mardi 7 février 2012

First race, a place for Elbow Beach

Elbow Beach after the race at Cagnes, Feb 2

It has been almost a week since the first race horse in which I have a couple of legs ran her first race in France and came in 4th at Cagnes-sur-Mer in the Prix de l'Ile Sainte Marguérite. Turfoo had given her 5th place. Our trainer Gina Rarick didn't expect her to place. She was short on work. Very short on work.

Elbow had spent a week or so in mid-transport from her trainer's in England, Dr. Jon Scargill's Red House Stables in Newmarket, Suffolk, at a stud closer to the English Channel, walking and trotting in a horse walker after being off training since November and placing 10th in her last race, a 1400 meter race in Salisbury on October 10. The weather had turned bad, the seas were heavy with strong gusts of wind, and the ports were closed. Elbow would have to cool her heals and put off seeing France until things quieted.

Looking at her race history alone does not give a prospective owner, or part owner, the chair
de poule. Looking at her papers goes farther to create a little excitement, at least on her father's side of the family. Elbow beach is a Choisir filly and her dam is Impulsive Decision, but you just have to look a little up the bloodlines on her mother's side to find something to get excited about on the dam's side, which is what Gina says matters to her.

Elbow Beach's dam's sire is Nomination, a son of  Dominion, whose dam, Picture Palace is a granddaughter of Nasrullah, the great Aga Khan stud, who in 10 starts won 5, placed once and showed twice, but, who like our dear Strictly Rhythm, was a little temperamental and performed when he felt like it. Sent to stud at the Claiborne Farm in Paris, Kentucky, Nasrullah went on to prove his unquestionable value as a sire, winning the title of top sire 5 times, siring a long list of champions, and counting Secretariat (no link required) among his grandchildren.

Recently posted on the Facebook page dedicated to the life of Lawrence Robinson, former lead stallion man and groom at Claiborne Farm, was this article, "Fifty Years of Nasrullah" on Consider, too, that Nasrullah's dam Mumtaz Begum, who produced 8 winners in all, is an Epsom Derby winner and US champion sire Blenheim II mare, sired in 1932, his first year at stud at the Aga Khan's Haras Marly-la-Ville. The following year, he sired Mahmoud, who won the 1936 Epson Derby, and the next year Donatello II, who became one of Italian breeder Federico Tesio's most important horses at Tesio's and his wife's Dormello Stud, established in 1898 in Dormelletto, Novara on the shore of Lago Maggiore.

Riding along the same shore behind my husband on his motorcycle in early September, nothing struck me more than how the area around Novara made me think of the shore of the English Channel, between Deauville and Honfleur, for the grandeur and the splendeur of its residential architecture and the parks and walls surrounding those lakefront estates, and the ones towering over them from the rise on the inland side of the road. Little did I know that the parallel extended to thoroughbred horse breeding and racing. Confirmation that unless one is very, very fortunate and patient, and I am thinking of General Quarters' owner and trainer, retired high school principal Tom McCarthy, a great deal of private wealth is involved in The Sport of Kings, a nearly eponymous name for thoroughbred horse racing.

Requiring of myself that I move on to Elbow's sire's side of this historical narrative and get on to my own of my first race, I will only add that Blenheim II was also the damsire, or maternal grandfather, of the winner in 1947 of France's most prestigious steeplechase race, La Grande Course des Haies d'Auteuil, and its most prestigious flat race, le Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, Le Paillon.

A moment of silence would not be out of order.

Elbow's sire Choisir traces his bloodlines back through Danehill Dancer and Danehill, back up to Northern Dancer, who won the Kentucky Derby as a 3-year-old in 1964 (video), the same year he took Canadian Horse of the Year, and he ran it faster than any other horse before him, something that no one bothers about here in Europe, where no two tracks are identical and stopwatches are not useful. However, that record stood until Secretariat came along to break it 13 years later. Northern Dancer also won the Preakness and took third in the Belmont, and made a fortune for his owner Edward P. Taylor at Windfields Farm in Canada. He was the first horse to reach a $1 million stud fee, which as of 2009 was still unrivalled.

