vendredi 8 juin 2012

The first past, looking to future races

Fibs and Mark, heading companionably to the warm-up ring, Saint-Cloud

The rites and rituals, the rhythms of the racetrack comfort. The days of waiting for a race finally over, the moment to saddle up, walk and mount in the presentation ring to head to the track provide their own pleasures, small but real ones. The tight circle of professionals and friends gathered at the saddling box; the horse solid and sound, brushed, braided and in every way burnished to a high shine; the sounds of others calling out to one another and horses clopping past; the details of the preparation unchanging one race to the next, day after day. It's always the same, and always a little bit different within that sameness.

There is the relaxation of the nerves. The horses are all here, and the preparation is done and as much is known about one's own horse as can possibly be known. Less is known about the other horses. The racing papers have given their probable odds, and the bettors have made their own opinions known. A list of favorites is drawn up, and you may agree or disagree. You will never know enough about each horse, each jockey and the conditions out there to know who is right until the race is run and over. It will please you, comfort you, surprise you, disappoint you, but it will never leave you indifferent. If it could, then you probably don't belong at the racetrack. You need either a new profession or a new hobby, unless you are a lad or hot walker. To be honest, they look indifferent enough often enough.

Saddled, Fibs headed out to walk with the others, those who had just come off the track and were cooling down or drying off after their showers, and those who were warming up, staying limber for their race to come, whether the next one, or another after that. We'd come with one horse. Some trainers, like Cédric Boutin, had horses standing in several adjoining boxes along the main alley, others out walking, and still others heading to or from the racetrack.

Hellos and news, les bises are exchanged with other trainers, owners, familiar lads. Remarks made about their horses, their chances, their results. Congratulations or encouragement, knowing nods and consolations. Nothing is long-hidden at the racetrack. Everyone knows what your horse looks like, what your racing record is, how long you've been at it, and how you've done.

"T'as fait quoi?"

"6ème," with a shrug, the inimitable Gallic one, and a self-effacing smile, an eyebrow raised, "il n'avait plus rien. Ben".

"Ben. La prochaine fois alors."

"Ouai, la prochaine."

It's never necessarily or even likely going to be the case, but that won't keep you from the racetrack. You have owners, they have horses, and you must enter them in races that suit their talents and abilities. The professionals need to make money, usually; the owners need to enjoy themselves, and not to lose their fortunes, great or small, or not to be worthy of such a description in the first place. The horses need to do what thoroughbreds do best: gallop with other horses and try to beat them.

In the presentation ring, the horses paraded around us, their number blankets white against the green grass, the green leaves and their dark and supple bodies. The jockeys for this race, a 1600m (8f) 13,000€ and 17,000€ claimer for 5-year-olds and female jockeys walked from the locker room across the winner's circle and joined their trainers and owners. Smiles and greetings, instructions exchanged, photos taken, the television cameras rolling (but you don't pay attention to them), the jockeys are led to their mounts and given a leg up. Some horses take it in stride, others buck a little, considering a full-out rearing up. Lads and owners-enjoying-being-lads calm their charges, and one by one they head to the track to gallop easily toward the starting gates, bettors taking their last looks before casting their bets, if they haven't already. The public is sparse. It's a lovely June evening, and the restaurant terraces are full all over Paris and in the center of Saint-Cloud.

Fibs accepted his jockey and headed to the track like a professional. It was his 30th start. He knows his job, and that job is fine with him. He is an honest and considerate horse. We watched him go and headed, by ones and twos, up to the Owners' and Trainers' Lounge above the grandstand and the post to watch the race on the television screens. We'd come out to see them come up the homestretch.

Heading out to the track

Fibs and the other horses entered their stalls without the least fuss. They were 5 and older. They'd been around long enough to know, and they were all healthy enough to find a race a pleasant prospect on a sunny evening. Before we knew it, the bell clanged, the gates opened and 9 horses charged forward. Two took an early lead, and the rest remained bunched together.

"They're being stupid out there like that. Damn. Fibs has his nez au vent."

