samedi 19 mai 2012

Hard Way adds a chapter to his story, and a victory to his record

Hard way and jockey Christophe Lemaire enter the winner's circle

Hard Way's back at the racetrack, and things will never be the same again.

I used to trip off to the races in the wake of throughbred racing trainer Gina Rarick and her retinue, a kaleidoscopic cast of support staff, clients and friends, camera in hand, with a sense of interested detachment. Even when I knew the horses running and their owners. Even when I was the owner of the horse running, which has been the case 4 times on a two-leg share in Elbow Beach. Even when the horse did well. But that's all changed now. Racing, for me, will never be the same again because Hard Way returned, and Hard Way won. And Hard Way is not just any horse.

He made it look easy. He made it look like the race was being run in slow-motion, and at his bidding. It was his race. His and jockey Christophe Lemaire's race to run, and to win.

He made it look like he'd known all along, all those months in the cold dark mornings and tucked in after a manger full of oats, apples and Guinness in Agata's company, listening to the radio, for the long dark winter nights. Like he'd been waiting for this, through those early spring lengthening days.

He knew he had come back to the yard in Maisons-Laffitte for a purpose, taking up the priveleged stall next to the sellerie, Gina's office in the barn, where the only phone is in her pocket and there's no desk. A trainer's work is in the boxes. In the training center and the forest. At the racetrack. Gina's office is for old photos of horses, including Hard Way at Deauville in his younger days, white boards for communicating who needs what and how to contact someone who knows what to do in an emergency, a cupboard with a supply of benign verterinary first aid supplies, for when you can take care of it yourself, shelves of wool saddle blankets from England and racks of racing saddles, counters covered with pots of leather grease and pallets with sacks of grain and racehorse mixes, crates of practically give-away price apples from the market in Maisons-Laffitte.

And he knew, like he knew everything else a racehorse needs to know, that this purpose was to race again, even if Gina herself didn't know it yet when she brought him back in the truck.

Saturday, May 5, the wait was over. The long months of conditioning from early retirement to race form were accomplished. His shaggy winter coat and leg feathering gone since his last preparation race at Lisieux on April 15, a new Hard Way -- one, who of everyone, only I had never seen -- emerged from his box on the backside like a butterfly from its cocoon, transformed into a shining, sleek being tuned to race. It was enough to take your breath away, if you hadn't happened to be paying attention recently.

He looked at us, glanced around the walking circle, where a few of the others who would run against him in the fifth were turning, under a storm gathering overhead, and one would swear that Hard Way sighed with satisfaction.

I'm back, and it's good. I'm ready. He nodded to Agata, Gina's assistant in the yard, and they set off to walk around and around.

This horse is the special horse in the yard. The horse with the story and the love of his trainer, who is also his breeder and holds a share in him, and everyone around her racing stables. Hard Way, the horse you'd be tempted to say was dealt the "hard knocks", asked to take the "hard way" in life, but you'd know no such thing from being around him and having the pleasure of his gaze return your own. The horse who loved to lay his head on Gina's shoulder during evening stable and let her lean into his big chest. This is a horse who knows grace. A lovely state.

Orphaned when his dam, Nicosia, a German bay with 1 win and 7 places in her 28 starts, the last 8 of them for Gina, died, he was raised by a wet nurse, a solid, working plowshare mare on the other side of the farm from the thoroughbreds, who he could see, but didn't particularly care to join. He grew up apart and a little fearful of those bold thoroughbred colts who ran together. Even of the fillies who nudged each other like their dams, and whispered, he almost certainly thought, about him. He was afraid, Gina told me, telling me her favorite story -- his -- again, of the other horses. He didn't like to run with them, or even get too close to them. He didn't, really, see himself as one of them, and that didn't change when he got to the yard, and eventually to the racetrack.

Hard Way didn't care for breaking from the starting gate and finding all those horses running behind him. Hard Way preferred, if possible, to get away from them, and winning was a particularly good way to do this.

And then Gina noticed in early August of 2010 that something had changed in Hard Way's stride. Even at a trot. His last couple of races at Saint-Cloud and Clairefontaine with Lemaire and Olivier Peslier on board, his performance hadn't been the same.

The vet said nothing was wrong; he was running fine, but Gina knew him better. She'd ridden him long enough to know something was wrong. The scan showed a crushed Atlas, the first vertebra, just at the base of a horse's skull. Hard Way's racing career was over. Early in the fall of 2010, Gina drove him in the van to Normandy to let him enjoy the pure, damp breezes that blow from the channel and eat all the lush green Normandy grass that humidity bestows on France's horse country his long life of leisure before him would afford.

But, Hard Way languished in his emerald pastures. He cooled his heels and despaired. He watched the other horses and kept his distance, I am sure. He kept his head down, nosing through the long wet grass, lifting it to look to the southeast, toward Paris, and he thought, I am equally sure, about Gina, and Maisons-Laffitte, and racing.

And one day, Gina decided to bring him back. He might as well keep her company in the yard for all he was enjoying his early retirement. And she rode him, and he seemed -- better.

Gina had another scan done, and this time it showed an intact, repaired Atlas; it had calcified. Gina thought about training him again, and the vet said, Pourquoi pas? Fais-le courir et on vera bien, and that was how it was that Hard Way was back in training by the time I set foot in the yard for the first time around Thanksgiving, just 5 months before his comeback race.

