Off to the Derby….trials

While horses on the U.S. side of the pond are pounding their way to the Kentucky Derby through a series of tough Group (ah, sorry, that’s Graded for you guys) races, there is a small back door in Europe that seems to be quite a bit easier. The Kentucky Derby Challenge Stakes will be run at Kempton Park  near London on Wednesday night, and the winner is assured a spot in the Run for the Roses. Whether the winner will choose to take up the challenge is another matter, but if he does (there are no fillies in on Wednesday), he will surely be the lowest money winner to line up for the Derby. The favorite has bankrolled a grand total of just 5,000 pounds, or $7,000, and the highest earner in the race is sitting at just under 43,000 pounds. Even with the first prize of just under 50,000 pounds on Wednesday, the winner is unlikely to approach the kind of cash his U.S. counterparts have to earn to snag a spot.

To be fair, a three-year-old in Europe has little chance to earn big purses in Group races before the summer. While Group/Graded stakes are available in the United States virtually all year long, the first Group race in Europe was just this past Saturday in France, and it was for four-year-olds and older. The first Group races for three-year-olds won’t happen until late April, way too late for a Derby prep.

It should be an interesting race Wednesday; I’ll be writing about it for the New York Times, and will also contribute to their Rail blog again this year. I’ll be talking to trainers at Kempton about what appeal the Kentucky Derby holds, and whether they would actually ship a horse over to run it.

Decent work

Turfani and Tommy galloped this morning, and Turfani was much more pleasing this time around. Tommy was his usual lazy self, so we didn’t go all that fast, but it suited Turfani just fine after the tough time she had working with a sprinter last week. She got into her stride pretty well, and most importantly came back pleased instead of panicked. I’m now looking to enter at Fontainebleau for the 25th in a 2,000 meter claimer for apprentices and young  jockeys. The racing won’t get much easier than that, so she’ll just have to get on with it and see what happens. Tommy is going well, and should be ready by early April. Since he is very particular about the ground, the two best tracks for him will probably be Chantilly or Longchamp, and there is a nice race for him at Longchamp on April 9, so that’s our target. It’s still too far off to get excited, and anything could happen, but at least the horses are working well enough to set some concrete goals now.

Stupid horse tricks

The planets must be aligned in some way that is drawing humans to horses for better and for worse. On the for better front, I see that my fellow blogger the Wind Gatherer has started taking riding lessons; coincidentally, I started giving riding lessons this week to my newest owner, Mark Tronco. Wind Gatherer is already jumping, so he’s a little ahead of Mark, but I can see progress will come quickly because Mark is a runner and a boxer, and that athleticism really helps in riding.

On the for worse front comes news from Chicago that somebody at Hawthorne Park was stupid enough to allow two overweight (and that’s the best I can say for them from the photo I saw) morning disk jockeys race each other, apparently thinking it was safe enough if they put these  guys on the “pony” horses instead of actual racing stock. (And apparently neither they nor the reporter from the Sun Times knows the difference, but that’s a separate problem.) Neither one of these guys knew anything about riding, so why they thought this would be a fun promotional stunt is beyond me. One of them, unable to stop his horse (surprise!) decided it would be better to jump off. This would be Darwinian except that he managed to survive the fall. He was, however, just smart enough to regret the whole thing and realize how stupid an idea it was.

It’s really amazing what horses will put up with, and what stupid humans will subject them to. Riding around on horses seems to be such a primordal part of human evolution that we forget that it is a privilege, not a right. Horses put up with us because we have developed a somewhat symbiotic relationship, with the horse usually getting the short end of the stick. Those two yobs in Chicago had no right to climb up on those animals.

Mark and the Wind Gatherer are doing it the right way: Find a kind schoolmaster, take some lessons and earn the privilege of working with the most noble of animals.

Galloping into spring

Skid’s back, now gelded and showing not much awareness that anything is different, which is good. Everybody else is training on, slowly edging toward a race. The season has started in the Paris area, with opening day at St. Cloud on Saturday and Auteuil getting under way last week, so I’m itching to have a runner. But the winter set training back, and it looks like I’ll have to be patient a while longer.

Turfani was entered for Deauville on Thursday, but her workout Sunday was a little less impressive than I wanted to see, so I’ll wait another couple of weeks with her. She will still probably be the first runner of spring, probably near the end of the month. Tommy is nearly ready, but doesn’t go on soft ground, so there’s no point in rushing. Hard Way thinks he’s ready but won’t be for a bit, probably mid-April. Tyke is coming along well, but he’s such a big horse it will still take more time to get him up to speed. I don’t think he’ll be ready until the end of April.