It was true. Carla and Fibs were on the inside toward the middle of the following pack. He had no benefit of a draft. They came on, positions only slightly changed heading into the final turn. Fibs remained on the inside.

"OK. That's not bad. She gave him the shortest ride around. Now."

But, rather than the surge forward we expected, following the lead horses who ought to be tiring and retire the distance between them, Fibs travelled out past the two horses behind him toward the outside. We stared at the television screen. I knew what Gina was thinking, "He's hanging badly, but he runs straight."

"He's never done that before," she said. And then he slowed to an easy gallop, heading toward the post like he had the jockey's mother on his back on a Sunday morning on the trails. The other horses, most of them, anyway, continued the race, and one won, 4 placed, and Fibs tripped past the post like he was anywhere but at a race course.

"That was a strange race."

"Indeed. I have never seen anything like it," concurred Sebastien. We looked at each other and blinked, followed Gina down the stairs, out past the horses who had had the good fortune to remember this was a race and enter the winner's circle to meet the jockey.

"This is the part I dread," I said to her young niece. I don't think she asked why.

We heard that he travelled beautifully all through the backstretch and into the last turn. He was a wonderful ride. A real pleasure. But she hadn't liked the footing along the rail coming into the homestretch and pulled him to the outside. He stopped, she explained; there was suddenly -- nothing. My mind flipped back to Elbow Beach. She was fast, too, but she failed to finish. Still, this horse had won races. He liked this distance. He didn't like heavy going, and the turf had soaked up early summer rainstorms.

"I wonder if he didn't take being pulled to the outside for being pulled up." Sebastien nodded.

"I think it is possible, too."

We were, quite simply and quite frankly, perplexed. Here was a horse who had run more than two dozen times and knows his job, and all you had to do was let him run straight and find his own footing.

Later, after his shower and drying off, after simple chat and laughter (it is enjoyable, win, place or lose, when you are with friends and the sun is slanting through the trees on a hill above Paris), I walked by myself to my car in the owners' lot. The attendant with the bright and good-humored eyes who had greeted me asked, "Alors, qu'est-ce que votre cheval a fait?"

"C'était étrange. Une course très étrange." He nodded, listening. "Juste après le dernier tournant, le jockey l'amenait vers l'extérieur de la corde, et je pense qu'il n'a rien compris." He nodded again and smiled.

"Soumillon fait souvent ça."

"Mais, ce n'était pas Soumillon."

"Vous auriez peut-être meiux fait de rester à Roland Garros," he said, and smiled his sympathy.

I had arrived 2 hours earlier a litte out of breath from the stress of the traffic in Boulogne-Billancourt and Saint-Cloud, having gotten up to leave half-way through the second set of the second women's semi-final. Maria Sharapova was on her way to securing her place in the final, although Petra Kvitova seemed to be finding the resouces to maybe cast doubt on the outcome. It wasn't easy to leave, but the stunned sound of my trainer's voice saying "Ohh-kaaay" on the other end of the line when she called and asked where I was, and I had replied "Just thinking about leaving Roland Garros now," was enough to remind me that owners have duties, too.

"Mon entraineur m'aurait tué," I replied, smiling back, feeling a little conspiratorial, and stepped toward the other young attendant, holding my door open, and placed the euro coins cradled in my cupped palm into the space of his own.

"Je vous remercie, Madame."

"Cest moi. Bonne soirée, Messieurs," and I climbed into my car, hoping not to stall heading out of the owners' parking lot owing to my high, wedge heels.

It's time for more sensible shoes, as long as this violon d'Ingres remains remotely sensible, and at least I got my rayons de soleil to make Fibs' coat and my silks shine, even if the performance was anything but bright and shiny, for whatever reason. Next time out, June 23rd at Amiens. Having done his first race in France, he is free to enter a far wider range of races, and better luck next time. In racing, luck is better than genius, they say. At least Jane Smiley says it.

For more race photos, click here.

Grazing after the race, Fibs hears horses galloping in a later race,
his full concentration is on them over on the track.
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