Considering that he was considered the runt of the litter and very small, Milly's owners certainly have reason to perk up and be patient.

And, so, last Wednesday, I packed a single carry-on bag and drove to Charles de Gaulle to board my easyJet flight to Nice for Elbow's first race with her owner listed as Madame K.F. Minton and Gina Rarick as her trainer. I cannot yet be listed, since my paperwork is still in process. This, I assure you, did not phase me in the least. I rather like passing unseen, like a stagehand in black. Gina was just pulling up as I walked out of the airport doors, a half hour early, into a cold Mediterranean sunset, the snow-covered low, naked rocky mountains that hem Nice close to the sea white against a soft palette of light blue, rose and apricot, dotted by the tall, black silhouettes of palm trees and airport light stanchions.

I was thrilled to see Gina, who has become an essential in my life, along with her horses, stable owners and Agata. If Northern Dancer is hardly rivaled as a stallion, Gina rivals my mother as a Cook tour guide. She told me everything I would soon see when she'd take me around the hippodrome after showing me to my room. They had assured her they would turn the single radiator on, since they always throw the door and window wide open to air it out after each occupant, normal, since the occupants are the lads who care for the race horses, and the temperatures had plummeted. It had snowed in Marseille the day or two before. I had opted for the authenticity themed séjour in Cagnes-sur-Mer. No hotel for me. No, I would be above the horses of trainer Patrick Montfort. The very same Patrick Monfort who had just claimed Satwa Sunrise away from Gina on the opening day in Cagnes. Sunrise, Gina told me, was actually just below my room.

That is destiny at work.

At night, when I came home and no one was looking, I sang my song for Sunrise softly from the balcony, playing my Romeo to her Juliette, my Cyrano to her Roxanne, only I was the one up high, out of reach on my balcony in the night sky, lit by the exit lights along the long balcony.

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.
You make me happy when skies are gray.
You'll never know, dear, how much I love you.
Please don't take my sunshine away.

I knew she heard me. I wondered if she cared.

Gina had told me not to go visit her; it would only make it harder. I did, though, the next evening, after Elbow's race, and before we met at the canteen for an apéro. I walked up to the line of boxes like I had every reason to be there, and I worried that I wouldn't recognize her. That was silly. She has a distinctive flame, like a question mark, or a tornado.

"Salut, Sunrise," I greeted her. She was eating her mash -- it smelled heavily of sweet apples -- and she raised her head to focus an eye on me. I began to sing. Very softly.

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.
You make me happy when skies are gray.
You'll never know, dear, how much I love you --

A hand tapped my arm and frightened me. Someone was going to ask what I was doing there, singing to a horse that didn't belong to me. I turned my head, not taking time to make sure I didn't look startled and guilty, and I saw a hand holding a cigarette toward me; they belonged to a young man, not bad looking, in a pea coat and scarf.

"Vous chantez joliment," he smiled at me. "Je voulais demander si vous aviez du feu."

"Merci," I laughed, relieved. "Mais, non. Je ne fume pas alors je n'ai pas du feu sur moi."

Nervous, though, I rattled on about Sunrise and how she had belonged to my trainer before she was claimed, and how much stock we had set in her for Cagnes.

"Si vous aviez été si convaincus par ce cheval, pour quoi ne l'aviez-vous pas défendu?" Why, he asked, if we had been so convinced in her worth had we not done more to defend her. I shook my head.

"Le choix ne fut pas le mien. Le cheval était à quelqu'un d'autre. Cette personne l'a défendu, mais elle n'a pas mis assez, et on l'a perdu, comme fut le cas avec un autre cheval l'année dernière. Peut-être vous connaissez l'histoire? Fortunateencounter?"

