lundi 23 janvier 2012

Elbow Beach, "canter"

Guilain and Hard Way

When you take a terrific photograph and find one little thing missing, it's enough to ruin the photo. Sam walked by, looked at the series from this morning's visit to Gina's yard, and said, "That's a great photo. Too bad you don't see his eye; it would be perfect then." Now, all I can see is the eye you can't see behind Hard Way's mane. I keep it for its other qualities, and the fun we were having when he and Agata got back from Hard Way's and Elbow Beach's "canter", or gallop on the piste jaune at Maisons-Laffitte this morning.

Elbow was being a little silly walking up the road to the training center the other day, lost her balance and brushed her ankle against the sidewalk border, skinning herself like a little kid, which she is. Yesterday, the "canter" -- the French call canter "galop de chasse" and gallop "canter" -- that was supposed to take place and motivated me to get up out of bed and make the predawn drive to Maisons-Laffitte, my husband getting himself up out of bed and following me to make it an outing, was cancelled since she had a little inflammation from her boo-boo.

The "canter" was rescheduled for today, come what may, but instead of taking it side-by-side, race style, Agata and Gina decided to keep Elbow behind Hard Way and take it a little easy. Just in case. Having already lost one of the yard's best hopes for the winter season in Cagnes-sur-Mer, Satwa Sunrise, in a claimer on opening day, having another, Magic, down for several months (1 down and 2 or 3 to go; I can't remember. It's awful either way), seeing teeny, tiny Milly flounder on the fibersand in her first race in France, Elbow just has to get fit, avoid injury and race to win, or at least to place.

She also needs to do this because she is the horse in which I have two legs, the front or the rear, or the near or the far side; take your pick. I'll take any two, as long as they are healthy, strong and fast. Very fast. Elbow is a sprinter, running the 1200 to 1500 meter races, and she has come to France to add value to her profile as a brood mare, worthy of the better covers, by increasing her chances of adding a few more wins to her racing career by having her start her 3-year-old season early in Cagnes. Normally, she will return to England in March, unless we can negotiate an additional race or two, or three, in Saint-Cloud and Chantilly for March.

She was to arrive a week before she did, but heavy winds and rough weather closed the Channel ports, and Elbow Beech spent an extra week walking and trotting in circles in the horse walker. She lost muscle she'd need to win, and Gina made the decision to keep her in training in Maisons-Laffitte, under Chantal and Agata's watchful eyes in the yard and Agata's knees on her shoulders on the track. Soon, the call will come to bring her down, or have her loaded into the STH horse transport truck and sent.

Meanwhile, I am left to imagine any number of possibilities. Elbow could give us all a thrill, make our season and add a little extra shine and cachet to Gina's reputation. But, Elbow could disappoint us; she could come up short, even just short of that. All the elements could be there and in place, and still she might not win; or, something might still be missing, but she'll turn out to have that special something in her spirit or heart that corrects a little missing muscle or an odd turn of foot, which, aside from losing balance from time to time out walking up the street, she does not have. That you can't know until you let them go on a racetrack and see what happens, although I felt certain that I could sense it in Sunrise the first time I went with her to Deauville.

For now, it's Schrodinger's cat, which would make a great name for a horse, except that it leaves room for a little doubt.

My ownership paperwork has gone to France Galop. I have chosen my colors, and even decided on the rug and the colors for the browband of the bridle. I'm not telling. It would be nice to see my silks on the jockey's back, but mostly, though, I hope to see the horse whose training I at least help finance bring a little glory to the yard.

Agata and Elbow Beach

Today, I stood on the grass mound between the two pistes jaunes, and I waited in the quiet morning. I listened to two birds turn in the sky overhead, crying out to each other, and perhaps other birds, somewhere, and waited for the dark spots to appear in the distance. As I arrived, hooves thundering on the sand announced the arrival of another line of horses out for a "canter". I crossed the track and trained my lens on them. When they had past, blowing in cadence with their pace, I watched for them to turn and reappear, coming up the other side. They didn't, and I turned back to look back to the west and squinted.