The nice part is that I can see progress, and April should be an interesting month.

A breath of fresh, Tampa air

I’m back from my quick field trip to the States, and for the first time left feeling encouraged about racing in America. I have two friends that train off the farm in the Winter Haven, Florida area, and while I was there they each had a runner at Tampa Bay Downs, which was one of the more horse-friendly backsides I’ve seen. The barns are nicely spaced and there is actually a fair amount of green around. Round pens are available for turnout.

The highlight of the trip had to be the race of a good old campaigner called Ide be O for Ten, who is actually two for 98. Ide is 10 years old, and his owner wants to retire him when he hits 100 starts, sound and medication-free. The day I was there, Ide ran a very credible third, and I’ll bet he manages to get up for a win when that 100th start comes around, which won’t be long. He’s trained by Janet DelCastillo, who wrote a book called “The Backyard Racehorse” that shows it is possible to succeed as a small trainer not stabled at the track. Ide was the only horse in the race not on Lasix (he wasn’t on anything else, either), and it was quite a thing to see old Ide barreling up the stretch.

Two days later, we got to see Ellie Crowder’s Major Parker running his second race back after a long layoff. Ellie bred Major and lost him in a claimer when he was five, already a two-time winner. The trainer who claimed him assumed he could do better than Ellie by pumping full of all the medications Ellie didn’t use. Instead, the horse burned out, bowed a tendon and dropped down to the ranks of $4,000 claimers, which is how Ellie got him back. Ellie game him two years off, then let her grandchildren ride him over the summer. I rode him two days before he raced, and he cantered up Janet’s sandy hill next to the orange groves like a happy, fit horse. He ran 7th last Saturday, but he got stuck in traffic on the rail. From where I sat, he should have finished third. He came back sound and content, and I have every confidence he’ll come back and win again, too.

While I was in the neighborhood, I took a tour of some of the breeding and training operations around Ocala, which were eye-poppingly beautiful. I was jealous of the weather and the turnout.  Plenty of trainers had private facilities that allowed them to stable off-track.

Janet and Ellie were the bests hostesses anyone could have, and I’m sure I’ll get back to Florida more often now that I see how things are done there. It was all very refreshing, and it makes me all the more resolved to keep pushing for a ban on race-day medication. Such a shame to waste such fantastic infrastructure by breaking down horses at the track with the drugs. It was great to see the resilience of trainers like Janet and Ellie, who do it their way. OK, so you’re not likely to see them on the Triple Crown trail anytime soon. But I did see some good-looking, healthy horses on their farms, and just keep an eye on old Ide. He’s sitting on a win.


I’m off to Tampa and Ocala, Florida, tomorrow for a few days of much-needed sun (I ordered it in advance, I have a confirmation number and I expect it to be there). I also vow to understand an American condition book, which, despite allegedly being written in my native language, could be in Swahili as far as I can understand it. The French one seems perfectly clear. Maybe I’ve been here too long.

The three Ts get moving

Tyke, Tommy and Turfani all got to stretch their legs this morning, and the boys were the stars of the show. In defense of Turfani, she worked on her own on the all-weather track, and since there was no company, she wasn’t motivated to put much effort into the proceedings. She has a nice, big stride, but needed to be niggled to accelerate to a decent speed. It was the first time I had galloped her, and I had expected a big more. I will work her in company from now on.

Tommy and Tyke galloped 1,600 meters on the sand track. Tommy served as the leader, and he worked like the professional he is, accelerating gradually, taking a nice breath just before the elbow, then re-accelerated coming out of the elbow for a nice finish. Tyke surprised me by sticking right with him and actually giving me quite a bit to hold onto to keep him behind. The big guy might have some seriously ugly knees, but it looks like he’s got an engine behind him that will compensate for quite a lot. About half way up the track, I said to myself, well, so this is what a 50,000 euro stud fee will get you – some pretty decent speed. (Although I see Cape Cross has since come down to a bargain 35,000 euros.) I’m trying not to get too optimistic over his first real workout of the year, but I was indeed pleasantly surprised.