It was his turn to nod, only he nodded yes to my previous no, admitting that he is in trotting, so his knowledge of the gallopers is a little limited, but the story of Fortunateencounter being claimed out from under her owner and Gina's hose to go on to win in steeplechase time and again had long made the rounds. She'd settled right in here, he told me. That, I replied, is one of her best qualities: she is a balanced and serene mare. She'll be fine wherever she calls home, for however long.

By now, the lads were listening in, and I was trying not to fall apart from nervousness. All this is so new to me. He headed off, and I stopped to ask the lads if there were apples in the mash. Anything not to just walk away like a lovelorn thief in the night. Surely they'd talk about the woman who sang to Satwa Sunrise, and shake their heads, laughing.

Please don't take my sunshine away.

Later, when I told Gina I had gone to see Sunrise and spoken with the lads, she perked up and asked what they'd had to say about her. Ah! But I hadn't thought to ask! Next time, I promised. But, I am a good deal ahead of myself, and I am not even talking about our horse, Kay's and mine.

Finishing my lullaby to Sunrise from the balcony that first night, I went and climbed into my single bed, freshly made up with disposable sheets. It was comfortable. I was tired. I slept well. And then, I was knocked rudely, abruptly into wakefulness, as though someone had grabbed the end of my cot and upended it, dumping me not only from my bed onto the beige-spotted yellowish linoleum tiles, but over the balcony and down in front of Sunrise and her neighbors' boxes. The din was extraordinary. I did not look at my watch. There was no light coming from the cracks in the shutters behind me, nor from the crack under the door other than the light of the artificial lighting; it was dark still.

I squeezed my eyes shut, and tried to relax the lids since tension is as incompatible with sleep as the ungodly noise that was carrying on outside my room from all sides; horse van doors thrown open and ramps slamming to the frozen ground, doors and footfalls banging, wheelbarrows crashing onto concrete with each load of soiled hay being dumped into the pile of manure just in front of the boxes directly underneath me. I willed myself to doze, if sleep were to be out of question. The one sound for which I listened, the sound of hooves on the courtyard pavement, I could not hear, drowned out as it was by the infernal racket. Why should they care, I reminded myself, about the noise they made? This was their world, their work, and everyone there, normally, was part of it.

Time crawled by, but there was no sense in getting up. Gina would be starting later than usual, owing to the cold, which begged the question: what in God's name was everyone else doing, then?

Eventually, I drew my cell phone from under the bolster pillow that stretched across the head of my bed. It was 6:10 am -- Dear God in heaven! I had already been away for at least an hour, and I had gone to bed just before 12:30 am. This was going to be very authentic. Unforgettably authentic. I stuffed my cell phone back out of sight and willed myself to accept the misery, to letting it go on for what seemed like hours, and, then, as suddenly as it all began, it began to fade. I dared not to hope, but quiet gradually took the place of noise for good. I looked at my cell phone: 7:10 am. I closed my eyes again and slept until my phone rang, and Gina's voice sang out, "Good morning, Sunshine!"

Did she know I had been singing to Sunrise?

"What time is it?" I didn't dare look at the hour on my cell phone, and I didn't bother trying to sound bright.

"8:15. Go get coffee and we'll be at the boxes in a few minutes."

Thank God. I could get up.

But I was too excited to go to the canteen and went straight to the boxes. There was another owner, Michael Brief, to meet, Alex and Lisa to greet, and the horses to see, a morning's work stretching out, and then our race was the second race, early at around 1:30 pm. Coffee, for once, could wait, and Michael was kind enough, and American enough, to hold his coffee "to go" out to me and offer me a sip. It would do until we could grab a café a little later in the morning at the canteen, in the lull between the work and the time to get Elbow Beach ready for her race.

