vendredi 13 janvier 2012

Another day at the office for Deep Ocean

After the race, a shower

The racetrack, for some -- the thoroughbred racehorses --, is an office like it is for any other who goes to work and brings home a paycheck for their trouble. There are colleagues, too; the trainer, the lad, and the jockey; and, there is the essential support staff of track veterinarians and stewards, the waiters, bartenders, and betting window cashiers, the scales and dressing room attendants; and the parking lot valets and horse van service drivers. Deep went to work in Deauville on Tuesday and brought home a check for his staff, trainer Gina Rarick, his young apprentice lad (a girl), his various exercise jockeys (mostly women), and owner, Mme Paule Descargues and her husband.

He is a regular and dependable professional, bringing home a paycheck in each of his last six races (4p3p4p4p5p5p), not counting his victory in the race just prior. In his racing career, he has run 16 times, and he has won or placed in 11 of those races. 5-year-old son of the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe winner Sinndar out of Ocean Reef, bred in the Aga Khan Studs and possessing an interesting personal history, you cannot ask for much more, unless you are hoping for the ultimate, a crack.

When the paper is good and the race performance history is 69.75% for combined wins and places, granted a mere 6.25% for wins -- still, a win nonetheless; not every horse gets one --, but a fairly stunning 62.5% for places, you can't help but hope for those bronze and foot of the podium finishes to turn to gold and a place in racing legend, perhaps for a surprise victory, like his sire's, in even just one of horse racing's most prestigious races.

If the lass in Deep's and his colleagues' stable is an apprentice, so am I. I am just learning the feelings, the hopes and the expectations of thoroughbred racing, and their management. I am hanging around the office, the guest of my patient and generous "maître de stage", Gina, and her "entourage" of owners and staff. I am even starting to be recognized as I walk the corridors by the other trainers, and the track officials, even the members of the media. The Nikon D300 around my neck makes me look more like I belong there than I perhaps do. This was my fourth time at the races, but I have already seen that there are not two identical trips to the racetrack, not even with the same horse and the same owners, the same trainer, and even the same jockey. There is not one single variable that is not subject to change, else, how could you call them "variables"?

It starts with the horse. One, trainer or owner, buys a horse, looking a good paper, for signs of conformity, the horse's movement, perhaps a previous track record, something in her eye and the way she conducts herself in the presentation area. No single element, no matter how shiny, is a guaranty. Like Deep, the horse might walk on three legs and still run as though he had four perfectly functioning ones; unlike Deep, he might have four perfectly functioning ones, and run as though he had three. There is no magic bullet recipe for choosing a horse who will run well for her owner and her trainer, and it is probably easier to spot the factors that will make that extremely unlikely than it is to spot those that will favor it. At least there is that much.


Listen, though, to Gina, and learn something.

Training, she will tell you, is only a part of the equation, after the horse itself. I get the impression that trainers could benefit from taking the Hippocratic* oath, like doctors: first, do no harm. The trainer's work is to care for the needs of the horse: nutritional, veterinary, and exercise; enough of each, but not too much, dosing, and listening to the horse's response. The reins in your hands, she will tell you, are the yoke in those of the pilot of a small airplane. Through them, from the bit in the horse's mouth to you, is transferred all of the information about the horse you will need about she runs and your best way to direct her is through using your hands on the reins carefully, with sensitivity, responding to her. Run your hands and eyes daily over her, and you will feel and see the beginning of a problem. Look at the way she stands, look into her eyes and you will know is she is feeling poorly. Do this long enough, and your instincts develop and sharpen. Use your brain, but not too much. Training seems to amount to a heightened knowledge of not just horses in general, but of each horse in particular. Note that Hippocrates' name itself contains "horse".

Training, you might hear, if you listen to smart trainers, is about sense and sensibility. The history of thoroughbred horse racing is storied and romantic, but the work of the trainer at the office is not. It cannot be, if the trainer wishes to earn a living and see success. Wise trainers must know their horses, with their capabilities and their limitations, and choose races for them in which they have a chance to bring home a paycheck. Realistically. The best trainers are the Dennis Hoppers of the horse world, practicing realism. Let the horse surprise you pleasantly, not disappoint you bitterly by racing him against your wildest hopes for him cruelly. A crack, you will hear, if you are listening, is a horse in an hundred, like a stallion. Imagine the size of the stables required to hope reasonably for a crack somewhere in them, and sometimes where you might not be expecting to find her. If you listen to her, ride and care for her judiciously, she will tell you; I am the one.

It does not work the other way.

If Deep starts burning up the track, who knows? If he has the makings of a crack in him, Gina is as likely as any to help him express it on the racetrack. But, at 5, he is likely to prove himself to be what Gina says he already is: a racehorse.

I am about to see my first leave the yard and the training facilities at Maisons-Laffitte for a short season in Cagnes-sur-Mer before returning to her real owner in England, and I am watching and listening closely. If no two races, even with the same characters, are the same, no two owners are, either. It seems, then, to me, that the most important thing is to know yourself and your means, your own abilities and limitations going into this business, or leisure activity, or sport, or all of the above, and to be clear with not only yourself, but your fellow owners, if you have them, and with your chosen trainer. I know mine.

I know that I will be delighted to see Elbow Beach bring home a paycheck. I will be ecstatic to see her bring home a victory, and I know her other owner feels the same way. I am in this to support Gina's work and help her build the reputation of her yard, and to feel all the feelings that go along with horse racing, from the lowliest, like discovering at the betting window, ticket in hand, that in simples, only the first three places pay out, not five, like they do for the horses and their staffs, to the grandest, I can hope, while being perfectly happy to sit in the middle chair and eat my medium-warm porridge, the one that's just right: regular paychecks for expenses.

Most likely, I will not be there in person to see her do either, earn a check or win, but I will be watching on television, and probably taking pictures, anyway.

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