We’ve been dropped into a flash-freezer this week, and if the training center in Maisons-Laffitte wants to plug the whole in its budget deficit, it should start selling tickets to the spectacle down on the all-weather track rather than raise our gallop fees. With most of the tracks and trails impassable, every horse in town has no choice but to head down to the oval. It is 1,450 meters around, which is long enough to get some serious work done, but it is only about 2 meters wide, so at best you can gallop two abreast. There is no room for passing and no room for error. It is prefaced by two all-weather trotting rings. These days, the whole thing resembles a cross between the Barnum & Bailey Circus and O’hare Airport on the day before Thanksgiving without the benefit of an air-traffic controller.
If you hit it during a calm period, things work OK. People watch out for each other. You can warm up on the trotting ring and there’s sort of a cue to get onto to the main gallop. But as anyone who has lived in France knows, the French appetite for cues quickly turns into a mob mentality when there are more than a few people involved. Sort of like at the grocery store, when the woman of a certain age behind you edges ahead with a “oh, I’m just looking at the chewing gum” look, then she drops her shoulder, does the half-turn and miraculously is now in front of you like she’s been there the whole time. With riders busy trying to cut in line and a cold wind sweeping through from the north, the horses are all on their worst behavior. Yesterday, Belle was warming up calmly enough, but decided to get vertical just as we turned to head to the main track. I came off the side, fearful that she was going to turn over again (she has a bit of a history), and luckily there were a couple of people around to help. Today, we had just turned into the trotting ring when I heard a thump behind me; the next thing I knew, a riderless Hi Shinko was next to George, who thought he might take that moment to show how high he could jump, too. Shinko was quickly caught and Philippe remounted, once he got his breath back – he had the misfortune of landing on the frozen sand rather than the all-weather bit. Shinko continued to put on quite a rodeo even with the benefit of Phillippe, who stuck this time, so by the time we had him headed back toward the main track, a load of horses had cut in front of us and went on to hack canter. I yelled at Phillippe to go anyway; I didn’t want to be around to see what would happen if we didn’t get that horse galloped. I was behind him on George, and neither one of us were able to pull up our irons to ride a proper canter – both horses were jumping around too much to even consider it. So off we went, cowboy-style. Phillippe took off like a bullet and I knew I wouldn’t catch him for a decent head-to-head, plus there were too many other horses out on the track anyway. Shinko cleared the way like a bulldozer, and George and Timelord followed in the slipstream.
Turfani and Belle galloped the second lot, which was slightly calmer but not by much. After yesterday’s rearing, I had Seb meet me at the track with a lead rope. Once we trotted a warmup, he picked us up and made sure her front feet stayed on the ground getting onto the main track. Another string of horses had cut in front, but this time they were all over the track instead of in a line. Belle was rolling in her canter with Turfani behind. The problem with the all-weather surface is that you can’t hear the hoofbeats of anyone coming up behind you, so as we rolled up the backside, I just had to scream at the others and hope they would move. Belle’s gallop is straight as an arrow, but she is a huge orange filly who is not particularly maneuverable – think Airbus A380. Once she’s rolling, it’s best just to get out of her way. Eventually, people did, and we managed to get a decent canter, even if it wasn’t exactly what I wanted because there was never room for Turfani to get beside me.
We’re in for four more days of this, and it has now started to snow. At least the canters are out of the way for a few days, so now we can just keep everybody ticking over until the thaw comes, which is promised for Sunday. Until then, it’s fasten your seatbelts, because we’ve definitely entered a zone of turbulence.