It's very different being at the racecourse before the race and traveling to the racecourse with the horse the day of the race. First of all, all of the other horses from the yard are right there, too, and that means that it doesn't have the feel of a race day, not until Gina changes gears from morning work to race preparation. Secondly, it sort of creeps up on you, the realization that this horse, right here in this box, is going over there to race, not to have an easy canter, or galop de chasse. The morning work behind and the other horses settled for the afternoon in the sun, Gina handed me the forehead pieces of the other owners, one of which she had just removed from the racing bridle, to slip the one with Kay's colors into place. Then, I held the bridle while she adjusted the reins. At Gina's request, I went and hung it by her door. A moment later, Gina moved it to another bit of hardware protruding from the wall. Race day. Details count.

And unlike any other race day, when the horses travel to the racecourse, this time Gina and Alex led Elbow Beach from her box to the saddling area, where the horses who are about to race and who have just raced are saddled and led out, or unsaddled and showered. Like any other race day, Gina went to pick up the saddle from the weighing room. Elbow Beach was ornery. She was sur les nerfs. There was tension in the air. She moved about, avoiding the blanket, the cinching of the race saddle, everyone's hands, making saddling her a challenge, but Lisa, a former head lad from Jean-Paul Gallorini's yard for 18 years, was on hand to get the job done with the apprentice and Gina.

Elbow arched her neck and looked away when Gina tried to stretch her front legs, as though to say "No", and then Alex walked her some more before we all paraded to the presentation ring, Gina and Alex in the lead, followed by Lisa, Michael and I. Frédéric Spanu wearing Kay's black and red, approached us. He consulted with Gina, and, when Elbow finished a tour of the ring, Gina gave him a hand up, and after a turn or two more, they headed to the track, where Elbow summarily dumped him to the sand, performing a perfectly executed and surprising 180° turn. Gina was the first to see that Fred was standing on the track and ran to see what had happened. I trained my zoom lens, but it wasn't enough to follow their conversation.

"Does this mean that Elbow Beach will not race?" asked Michael. I turned and found him at my side, where he had been all along. I had forgotten in the fright.

"That depends on what she's doing right now. If she is finishing a premature victory lap all-out, then she'll have spent herself and she won't race. If they get her fast, it'll be alright."

My photos, as it turned out, showed them smiling, watching Elbow in the near distance. If only Michael and I could have seen that then. She had just cantered a little ways off and let herself be caught easily enough. Getting her into the starting gate was another story. Several grown men, two clasping hands behind her rear, had to stuff her in, and then they were off. By then, we had hurried up to the owners' and trainers' salle to watch on television, and when they rounded the last turn and were pounding up the home stretch just below us, I was wishing I had run out the door to jump up and down and yell like I had for Sunrise the day she finished second. When they crossed the post, Elbow Beach was in 4th place, a nose in front of the 5th place horse. The first three had crossed together, a half-length ahead.

I was a little stunned. It's like that in horse racing. There is the training, the preparation, the travel, the pre-race rituals, and then the race begins and is over in the space of two minutes; these two minutes had seemed, possibly, just a little longer with the outcome having significance for my pocketbook, but they are still two short minutes for the lead up, for the life of a trainer, an owner and the staff of a yard. To think that a horse might race only several times a year for 5 to 8 years here in France, for years of early morning work and evening stable, it's hard to fathom. It's another interpretation of the passage of time.

Back at the saddling area, and walking back to the grandstand for lunch, Gina turned to me.

"That's 1,000€ for you," she announced, training her eyes right at me, raising her eyebrows and nodding her head in affirmation.

I stopped in my tracks and looked at her. I had honestly not thought about it. It was as though the horse belonged to someone else, like every other time, and photographing the backside, the horses, the race and everything around it made me feel like an observer, like the team photographer, and not the horse's half-owner. But I can't hand the camera over to someone else. I want to photograph it, and, besides, I am horribly camera shy and unphotogenic. Who, I ask you, has seen Sisyphe herself in these pages and pages of posts? No, I am the observer and the chronicler of my own acts, and the joy is for all of us. As Michael put it, "We're like family, and it's exciting when any of our horses do well," and we all know what it means when our horse pays its training fees, hay, oats and straw. Gratitude. Only this time, it concerned me directly.

