a couple of brand-new two-year-olds and a full yard to take us forward.