|Fibs and Flannel, Piste Jaune at Maisons-Laffitte, May 25|
If I was an owner with Elbow Beach, it's true that it was nothing like it is now that I am an Owner, officially approved by and registered with France Galop, and the owner of Fibs and Flannel, by Tobougg out of Cayman Kai mare Queens Jubilee (in the year of the Queen's Jubilee, a sign perhaps), making purchase decisions, ordering my silks, signing contracts, and, yesterday, standing on the mound of grass alongside the piste jaune, waiting for my horse to come blazing up and past us where we take stock of the horse's action, respiratory effort, relative speed and power.
It's where we realized the issue with Elbow Beach that we believed explained her lack of turn of foot in the homestretch. It's where we realized that Fibs is fast. Fast, I hope, enough.
When he arrived in the yard in Maisons-Laffitte from Newmarket May 7, I went out to see him the next day and found a horse dripping with muscle in the shoulder and hind quarters, with a nice deep chest. Even I could see that this was a horse built for the mile, 8 furlongs, 1600 meters.
"Up to maybe 2000 here," said my friend and trainer now Gina Rarick, "But, we'll start him at a mile."
Good, consistent milers are rare enough, and it's a good length race to run well here, and he likes the turf, and runs just about as well on the fibersand. There would be plenty of options for him.
"I watched the video of his last two races in England again, and I think he was just losing interest. They are hard on them over there. I think all we have to do," said Gina "is make him happy."
This is the yard to do that, and it's the part that makes it the hardest if you're in the clamining races, with the chance of losing the horse to someone willing to bid higher than the price at which you are willing (or able) to defend. King Driver has a blue plastic soccer ball in a net that can be hung from the wall of his box or held by Agata in a game of tug-of-war, her hand and arm to his teeth and neck.
Everyone gets pets (except the stallion) and company, music during evening stable and individually adapted meals, according to the horses' needs and tastes. The boxes are squeaky clean and fresh, the straw plentiful, the hay tasty, and both are free of dust to bother the throat and lungs.
Owners wield pitchforks and walk their and others' horses, take the news of the yard, show up for each other's races, bring carrots and photos. The gate is always open, except when it is time for the afternoon nap and peace and quiet reign.
The other bit of work was to develop his back muscles and help him heal a sore spot along his spine, just before the croup, from where the saddles in England bothered him. He ran with his head up and his back hollow. Here, he would strengthen his back and learn to run with his head down while carrying a jockey.
Fibs did not move into the yard as the fanciest horse, nor as the most expensive horse, the horse in whom anyone could have the highest hopes and expectations. He arrived from the spring Breeze Up & Horses In Training Sale, Lot N° 35, not the best sale with the best horses. That's in July. But, the sale was taking place, Sebastien was going and returning with horses, and with the departure of Elbow Beach, I was without a horse. I could see what Sebastien had shipped over and if Gina thought anything was worth training, or I could just wait until July.
His race history was good enough; his paper was alright; but, he could be up for sale at the Tattersall's spring sale because there was something developing, something wrong, or not right enough, or because the barn needed to make room for younger, more promising horses that hadn't reached their ceilings yet. Racing is relative; he could be useful in the claimers and handicaps, but only seeing him, watching him move, going over his legs and feeling who is is would tell.
Gina gave the nod; Fibs was a horse who might well do what we hoped, and, so, he stayed in the yard under my patronage as the possibly useful horse, a horse who might bring in more in a claimer than was paid in Newmarket, and his papers and shipping. A horse who might help me acquire a better horse still, or who would at least work and pay his bills in exchange for good care and the chance to run.
Yesterday, the yard's regard for him climbed a notch the second he passed us, standing alongside the piste jaune.
"He's good," said Gina, sounding, just possibly, agreeably surprised. "He's straight, and he has a large stride." I definitely heard satisfaction.
He'd cantered, what the French call galloping, the speed work, with Hard Way, and Gina turned to Hard Way's two other owners, she herself being the third, as well as his breeder, and pronounced him ready for Longchamp June 11. At that moment, I hope I might be forgiven my selfishness, I only had ears for what she had to say about Fibs, eyes for Fibs. Hard Way, as much as I adore him and am enchanted by his story, seemed a million miles away, somewhere out in Fibs' orbit.
We made our way over the other side of the piste jaune to the trail alongside, the place where Gina asks her questions and finds out what the exercise riders have to say about the horses' performance, while they turn in lazy circles around her, and Ludovic on Hard Way and Agata on Fibs trotted peaceably up toward us, where we waited.
"Il est bon," said Agata, and I got lost behind my camera lens, watching them turn about Gina, half-hearing the conversations around me, and the words He's good. He's good. He's good. Il est bon, il est bon, il est bon turned around and around in my ears.
