En selle!

Today was the day to start Tommy and Skid back under saddle, Skid after a month of vacation and Tommy after his knee surgery. Tyke, being already back in action one whole week, was the veteran of the group. To complicate matters, rain was dumping from the sky, punctuated by gale-force wind (which didn’t really start to pick up until after we had left the yard). Skid had changed very little during vacation; he kept nearly all his muscle tone and maybe grew a little. Tommy also looked as if he’d been regularly cantering, not sitting in his box doing nothing. This has always been the case with Tommy – you take his feed down, do nothing and he still walks out gleaming and ready to go.

“Il est trop beau,” Chantal, our stable owner, remarked. “He’s too good-looking.”  Meaning we were likely in for a wild ride, because clearly the horse thinks he’s ready to run at Longchamp, not trudge through the mud at a walk on the round track. The upside is that this horse is probably the healthiest I’ve ever seen, and he has a pure racehorse mentality. He loves his work. The downside is that it’s always tough to start back, when he needs to keep calm walking and trotting and not re-injure himself. (Vetranquil or other forms of chemical help have no effect on him, and even seem to make him worse.)

So off we went, and Tommy gave us approximately 100 meters before he decided to let us know that he thought he was in charge, the other two horses should get out of his way and we should get on with it. My rider Thibault was able to handle the ensuing rodeo pretty well, and I told him to just take Tommy out front and not argue with him. We put Skid behind and Tyke in the middle. At which point Skid’s nose got a little out of joint, and he tried to remind everyone that he was the only one of the three that still had all his private parts, and perhaps HE should be out front. But Agathe was able to settle him reasonably well behind, where he decided to sulk by prancing rather than walking. This finally got on Tyke’s nerves, and he decided he was tired of bing the trainer’s pony and maybe he’d like to play, too. So he let loose a squeal and started to kick up his heels. Just then, the skies opened up. It had been raining steadily anyway, but this was like someone had turned on a vigorous shower tap.  I’m sure all three horses thought we had done it on purpose; it was like throwing a glass of cold water on a misbehaving puppy. They all skulked down and started behaving – at least temporarily. So as miserable as the rain was, it served its purpose.

We’ll see if we can’t keep Tommy down to a dull roar tomorrow. It is forecast to keep raining…

The transformation of Tyke and Turfani

Cape Tycoon has been back to work for a week now, and even though he’s just walking and trotting (and bucking and playing around) he is clearly a changed animal from the one that left here four months ago. He is much more balanced now, and when he bucks it’s because he’s fresh, not because he’s trying to regain his balance. It’s going to be a long road back, because he’s such a big horse, but I’m much more confident that we have a decent horse to work with now.

Turfani, meanwhile, has bloomed into a fantastic big mare. She spent the winter eating and hack cantering, and she has put on about 50 kilos of muscle and looks great. She is slowly being moved onto the racing feed and will start her first canters next week. For the moment, she’s building endurance, hack cantering about 3,600 meters four times a week. Her first faster work will be 1,000 meters in hand, probably Tuesday or so.

Tommy, meanwhile finally got the all-clear from the vet after  his arthroscopic knee surgery in mid-December, so he will get to start walking out tomorrow. And Skid Solo comes back from vacation today, so he’ll also start back, too. Turfani and Hard Way should be the first runners of spring, if all goes well, with races for both in March.

What a relief

January marks my 15th anniversary of living in France, which means most of my adult life has been spent here. My husband and I still hold American citizenship, although we keep talking about getting naturalized here. For the past eight years, when a Fench person found out we were American, the first thing they did was offer their condolences. And it was appreciated – we’ve spent the Bush years slinking around embarrassed to admit our country of origin. Now, finally, we can exhale. Instead of condolences, I actually received congratulatory phone calls as the Obama inauguration was going on (which was slightly annoying, because I wanted to watch it, too).

One day, I hope that I can feel the same way about American horse racing. I am quite certain that the day the United States comes up with a nationwide ban on all race-day medications in horses, I will feel even better than I do today about the change in Washington. I know there are bigger things going on in the world than horse racing, but racing has become the center of my world, and one day I’d like to think that I could race a horse in America. I wouldn’t dream of it now. I am holding out hope for change, and that racing’s version of Obama will show up before it’s too late.

The beauty of being small

Somebody commented recently that they liked the idea that I had a small yard and knew all my horses personally. I like it, too – I run my yard under what the French call the “English style”, which means one person for every three horses. That gives us plenty of time to do whatever each horse needs. If we have horses that need a long, quiet ride in the forest, they get it. Horses that need shorter and faster get that, too.

I have six in training now (well, five, with Pixie on vacation), and really need six more to get the yard where I want it to be. For the moment, 12 to 15 is the limit (now if Sheik Mo wants to send me 30 yearlings, I’ll find a way to make it work, but somehow I don’t think I need to worry about that just now). I want to keep it small for two reasons: 1) I am a very hands-on trainer and I like to know exactly what my horses are doing, eating and thinking about and 2) Complex French labor law and high social costs make it difficult to break even when you run a bigger operation.

There’s a sort of no-man’s land between 15 and 30 horses where the numbers just don’t work, and very few trainers in that category are making a decent living. You either have to be small or big – and big by French standards is 30 to 100 horses. All this probably sounds pretty penny-ante when you look at American trainers that have upwards of 200 in training. But you will find very few trainers in Europe that can’t tell you about every horse in the yard. Yes, there are assistants, but there are no big satellite operations where the boss never sees the horses running under his name.

