jeudi 29 décembre 2011

Off to the races, again

Satwa Sunrise, on her way to the rond de présentation

With Christmas in the middle, there has hardly been time to write about the last race, and thinking about the next race, I could barely concentrate on Christmas. The tree finally got decorated, after sitting in the house for a week, on Christmas Eve. My husband's right; I do live life as a series of passions. Only, he is also a little bit wrong; some of them stick.

The race on December 21, the winter solstice, was my first time ever at the racetrack. Before last Wednesday, my experience of the races was limited to books, like The Black Stallion series, and to television for the major race events, like Goldikova's final race in the 2011 Breeders' Cup at Churchill Downs. It's a strange thing when you tiptoe up to your long held fascinations, preparing to see them for the first time, and horse racing and the tracks are among the strangest, for me.

The "Sport of Kings", you hear, and, yet, there is a slice of every aspect of life at the racecourses. The entire court, as it were, from the scullery maids and lowliest of the stable lads to the kings and sheiks themselves, sweeping up the currents of the noblesse de robe -- the nouveau riche -- and the old money and privilege from around the world along the way to the backside and the grandstand, the private dining rooms and the owners' and trainers' salle. Everyone finds his or her place at the races.

The grandstand, however, this December day, was empty. A far cry from the photos of Deauville in July and August, full of parisiens and vacationers, arms and faces and long legs glowing in hues of bronze and gold, trees in full leaf blowing in the gentle breezes off the English Channel. There were more pigeons than spectators, but the total money placed on the races has only risen, if the numbers at the racecourses around the world are dropping, as a general rule. With television channels like France's Equidia, providing the prognostics, horse by horse, and broadcasting nearly every race in the year, information immediately available on the Internet, and the PMU on the street corner, where you can lean your elbows on the zinc and have an easy drink with friends, why would you show up at the races if you can spare yourself the prix du carburant and the tolls, unless you own or train a horse, and know those from the backside privileged to gain access to the private rooms of the tribune?

I thought about all this as I followed Gina Rarick through the racing procedure, and benefited from her network of professional connections, receiving a warm smile and a nod, being, as I was, in her wake. Had I come on my own, I'd not only have had to figure out where to park and enter the hippodrome, I would have had to discover if an entry fee is required, and I would have been limited to the grandstand seats facing the track, pigeons wading in winter puddles between the spur and the outer turf track, or inside the all-weather track. I would have been very nearly alone. I might have visited the restaurant on the top floor, and wandered to discover a bar, where coffee or drinks are offered, along with the company of strangers. I might have dared to see if a pass were required to walk along between the boxes, organized around exercise circles, camera in hand, perhaps being taken for an habituée. A smile and a nod at others, who do not recognize you, always helps.

I watched Sunrise walk around the exercise circle in her blanket, GR on the lower back corner, and I thought, "She won't embarrass anyone today, this filly."

She looked right at home, after a two-month break from racing in which she traveled from the racetracks of England and the sales at Newmarket to her new home in France, a Meshaheer fille de France returned to race in her native country, complete with the bonus for French-bred horses. Stepping down from the van and walking briskly alongside Mark to her box, you could tell she knew where she was, and why she was there. A professional, with her 7 races under her belt. Her music wasn't bad, 3p Ap 3p 6p 8p 9p 7p. She had shown a steady progression and placed in 2 of 7. No, she didn't shamble, like some of the others, who looked a little like they'd have rather stayed at home. She held her head high and looked with a keen eye all around her, particularly each time she passed anyone from her yards; she knew her people.

There was one other horse, walking around the exercise circle, who caught my eye.

"That's the favorite," Gina told me, "with his trainer. He's good."

I wondered if she meant the horse or the trainer. Both looked intense.