Crusade fatigue

I don’t know why, but something about the latest Paulick Report post that turned (again) into a debate on the merits of drugging horses on race day has left me feeling defeated and fatigued. I can’t understand how an issue that seems so clear to me can be at best misunderstood and at worst defended by people who handle horses for a living. I realize that the racing industry in the United States has a multitude of problems (and yes, every racing jurisdiction has issues, including France), but I believe that banning all race-day medication in thoroughbreds would be a big step toward solving many of them. I realize that most people involved in American racing disagree with me. Usually, I don’t care, because I happily race in a country where medication is banned (and our breakdown rates are half of what they are in America).  But one of the comments in the latest debate made me lose all hope. Somebody said, basically, well, fine, you have no drugs in France, but where’s the proof that your system could work for American-style dirt racing? This smacks of so much ignorance and disrespect for the horse that I couldn’t even reply. Rather than considering changing the system to preserve the horse, this guy apparently wants trainers to inject whatever is necessary to adapt the animal to the system. And by the way, get rid of those stupid synthetic racing surfaces, too, that interfere with my timed workouts and Beyer speed figures. Who cares if a longshot breaks a leg? I just want to get my bet in.

Then there’s the veterinarian (yes, apparently a licensed vet) singing the praises of lasix. Really, it’s all too depressing. I’m actually going to America next week, where I plan to spend a day or two at Tampa Bay Downs. I’m a little afraid to go. I’m not sure what I will do when I encounter this mentality face-to-face.

Anyway, just had to vent. I’ve gone native tonight, with snails and a good Bordeaux for dinner. Somehow makes me feel more at home than the thought of a cheeseburger and a beer. Oh, and by the way, forgot to mention Chantal Sutherland. Apparently the mere mention of the sexy Santa Anita jockey will make your blog hits go through the roof. I don’t have the semi-nude photos that you can find on the Handride and Cangamble blogs, though, so you’ll have to go there next….

Anabaa and the gang

The Deauville sales went pretty much as expected: Horses being given away. The best market seemed to be for decent broodmares in foal to decent stallions, but even the best of those were going for less than 20,000 euros. The half-sister of Overdose sold for 16,000, which I thought was a stunningly low price. So did her owner, who was disappointed but needed the cash, so what can you do? Most yearlings went for 1,000 a pop (who’s gonna take the chance and have to wait in this market? Pinhooking is practically non-existant in France). I nearly bought a filly practically ready to run for 2,000 euros, but then realized my marriage might not survive yet another horse in my own name. She’s called Lady Cecilia, if anybody wants to follow up and see if my judgment was good or bad. She caught my eye because I was looking at a Country Reel yearling, and I was pointing out to Mark, my American friend, all the flaws in his legs. The filly was standing right behind him, and I said, “For comparison, look at her legs. They’re perfect.”  And you know, they were.

Anyway, we got a little bored, so we decided to pop over to see the stallions at the Haras du Quesnay, where Anabaa stands for 30,000 euros, making him one of the most expensive stallions in France. He spent a season in Kentucky, but there wasn’t much interest, so he came back to France, where there’s plenty of interest. Anabaa was the No. 2 stallion in France last year, and the sire of Goldikova among other champions. At 17, he looks fantastic, and the crew at Quesnay were happy to have him back. He is joined there by Bering (still active at 26) Gold Away (who seems to be a bargain at 5,000 euros), Kentucky Dynamite and Panis, who was a leading sire of two-year-olds last season. The stud itself is breathtaking. Acres of paddocks with post-and-rail fencing around a small chateau, a huge brood-mare yard and the stallion barn that is a restored old Norman structure. The stallion boxes are absolutely enormous, and all five of the stallions we saw were well-mannered and happy when led out, even though this is breeding season and it was dinner time on top of it. The market might be going to hell, but there was no sign of it at that place. The stallions’ dance cards are active and everybody (horses AND staff) seemed to be eating very well, thank you.

Deauville calls

We’re off to the Deauville February Mixed Sale tomorrow. The catalog isn’t all that interesting, but there are a few lots worth seeing: No. 44 is a half-sister to the crack sprinter Overdose. She is sold as out of training, which is a shame, so she must be injured and going as a brood mare prospect. Some others will be worth looking at, and it’s always interesting to see what the market will do these days. The sale is a mix of two- and three-year-olds, some raced but most untried (obviously all the 2YOs) a smattering of older horses in training and a good number of brood mares, in and out of foal. The highlight of the day is most likely to be a dinner of line-caught sea bass at Les Vapeurs. Since I’m not actually going up there with a horse to race, I get the luxury of staying for dinner!