It’s true that with a bigger operation, I would be able to take in yearlings and more two-year-olds and start from the beginning. At the moment, I do best with buying horses that have come from a big operation but either haven’t done well there or have stopped doing well. A little individual attention can really turn things around. Turfani needed special feed to help her build up condition. Tommy and Hard Way love their artichokes. Rendelsham, a rehab project this spring, just needed to work a little less. I let him tell me when he needed to work, and instead of the three gallops a week he was getting in a big yard, he worked about once a week – and promptly took four checks home in a row.

And, truth in advertising, I’m also small for the moment because I’m just getting started. Like I said – I do need about six more horses. But I think with patience and a continuation of the good results we’ve had over the past year, will pick up. There are a lot of people out there who appreciate a five-star yard, where the horse gets plenty of attention.

I ride work every day, and alternate horses so I ride everything I train sooner or later. One of my favorite parts of training is the night stable, where I can take the time to tuck them all in, feeling every leg, adding a second rug if it’s cold, taking a little time with each of them. I know there are big trainers who might think my way is a little archaic, but that’s OK.  It works for me, and it seems to work for the horses.

Cape Tycoon comes back, Pixie gets a break

I trucked Pixie’s Blue up to Normandy today for a couple of months of R&R. She seemed to need the break, and since she doesn’t like heavy going anyway, there’s no point in keeping her ticking over for the moment. She will come back in mid-March with an eye toward racing in May and through the summer. The last race at Deauville served its purpose, in that her handicap mark has now come down to a reasonable 34.5, which will put us in a far better position to win some races this year.

I swapped her for Cape Tycoon, the Cape Cross gelding bought at the same time as Pixie last July. We put him out to finish growing, and it seems like the right move: his whithers have now come out and he is no longer higher in back than in front. In fact, he has turned into a huge shaggy beast during his time away, so he will take quite a bit of work to get moving again. He looks much more promising now than he did before. His shoulders have opened up, too…well he’s just huge all around. He still has iffy knees, but it looks like they’re not going to change, so we’ll have to live with them.

Back from a bit of sun

Ah, we got lucky on the Cote d’Azur. The sun was shining on Nice and a balmy 16 celcius helped turn last week into a frozen memory. Lunch yesterday on the terrace of a great restaurant overlooking the Grande Casino in Monaco, confit de canard for dinner and now back to Paris…where it’s rainy, but thawing.

I got a look at the brand new Polytrack in Cagnes sur Mer, and it looks very inviting. The first meeting was run on it yesterday, and the track got rave reviews from trainers and jockeys. I’m sorry I’ve got nothing to bring down, but that’s life. If I take horses to Cagnes, I jeapardize my spring/summer season, and it’s just not worth it. This is the first Polytrack used for racing in France; the other two are the training tracks in Maisons-Laffitte and Chantilly stolen from Evry when Sheik Mo pulled out. I’ll be watching the rest of the racing down there to see how it wears. I suspect Deauville will have to pull up stakes and replace theirs this spring, too.

Hard Way pays his hay bill

It’s been a long, cold day in Deauville, but a worthwhile one, because Hard Way managed to bring home a check – a small one, but a check nonetheless – for finishing 5th of 15 runners in a decent maiden race. We are really pleased with him, because he’s shown progress in every race he’s run. Maybe a little too much progress, since he’s gone from falling asleep in the gate in his first race to getting a little too agitated about it today, his third outing. He didn’t do anything too horrible, but he was prancing in place and almost rearing, so next time out we’ll ask to load him last or next to last. He jumped out a little too brilliantly and had to be settled back in the pack, but once he found his place he was relaxed and did everything right. He finished four lengths off the winner and turned in the best performance of the horses with almost no experience, so we have a lot to look forward to this spring.

Pixie didn’t have as good a trip, but it was not entirely her fault. She was running very well, and relaxed for a change, but just as Nadege asked for acceration after the final turn, a horse cut in in front of her and nearly caused a spill. Pixie probably wouldn’t have finished in the money in any case, but it was a shame to see her cut off like that. I complained to the stewards, who agreed it was a dangerous move and the jockey was called in. I don’t know what the punishment was; I’ll have to read it tomorrow in the Paris Turf like everyone else.

So now winter racing is officially over for us; Pixie will have a break in Normandy. She doesn’t run well in heavy going anyway, so there’s no point in keeping her primed up for March/April racing here. We will look to have her ready to race again in May. Hard Way stays in the yard, where he will be on the easy work list for a few weeks but ready to go again in March.

I, meanwhile, am heading down to Nice for a couple of days to see my friend Jean-Paul and thank him personally for the use of his truck. Like I needed an excuse to escape this cold. It’s no heat wave down there, but at least it’s quite a few degrees above freezing.

Deauville or bust

Well, final declarations are in, so both Pixie and Hard Way are committed to running in Deauville tomorrow. After a one-day respite yesterday, when it warmed up to a balmy 1 degree above zero and we were able to leave the yard the normal way, the temperatures dove back under today, making things even worse than before because the stuff that thawed yesterday refroze. So it was back on the truck this morning for the short trip over to the all-weather track to put the finishing touches on for tomorrow. Both horses had no interest in relaxing into slow work today, and we had all we could to do hang on and prevent a full-blown breeze. Needless to say, tomorrow they will be fresh. Should be interesting. Hard Way looks really good, and he’s got a chance at something, I think. Unfortunately, if he actually manages to win, his future handicap career will be completely screwed. Pixie, already heavily penalized in the handicaps, will at least shave some weight tomorrow because I doubt she can make money with 62 kilos on her back. A suivre….

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….)