vendredi 4 octobre 2013

The story I have not told, Fibs and I

Fibs unloads from Maisons-Laffitte, September 3, 2012

A year and one month ago, Fibs, who raced under the name Fibs and Flannel, a 2007 foaled chestnut gelding by Tobougg out of Cayman Kai mare Queens Jubilee, stepped down off a horse transport truck onto the courtyard of a private owners stable, almost in Normandy. This was not of consequence to him. He had travelled much in his young life, from the farm where he was bred and cavorted next to his mother in Yorkshire.  A rather fortunate young man, he was in good hands and had only a short hop to make to his trainer Tim Easterby's yards at Habton Farms, Malton, North Yorkshire, and he would go on to travel to England's racetracks, Newcastle and Ripon, Haydock, Beverley and Hamilton, Warwick, Catterick, Doncaster, Carlisle, Musselburgh, Southwell, Kempton, Lingfield and Wolverhampton.

His maiden race was Monday, May 4, 2009 in Newcastle at a mile on good to soft conditions. There were 8 2-year-olds entered. I try to imagine him then, when he hadn't yet travelled 20-something times to the racetrack and won a few. Was he nervous? Did he try to bite the groom? Swivel his head around on his neck, ears just a little too far back, whites showing as he fixed his eye on that soul? Did he object to the tight girthing of his tiny little racing saddle? Was he eager to join the pounding hooves in the distance, his ears pricked and trained on their efforts? What did he think of the grandstand sounds that he could hear, while everyone else was concerned with the cleanliness of his nostrils, the shine of his coat and whether his vet papers were in order? Did he prance, stepping out to walk with his hot walker? Or did he walk with his head down and relaxed, already a professional, a little bit bored? What we know is that he ran.

"Dwelt, towards rear, pushed along and headway halfway, ridden and no impression final 2f"

I think I saw something like that 3 years later in France. He finished 5th. 

In July, in Haydock, he finished 4th of 6 horses, beaten by one of his father's other sons, Petougg, out of Soviet Star mare Piroshka, foaled just 8 days after Fibs. Petougg never won again. In fact, he only raced two more times. One wonders what happened in that third race, on September 25, 2009. Nothing catastrophic. He "raced towards centre, tracked leader, joined leader halfway, ridden and every chance 2f out, weakeded inside final furlong". Nothing to explain why he never raced again, unless there was something in a tendon, an accident in his box, a sudden colic, something that would endanger his further training or end his life. Such is the life of some horses, their owners and trainers. So many of them.

It was as a 3-year-old that Fibs and Flannel would come into his own and earn a little something of his training fees, hay and oats, breaking his maiden on April 22, 2010 in a class 5, 7 furlongs 100 yards race on good to firm track conditions, a length and a quarter behind the second place finisher, Ginger Grey. If I understood betting outside France, where everything is a sum "contre un", I could tell you that his morning price was 11/4 to Ginger Grey's 8/1 with some idea of that that meant. It doesn't seem that it was a complete surprise that Fibs won that day, certainly not after his first appearance as a 3-year-old a week earlier, when he placed second on the same track.

Perhaps Fibs was at his peak then, when he went on to win his next race on May 2 at Hamilton in the Totepool handicap,  having "Tracked leaders, smooth headway to joing leaders 2f out, shaken up to lead inside final furlong, pushed out, readily opened". Looking over his life performance makes me smile a little bit, although I wasn't smiling so much when I was his next-to-last owner of his career. From that 2nd place and the two wins right on its heels, Fibs faded. He went on to run 12 more races under his training, never doing better than 3 4th places and 2 5ths, and 4th and 5th don't bring home a check in the UK.

He changed hands, going on to race three times for trainer Tony Coyle at Zeebrivia Stables, also in Malton. Maybe he thought he knew what to do to get the zing back out of Fibs. Having had Fibs for a year, I think I know that this was somewhat illusory. Fibs decides for Fibs. He has a certain arrogance that makes the sweetness sweeter.

In the Rocket Ron Rapley 70th Birthday Handicap on November 15, 2011, a class 5 mile race for 3 yos on the fibersand, Fibs finished 12 in a field of 14, in which he "Chased leaders, led after 3f, headed over 4f out, ridden and weakened over 1f out". How, exactly, do you finish 12th in the last furlong? Pride goeth before a fall. C'mon, Fibs.

Then, three weeks later came the Play The Big Money totejackpot Today Hanidcap, a 6 furlong race for 3 yos on the fibersand on December 6. There was modest progress. Had anyone inquired if the young man wished to race? He drew the 9th and finished 9th (he's witty that way), "Outpaced, always behind". He had dropped from opening at 9/1 to 33/1.

Tony Coyle entered him in the Southwell Racecourse Selling Handicap for 4 yos on January 3, and Fibs must have smelled something in the air, woken on the right side of his box, finished his alfalfa; Fibs finished first in a field of 6 at 7 furlongs on the fibersand, and he went home to Saville House Stables with Willie Musson.

"Chased leaders, went 2nd 3f out, led 2f out, strongly pressed closing stages, kept on well"

He opened at 9/4.