The tractor dragging the harrow appeared on the far horizon and approached at a funereal pace. All morning the tractor pulls the harrow the length of the tracks, for walking, for trotting, for cantering, and for galloping. all morning, every day of the week. I prepared to greet the driver, when he'd eventually pass. An intentional , single nod of the head and a smile. He'd perhaps raise a hand from the wheel to say good morning back.

"Il doit en faire des kilometres, le type qui conduit le tracteur," my husband had said yesterday, watching the tractor make its way around a curve and down a track Sunday morning.

I watched him approach, and then, two horses appeared, tearing up the sand. They passed him, and kept on coming. I squinted again and thought I saw a streak of white. Elbow. I removed the lens cap and zoomed in, the horses came closer, and I could see the gray-spotted chest above the dark legs and the bright pink stars on Agata's helmet. I wanted to put the camera down and just watch them. Listen to them. It only lasts seconds before they have approached, streaked past, hooves throwing sand up behind their flying tails, and disappear into the dimness of the morning light at the end of the piste. Gone.

Agata on Elbow Beach

And then, they reappear, coming back up the far track. They have made the turn at the bottom, undistinguished by my eyes. I put my lens cap on, walk down the wood planked steps and cross the parallel stretch of piste to go and wait for them, listen for their four-beat galop de chasse come toward me. Usually, I stand there with Gina. Before Christmas, New Year's and now Cagnes, perhaps with another trainer or two, who would chat with Gina about their horses while we waited. Today, there was only I to ask how they breathed and moved, how quickly they recovered. I am no trainer, but I asked, and I was offered the graciousness of a reply.

"Comment va sa respiration?" I asked Agata, feeling a little nervous. I didn't wish to appear like I thought I was more in a position to ask than I was.

"Impéccable," said Agata. "Elle a récupéré plus rapidement aujourd'jui que la dernière fois, aussi," she added. I felt grateful for the extra information. Elbow was making progress.

"Et Hard Way," I said to Guilain, who puts up with me very sweetly, "ça serait super s'il pouvait aller à Cagnes et courir," I said.

"Il va tout seul, lui," came the reply: he goes all on his own, that one.

Not to Cagnes, of course, but on a racetrack.

The problem with Hard Way, and why he hasn't left already, is that he is a lot to handle in training, and Gina needs someone like Guilain to do the speed work with him, only there isn't certain to be someone on hand to do that work when she needs it done down there. Hard Way, Gina has explained to me, lays all his weight, all 600 or so kilos, in your hands, and you carry him. He doesn't use the bit to support himself and run, and that is exhausting. But, with Magic injured, Sunrise claimed, Milly being new to anything that's not turf, tiny and uncertain, it would be something to see Hard Way back racing, in Cagnes, and Elbow taking a victory would be a dream come true.

After they cantered back off, I looked left and then right, crossed back over the pistes, headed through the gate, look left and then right again and climbed into the car to drive back over to the yard and start Magic's box. I slipped her halter over her nose and fastened it behind her near ear and turned her on her good hind foot to attach her to the short lead at the rear wall, only she moved easily. Sometimes she moves with a pronounced limp and hop still. She stood there and worked her bit, rubbing it against the concrete wall. I went and emptied the wheelbarrow, the better to fill it again.

The sun was just beginning to light up the patches between the trees in the park when I dumped the first wheelbarrow of hay in the pit and forked it up onto the lovely, squared pile. It was rising straight in front of me through the trees at the end of the stable when I stuck my head out, sometime later, hearing their hooves clomp back into the yard. I grabbed my camera, and ended up with two series: the red series of Guilain and Hard Way and the blue series of Agata and Elbow Beach in my favorite studio, Gina Rarick's yard in Maisons-Laffitte, and some of my favorite subjects these days, Gina, the horses she trains, and the people around them.

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