That Saturday, there was more electricity in the air than the gathering thunderstorm, unless Gina's nerves brought it on. The other races went on; we trooped up to the Owners' and Trainers' lounge to occupy a table, eat plates of desserts or fromages from the buffet and drink champagne to calm Gina's nerves and pass the time. People circulated, exchanging greetings and bits of coversation, squeezes of the shoulder or elbow and half-knowing smiles, like couples in a ballroom, bits of business to facilitate, racehorse or social. It was there that Sebastien and I saw Esles blow past the competition and the post and grabbed the Tattersalls catalog for the upcoming Guineas Breeze Up and Horses in Training Sale Sebastien wasn't missing, suddenly motivated by a colt in the pages liberally peppered with black type, another by Motivator, and way out of our range, as it turned out.

Then it was time to saddle Hard Way. The relief of something to do. The way time passes on the backside, in its own raceday rituals and rhythms.

Jean-Paul Gallorini had a horse in the box next door -- they'd raced earlier in the day in the Group 2 race, le Prix de Greffhule -- and he came by to wish Gina and Hard Way well. Laying his hand on the white stripe down the middle of Hard Way's forehead, it looked for all the world as though he was receiving the blessing of one of Gina's own mentors and friends, one of the best trainers in France.

And then it was time to lead Hard Way out to the presentation circle. Last this time. Last in, and, necessarily, last out. The presentation ring is where Hard Way evacuates whatever emotions gather in him before a race. In these moments, he is best ridden by a jockey with bronco experience, and his grooms had best love him, or they'll not forgive the minor wounds.

Finally, there is the moment when the horse and his rider pass onto the track, to trot and then canter toward the gates, when the trainer, the owner, and the grooms retreat to their vantage posts to watch the race and await the outcome. When last bets, including mine that day, with the last 5 euros bill I had in my wallet, 2 to win and 2 to place, are made, before everyone gathers in front of the television screens or presses their binoculars to their eyes. The horses circle as one by one, more or less readily, they walk or are pushed into their gates, green metal doors clanging shut behind them to wait the last horse in, and then the steward gives the signal, the bell clangs, and everyone thinks "They're off," like several hundred silumtaneous and silent prayers.

Hard Way broke at the front of the field of 20, and then, before disappearing from sight, Christophe Lemaire settled him back a bit, letting the others overtake them until Hard Way was on the hind end of the fourth horse. I had chosen a place on the rail in the grandstand just below the plate glass windows of the Owners' and Trainer's Lounge, where most everyone else was watching on the television screens to watch every move the horses and their jockeys made, and then they were coming round the final turn. The announcer said "Hard Way". I listened. He was closed on the rail, near the horse out front. I was trying to listen and to watch, what was happening on the track and in front of the screens up behind me all at once. I turned and missed the moment Christophe and Hard Way found their opening, skipping past the horse that stumbled right in front of them, watching Mark and Steve, Steve's daughter and Graham, and his wife see it. I turned, and there was deep blue and yellow out in front on a dark horse.

Hard Way. Hard Way is out front!

I snapped photos in rapid-fire succession, holding my breath, watching Christophe and Hard Way pull away on the sodden turf, looking for all the world like they were out for a morning galop de chase in the Rond Poniatowski, followed by a bunch of school boys and girls who were far outclassed. And then Christophe sent a message up the reins to Hard Way. If Christophe were American, like Gina Rarick, it might have been "Whoah, boy, easy now. You don't have to win this one by much. Let 'em look good, too. Atta boy" that he was telegraphing up those orange rubber reins for the others had gained ground by the time they crossed the post, but not by enough to catch Hard Way who won by nearly 2 lengths. Christophe had given him the perfect ride.

I turned to look through my camera lens back up at the doors, from which Hard Way's fans were bursting into the stands with shouts and smiles, hugs and wet eyes everywhere. Pandemonioum. This was not your average victoire à Saint-Cloud, and neither were the photos with the horse in the winner's circle or the fête pour arroser la victoire after. There was nothing blasé nor every day about it. Hard Way had gone into retirement broken and emerged again healed to win. Not for a moment had his owners lost a shred of confidence in him; if Hard Way were back to train and run again, they were there to make it happen.

And that is how it is that I will never return to the racetrack with the same detachment I once had. How I am not even sure my own horse's victory one day might rival the way we all felt when Hard Way entered the winner's circle, head held high, Christophe Lemaire looking almost goofy with pleasure up on his sweat-soaked back, the dark print left by a hand laid in congratulations on his damp haunch. Lisa beaming at his far side, and Agata radiating the purest joy on his near, and Hard Way found himself at the center of a training and racing enterprise built on the best horse sense and friendship, love for the horses and the sport, and everyone was gathered here, around him, to celebrate it on this day.

Today, Hard Way runs again. This time at Maisons-Laffitte. Christophe Lemaire was to have been on board once more, but fate dealt another hard blow and there will be a different jockey for another day; one more lesson that racing teaches: no one ever knows what is coming next or gets to write the story before it happens, and that is exactly as it should be. The interest is in the journey, the day-to-day, and, win or lose, a story will be lived and live in the telling.

Here's to Hard Way, all that is good in racing.


Hard way out front in the homestretch

For the RaceDay photos, click here.

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