That empty feeling

We took Skid up to Normandy yesterday for his date with destiny on Monday. Hard Way, meanwhile, seems to have twisted his ankle, which puts him out of action for the next 10 days or so. That leaves the T’s: Tyke, Turfani and Tommy. Only three operational horses at the moment leaves me severely under-employed, so I’m programming myself for a round of presentations on racing to expat groups in Paris. The barn must be filled, and with spring around the corner and horses being practically given away at the sales, now is the time to find the owners. Luckily, I just met an American racing fanatic that can help. Mark Tronco, a New Jersey native, is marooned here while his wife toils away at a big French bank. Let me tell you, he’s suffering: his schedule is packed with walking tours, wine-tasting, volunteering at a local food bank and other social events. I was able to nab him for company on the trip up to Normandy with Skid with the bribe of explaining France’s somewhat archaic pari-mutuel system. In return, he has given me several ideas in the search for owners. We had a good day, and once the racing season gets going again, I’m hoping to entice him out to come and help spiff up a horse or two on race day. It’s always a pleasure to have someone enthusiastic around the barn…now I just have to find more occupants so he won’t be lonely!

Nicanor – the OTHER one

Endless amounts of ink (digital and otherwise) have been spilled over the past year as Nicanor, Barbaro’s brother, finally saw a racecourse. But on this side of the Atlantic, another Nicanor is drawing just as much attention – and this one’s a winner. Nicanor the elder is an eight-year-old French-bred hurdler who has won five of his 11 starts and has only once been out of the money – and that was when he fell. He came back to win three races after that spill, but he has been out of action with a tendon injury since 2006. He  is poised to make a comeback this week (if the snow clears off enough to allow racing) and then holds two entries at the Cheltenham Festival in March.

I don’t know what the American Nicanor will end up doing on the race course, but I am absolutely sure that whatever it is, he will not still be doing it at the age of eight. If he manages to win a race or two, he’ll be hustled off to stud duty. If not, he’ll probably be retired for one problem or another by the time he’s four. That’s the beauty of jump racing – the stars stick around for a good long time. OK,  most of them are geldings, so what else have they got to do? But it’s nice to hear the jumps trainers make comments like “he’s still a young horse” about a seven- or eight-year-old. These guys take patience to new levels – the Europeaen Nicanor didn’t even run until he was four and he’s now been off the course for nearly THREE YEARS. Now that’s faith – and deep pockets. If the snow melts enough to allow racing, it will be interesting to see what Nicanor does this weekend.

Where there's smoke…

Last year was the first year new anti-smoking rules took affect here, banning smoking in public places, including bars and restaurants. Bar-owners feared they would lose business, and the folks over at the PMU, our pari-mutuel monopoly, were worried the betting handle would fall off because so much betting is done at corner “Tabac” shops. I don’t know how the bar-owners are faring, but apparently it’s not necessary to smoke and bet at the same time, because the overall betting handle went up 4.8 percent, to 9.3 billion euros. Of that, 540 million was bet online, up from 431 million the previous year. Nothing stopping smokers from puffing away in front of their home computers.

According to a psychiatrist who studies addictive behavior quoted by the PMU, the types of gambling that suffered the most because of the smoking ban were repetitive games like slot machines or keno. As for the economic crisis, the psychiatrist, Jean-Luc Venisse, said there was no apparent impact on gambling, because two mind-sets offset each other: gambling offers a refuge from the crisis and the hope of winning, vs. gambling requires disposable income that is no longer available. Hmm. Gambling may have ridden out the smoking ban, but the numbers this year will offer a better look at whether Venisse is right on the impact of a weak economy.

The Big Snip

Yup, we’re going to stop wringing our hands over this and just go ahead and do it. Skid goes for the Big Snip on Thursday. I’ll truck him up to Normandy, where he’ll be done at the farm and spend three or four weeks recovering before coming back here for light work. If all goes well, in two months he’ll be working again and never notice anything is missing. And he’ll probably be a lot more comfortable.

An uncomfortable problem

Warning: If you are a man, you may want to stop reading now. There’s nothing about the way I can explain this particular horsey problem without making you squirm. We decided to leave Skid keep his private parts this year, but now I think we may have to revisit that decision.  Seems like his private parts might be causing a problem.

Before he went on vacation, Skid pulled up lame behind after a gallop on the fibersand. He walked off the track fine, but on the way home, his back leg slipped a bit, and all of a sudden he was on three legs. I hopped off, hand-walked him home (luckily not far away) and called a vet to come straight away, because I was afraid something might actually be fractured. By the time the vet came a little over an hour later, the horse was fine. Trotted out fine. Flexion test fine. Absolutely no sign of a problem. I thought, well, fine, we’ll turn him out for a bit over winter anyway, and see what comes back. He seemed perfectly sound since he’s been back, but last week, he walked out of the box with a funny step behind, and after about 10 minutes it completely went away. Hmmm, I thought, maybe we need the osteopath; maybe he’s knocked something out of whack rolling in his box. We were puzzling over this when Jean-Yves asked if we had taken a close look at his testicles. I admitted I hadn’t, except to notice that he had them, there were two and they seemed in the right place. Funny thing, though. When you pick up a back leg, the corresponding reproductive organ slips right back up into the abdomen. Ouch. That explains everything. A false move behind, or too high a movement, or stress while galloping can send that little puppy right up where it doesn’t belong. Now the question is what to do about it. I hate to stop for a full castration just when we’re only a month or so from a race, but there’s no point in carrying on if this is going to be a recurring problem. I will speak with my panel of testicular experts (meaning vets and anyone else who has experience with this problem) this week to see what must be done.

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.