Lucky Harry is a 4-year-old Equerry gelding, and looked as professional, alert, proud and thoroughly at home at Deauville as Sunrise. No wonder he's the favorite, I thought. He has won twice, and Equerry is owned by Godolphin, and if in real estate the golden rule is "location, location, location", in thoroughbred racing, it's "papers, papers, papers".

After her visit to the track vet, since this was her first race in France, her walk, rest, carrots, and getting dressed up in her owner Annie Casteu's colors, and another walk, it was nearly a half hour to post time. We'd been there for 3 hours. She returned to her box for a last quiet moment, received her racing blanket and Mark led her to the rond de présentation.

Annie had already gone to the owners' area of the grandstand with her friend to await the start of the race. I hurried along after Sunrise, Mark, Sebastien, and Gina, clicking photographs and making note of the events around me. The jockeys were there. Fabien materialized in the inside of the presentation ring, and he received information on Sunrise and directions from Gina. Only, being the first time Gina had raced Sunrise, there was not a lot of certainty in the directions. We were all here to learn. Fabien exited the inner area to mount Sunrise, Mark led them off to the track, and Gina and I headed up to the owners' and trainers' area to find Annie and watch the race.

Gina and Satwa Sunrise

A race, I learned, is over in the blink of an eye. Everything is possible in the training center, the van, the box and the presentation ring, but in the end, everything is decided by the events of a particular race: the track condition, the field of horses and how the jockey rides the horse. My eyes are still inexperienced. I can lose the horse I am following in the pack of horses straining to get ahead, for the lead. I hear the murmurs around me, the gasps, the encouragements, and the criticisms. We watched on the screen, and I saw when Sunrise was fully visible just behind and between two horses.

But, why wasn't she going? Was Fabien asking her to go? And then they were coming out of the last turn and into the straight, and the field broke into two distinct ranks, stretching the full breadth of the track. Eyes glued to the screen, I realized the consequences of what I was seeing; Sunrise was shouldered out of the front line and relegated to the second. Gina sucked in a breath and then groaned; her horse was stuck in the second line of horses with no eye to thread until just several lengths before the post. The only horses with a real chance came from the front line, although she was still passing horses on her way to and past the finish, and didn't hardly break a sweat.

Neither Sunrise nor Lucky Harry won, nor placed. I am learning that more often than not (at least it seems), the favorite doesn't win, and the finish to this race was a bit of a mess. Approaching the final straight, Sunrise's jockey, Fabien Lefebvre, pulled her up; she had been clipped in the rear hoof by another horse, and then the field of horses formed rank and closed her out.

Coming off the track

Sunrise finished 9th, classing, and Lucky Harry, at 7.2/1, finished 14th. It was clear that she could have done better. Should Fabien have checked himself from checking her? She wanted to go; she was pulling for it; and the hole was there, right in front of her. She raced in a country where you go from the start, like the States, and might not have understood that she'd have another chance to go for it, that she'd be asked to. Only this time, the only real opportunity closed in front of her and Fabien. And, what about the whip? I have heard the great woman jockey, Patty Barton, say in the PBS documentary Thoroughbred: Born to Run that mares don't like to be told what to do; show them the crop, but don't use it on them or they'll refuse. I have to make a mental note to ask Gina her opinion before Sunrise races again in a claimer Monday.

The claim that she was a bleeder didn't seem to hold much truth, either, as she didn't so much as clear her throat after the race, let alone cough, while her neighbor appeared to be practically drowning afterwards. A bleeder for sure. You wanted desperately to help the poor thing clear her lungs out. She couldn't even drink.

Still, like Gina said, Sunrise showed everyone a lot. She classed; she ran easily and well; and she recovered fast. I still like her. A lot.

In the meantime, we'll see what Deep will do tomorrow. He'll be running at 3:50 pm in the 6th, the Prix de Berd'huis, a 2400 meter handicap against a field of 4-year-olds and older. Deep's used to running in Marseille, so the competition will be stiffer than he has seen, but he's pretty full of it right now with some energy to spend.

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