Later, Agata came up to me in the yard and said, "Il avait encore a donner. Il aurait pu prendre Hard Way à la fin là et vient avec Hard Way devant. Il est bon."
Il est bon, il est bon, il est bon.
You don't let them actually race in speed work, though. Hard Way was the one set to gallop out front, and Agata's job was to gallop Fibs, staying back. Let one get along side another, and you've got a horse race, not a morning speed session.
My silks were ready at Petitspas on the main street in Maisons-Laffitte, making and selling everything you need to train and race a horse, and we headed off to pick them up, my heart a little bit in my throat. I could always change them if I hated them. I had had such a hard time making up my mind, but I didn't want to have to go through that, show myself as anything but decided and knowing my mind, at least for the choice of my colors.
Monsieur greeted us like he always does, and we followed him through the workshop, smelling of leather and full of scales, tools and an assortment of different machines for sewing everything from fabric to leather, where his assistant looked up from where he was working at the long bench along the windows of the courtyard and smiled toward us, to his office, from which he emerged with a smile and a clear plastic bag in his hand. Neatly folded inside were my racing silks. My colors.
I imagined them up on the wall at Deauville or Longchamp. I have no right to, but no one does not imagine this. I saw satiny golden orange and a color like a deep claret wine, so close to "win", shining through. I hardly dared form an opinion, but it seemed generally favorable around me. We drove back to the yard, and Gina pulled into her place in front of the gate.
"Do you want to take the silks home?" she asked.
"You usually keep them, don't you?" It occurred to me she thought I might want to show them to my husband. "Keep them here with all the silks."
"OK, I'll keep them with the others," she said, drawing back her hand and the silks shining in the sunshine through their plastic packaging. We started to cross the street.
"That way there can't be any problem; everything is here and ready."
The trainer brings the silks to the race in the little pouchshe has just for that purpose, leaves them in the cubby near the jockeys' locker room, and brings them back to launder them after the race. We turned to cross the street.
"You don't want to take them into the house?" I said.
"No! Let's take them over to the yard; we always show new silks off to the yard," she added, laughing.
It's true. It is a big moment. New colors coming into a trainer's yard means new business: a new owner, another horse, more racing opportunities and business. There are endless moments to mark and to celebrate in racing, even the sorrier ones, like a race that doesn't go according to expectations, when a jockey doesn't follow his orders or a horse has a bad day against tough competition, and none is to be missed. Ever.
Gina walked down to the barn and ripped open the plastic, turning to hold up the casaque in the bright noon sunshine for everyone's inspection. I watched from the safety of my camera lens. Agata voiced her approval and her surprise at finding that she approved.
"C'est beaucoup mieux en vrai que sur papier!" she pronounced, a huge smile across her face, "Le satin brille et ça change tout!"
I realized she had carefully hidden her fear that the silks would be hideous from me, but because they were shiny, and not just muddy ink on heavy ivory paper, or what it looked like on the simulator on the France Galop site, whichever she had seen, they had saved themselved from being awful, and even pleased.
"J'avais vu les échantillons des tissues chez Petitpas," I offered, by way of hopeful explanation, "alors je savais que ça donnait autre chose que sur l'écran de l'ordi ou papier." I had seen the cloth samples at Petitpas, I explained, so I knew what they would look like. Sort of.
"Et, je voulais que ça brille au soleil, que se soit des couleurs heureuses qui se voient."
She nodded, still smiling, and went to take the silks from Gina and pulled them over her head. I turned to Mark and added, "And I have the horse, as it happens, to go with them." He raised an eyebrow and smiled, nodding Yeah.
It was true; he shines like burnished copper, a bright, shiny centime in the sun, and the colors are perfect for him. It is just another coincidence.
Watching Agata pull the silks into place, I thought, I even have an enthusiastic and beautiful exercise jockey to model them for me, and got back behind the lens. She went to shut Milly's box door against the strong sunshine and heat and mugged for me, laughing and celebrating new colors.
"C'est ça qui compte le plus," I told her, "que tout le monde les apprécie car l'on travaille tous ensemble." The whole yard wears the owners' colors, so it's best, I think, if everyone likes and is proud of them.
I feel like I might be a little bit crazy. I am not the person of whom you think when you think of a thoroughbred race horse owner; I am far from from it, possessing some of the qualities, but lacking the main one, the wealth, but there's something driving me. I don't make a lot of impulsive decisions; I can't afford to, but I am doing this for the experience, for the pleasure of being around these animals and everyone who is also compelled to be around them, for whatever lessons I will learn, and for whatever stories I will have to tell.
Because, you can't know the stories until you live them, and you can't tell what you haven't lived.