I was simply delighted that this horse that David Brocklehurst wants to breed, that Agata calls an avion de chasse, or a fighter plane, an F-16, and that jockey Fabien Lefebvre would love to buy for the same reason, but who was terribly short on work, had placed. Not only had she placed, but she had crossed the finish line before a mighty looking filly with the body of a colt, Waka Laura. It's the look in her eyes that gives her away for a big filly. Perhaps it's like that for anyone who gets used to being around and helping out at every possible occasion, but, no, that couldn't be true. I was genuinely more excited every other time we did well. There must be some protective aspect of this business of owning race horses that doesn't let you feel the the full emotion of a good finish, so you might have a chance of not feeling it in a poor one.

Waka Laura

In any case, Elbow hadn't finished poorly, and Champagne was called for, along with Michael's oysters that evening, and they had the very one for which I had hoped, Taittinger Brut, for my first race as an owner, and an owner in the money.

The next morning, I didn't mind the noise in the darkest hours of the morning. I needed to be at the canteen at 7 am, in time to have my petit déjenuer and call a taxi. I didn't go by Sunrise's box, since the noise I heard while I was packing my little bag was Sunrise walking with a line of horses from Montfort's yard. Eventually, they formed a curving line while I watched from the balcony, in tights, ski socks and with my boiled wool coat wrapped around me in the cold, one horse and training jockey after another taking its place in the line, Sunrise folding in last of the five as they snaked out between the rows of boxes, on their way to the track. I watched until she had completely disappeared, and returned to my packing.

I did make a detour past Gina's boxes and said au revoir to one after another of the horses on my way to the canteen: Deep Ocean, Droit Devant, Strictly Rhythm, Elbow Beach and Milly, wrapped up in their double blankets, the top half of the box doors just slightly ajar. They lifted their big heads and looked towards my voice in the dark. Elbow offered me her nose, but I know now not to see too much in that gesture. They can come and go. Take care of them while they are there, go ahead and love them, but be ready to let them go; the best of them are ready to move on when the time comes, and will, like Sunrise, be perfectly at home in their new yard. I walked on to the canteen, veering left to walk past Sunrise's box and say a bonjour to the horses on the way to the gate to the parking lot, from across which the lights of the canteen shone a warm light in the first light of day.

I pushed open the door, and heads turned to see who had just come in and then nodded a greeting. Lads and jockeys sat and drank coffee and read the racing news. I sat my bag at a table on the far side and went up to the bar to order and ask for a taxi. The man offered me a business card and said if I had any trouble, he'd call from over there, bending his head toward the room adjacent, over in the corner where Gina, Michael, Lisa and I had drunk our Negonis the night before.

I returned to my table and phoned, petit déj arriving on a tray while I dialed the number. Jockeys Fabien Lefebvre and Carla O'Halloran came through the door with friends, and Fabien came by to faire la bise and say good morning. I doubt heads turned. Everyone seems to figure that if you're there, wherever you are on the backside, you have reason to be there, and know people, too. I charged him with the tip I had forgotten to give the lad, Alexandra, after the race, and we talked about his upcoming ride on Strictly Rhythm Saturday. I excused myself to finish my coffee and croissant, a real one, genuinely flaky and buttery, before the taxi arrived, and Alex slid into a seat across the table from me.

"Ah! Mais je viens de donner à Fabien --" She nodded to stop me.

"Il me l'a donné. Merci."

It was time. My cell phone was about to ring. I wasn't ready to go. I could spend days wandering around the backside, listening, chatting and memorizing the ambiance, of which there is no lack, but I'll be back, and in the meantime, Tchin-Tchin, Kay, Gina and everyone!

Dinner and champagne at the Sant'Ana

The race photos...

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