mardi 6 mars 2012

The decision: Elbow Beach stays to race in France

Elbow Beach finishes 4th at Cagnes-sur-Mer

Elbow Beach was one of three horses trainer Gina Rarick had entered in Cagnes-sur-Mer that Saturday, February 18, and the best hope for a win. Her other owner, Kay Minton, and I were anticipating champagne flowing in Nice that evening, and why not? With Fabien Lefebvre, who knew her as well now as Gina's training jockey, Agata Tubielewicz, back in Maisons-Laffitte, and who had as much confidence in her speed and promise to take a race, up, it seemed like we had every chance to cross the post no worse than second.

We were a nice-sized party to cheer her on: three owners, me, Kay and Mark, with his wife, Cynthia, and a friend, and I had piqued the interest of the interior decorative painter, with whom I had the pleasure to talk on the train from Paris the day before, in racing, and he brought his young daughter for her first thoroughbred horse race. They arrived just in time to meet us coming out of the presentation ring, as Fabien rode Elbow off to the track, hoping not to be tossed onto the sand on his cul like Frédéric Spanu in the last time out. But hindsight is forewarning, and Fabien knew to anticipate what she might have reserved for him. The rest of us trooped up to the owners' and trainers' deck to watch the race.

The gate opened and six horses surged forward; everyone had a 5 in 6 chance of taking a check. All that remained to be seen was who didn't and how much each of the other horses took home.

Fabien settled her behind the front runner, Athaar from Rouget and the number 2 horse, favorite Nina Candela by Gentile, and rode the pace to the final turn into the homestretch, where Athaar would drop from sight into 6th position and Nina Candela would stretch into first place, followed by Lady Ana, Maria Christa, ridden by Ioritz Mendizabal -- who had just returned from a victory at Meydan in Dubai the day before, winning the S.O.G. Handicap on 2010 Prix Villapadierna - Derby Espagnol winner Platagenet in a phenomenal finish in front of front-runner Alhaain --, and Elbow Beach.

Manuka and jockey Thierry Thulliez flirted briefly with taking fourth from Elbow, but she wasn't having any of it. She also wasn't seriously interested in making a similar bid for third.

This second time past a French post was less glorious than in our hopes and the weather and view of the Mediterranean and sail boats out past the backstretch, but there were factors to take into consideration. First, there was the quality of the turf, which was poor, rutted and dry. Second, there was the distance, which was probably 100 meters too long at 1400 meters, particularly on that terrain. We sighed, took solace in the second to last check, which would pay her training fees, oats and straw for a few more weeks, and turned our attention to watching Strictly Rhythm and Deep Ocean run. In the end, Elbow proved herself to be the best hope of the day, although at 4th place, it would have been nice to see her more seriously challenged by her yardmates.

Then, there was the argument to make to Elbow Beach's owner in England, an argumentative essay entitled "Why Elbow Beach should stay to race in France". A victory was what he wanted, at least one victory before she was to be covered and begin her career as a broodmare, and we saw the logic in keeping Elbow here to do it. We weren't far, which was a lot to say considering that this was only her second race in the 4 months since her last race in England, October 10, 2011, and since she had gone out of race training. It was premature to expect her to win in maiden races in her current form. She needed time to eat well, train well and rest well, and she needed the experience she was getting. She did not so much need, perhaps, another trip back to England via Maisons-Laffitte to digest in the middle of that preparation and racing.

For now, she'd at least have another chance in France in Deauville on Friday, March 2, with the caveat that it was a little soon, but the entry was too good to pass up. I sighed my disappointment; I'd known she'd run while I was skiing, but I would not cut my yearly and dearly anticipated ski trip with my son to Argentière short to return for it. I'd receive the news on the slopes of Les Grands Montets. The start time was 15h55 in the 5th, the Prix de Saint-Valéry with a starting field of 9 horses. By Gina's figuring, it was a field of four, including Elbow Beach, Perle Rose, Caracesca and Mephala, but by the horses' and their jockeys', Elbow was not included in that select company, and neither was Caracesca.

My cell phone rang at the bottom of a steep bowl of moguls the size of the ponies that lead the thoroughbreds to the gate in the States, and I struggled to yank off my glove, pull it from my pocket and hit the right area of the touchscreen to reply before she hung up; time is very limited in the moments after a race. I had just survived a near disaster with the help of a calm and collected stranger and had witnessed an avalanche on the face of the rock slope below les Becs Rouges across the Argentière glacier from the hors-piste near the black run, Pointe de Vue, and I was hoping all this excitement was portent for more. Elbow was running while some of this was going on, and had had her best chance of a victory yet this year. Perhaps, at worst, a second or third place; it was not unreasonable to hope, but, as Gina herself said, without the unexpected, it was not a race. I caught my breath and held it.

"Yes, Gina?"

"It was a disappointing fith. I've got to run to meet them."

"OK, thanks. We'll talk later. Go."

I let it out, and nodded to Sam.

"Fifth. Gina will fill me in later."

I am becoming a specialist in the finer points of interpretation of finish order, however, and I have learned that sometimes, perversely, or conversely to the laws of Good Sense, a fifth is better than a fourth. If there were such a time, and there is, this was one.

This time out, she was up against some stiff competition again, and her fifth place finish was by a nose only two lengths behind the winner, Perle Rose (poetic justice; I got to write that sentence), and Caracesca, ridden by Ioritz Mendizabal, did not take home a check, crossing the finish line just after Elbow. According to Gina's predictions, Mephala was in there with a third place finish, but Jabberwocky was in there, too, handing a second place check to her owner, and Miss Oury, at 43/1, had slipped in for the fourth, just nostrils ahead of Elbow's fifth with her far better 8.3/1 odds.

It was a race, and Elbow had gained ground, not lost it. The numbers don't tell all, or not certain numbers.

I was not privy to all the discussion, but the decision came, and it aligned with my way of seeing things: Elbow Beach needs a win, and, at this point, her best chance of getting it is here in France. Right now, Elbow will get a chance to catch her breath, continue her work and race again toward the end of March or early April, and I will not be anywhere but at the racecourse this time out.

Elbow at Cagnes, that's my baby

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