Sadly for Mr. Musson and his new owners, this would be his last win. He did not, however, run poorly for Musson, with  three 3rd place finishes, a 4th and a 5th in 7 races in a mere 2 1/2 months. It was enough to attract the attention of a bloodstock agent friend in Maisons-Laffitte, who had travelled to Newmarket for the Tattersalls Guineas Breeze Up & Horses in Training Sale 2012 looking for likely prospects for the summer season in France. Until that day, I had never heard of his existence, but after that day, my life changed forever, and my blog, as anyone who has followed will have noticed, languished.

I had no business buying a race horse. My husband will be the first to tell you that, although he wasn't quite the first to know. He was, but not quite with full conscience and say-so. I don't know what got into me. I didn't know that when I get an idea into my head, I carry it out. I also didn't know that I was so fanciful in my interpretations of "possible" and "likely" as far as outcomes go. I further had no idea of what risk really means. 

It all seemed so rational, but risk by definition is anything but rational as I was brought to recognize. Talk of papers and past performances, the prospects of UK horses in France, where the prize money actually pays something of the training costs, and why so many UK horses come to race here, making them stars in the claiming races. I had put a toe into racing as an owner registered with France Galop with Elbow Beach, although she raced under owner Kay Minton's colors and we made the decision to send her back to her owners in England when a respiratory problem was suspected. It was time for her to return, anyway. She later went on to get her hoped-for win in a class 5 handicap, The Follow Mecca Swansea on Facebook, in August of the year, improving her desirability as a broodmare.

I had done all the paperwork, gone to Nanterre for my interview with the racing and gambling police, and chosen my colors, which I had stitched up at Petitpas in Maisons-Laffitte, and which Agata modelled for us on May 25, 2 weeks after Fibs and Flannel, Tattersalls hip number 35, arrived in the yard at Gina Rarick's training facility, on the morning of his first equivalent of a breeze in France. I had already made my decision in the days just after his arrival. I would buy Fibs and hope for his success, which we thought quite likely, despite the drawback of his not being eligible for the French bred premium, for which some UK horses are. Two months, we figured. The French like to see the horse run a few times before making a bid in the claimers.

"He's good," Gina had said, sounding, just possibly, agreeably surprised. "He's straight, and he has a large stride."

Shortly after, my cell phone rang and Gina's name appeared on the screen.

"Hi, Gina," I chirped.

"This is the 'Houston, we have a problem' call," she greeted me. My heart sunk. Before he'd even been entered, Gina had seen signs of EIPH, or bleeding, after fast morning work. It was 45 minutes later, and when he lowered his head to eat his hay, but it was a trickle of blood from the nostril. In the USA, Lasix is administered, and it's training and racing as usual. In France, and anywhere else in the racing world, it's close to a catastrophe; horses are neither trained nor raced on Lasix. They show signs of pulmonary haemorrhage after strenuous effort, and some herbal remedies, a bit of rest and a change in training is tried, but mostly a future other career is envisioned.

Gina would enter him anyway at Saint Cloud for June 2, but his training would be lightened. Hopes were nothing what they were. I was left to consider my luck, which was decidedly bad. "He's good" and "Il est bon" swam in my head along with "Houston, we have a problem" and "bleeder".

He ran at Saint Cloud in the Prix du Mesnil-Villement, a one mile Course E claimer for female jockeys. He looked good before the race, and he got an appalling ride. Coming out of the final turn and into the homestretch, Carla O'Halloran up, Fibs suddenly veered from the rail, cutting all the way out past the horses following to the very outside, like a satellite broken from its orbit. It was hard to fathom. No point in making any further effort, she pulled him up, and he jogged over the finish line. Somehow, he did not finish last. We said the things you say to each other in those situations. Given 33/1, "la note de course" resumed his race "n'a joué aucun rôle". 

"Je ne sais pas ce qui c'est passé," said Carla, "mais il a un bon moteur."

Later, while he was grazing in the grass on the backside, a trickle of blood made its slow way down his left nostril.

Gina entered him in a conditioning race in Compiègne July 2, and hoped for the best. My insides were in too many knots to make the trip. I watched from home as Fibs took to an early lead with Yannick Mergirie up. My heart had sunk a little. Hadn't Gina wanted him held back in the pack as was his wont? Here he was flying out front, a gorgeous streak of golden red with my colors flashing orange and claret in the bright sun, the pack hard on his heels. Could he hold it? I prayed, fervently, my head in my hands and my heart in my throat. I knew not to let myself hope for it. They hardly ever do, not without gaining any lead with a turn of foot coming out of the last turn. His lead never increased, and halfway up the backstretch, he was overtaken by all the ten other horses in the pack, Two for Two, Art of Dance, Saglawiyah Asil -- I watched the names I had studied when I did his paper, determining his greatest threats, pass him, followed by Bernenez, Don Salsa, Lucky Jon and Hi Shinko, a horse Gina had trained, and then the horses who had seemed to have much less chance of winning than he did, Alexiana, Echappée Belle and Manamo du Fray leave him to shine crossing the finish line last.

My phone rang. Gina's name flashed on the screen. Yes, he had finished last; no, it wasn't that big a problem that he had gone out front, he had wanted to; Mergerie was hugely impressed with his motor. Maybe, maybe we should enter him in a lady amateur jockey race in Dieppe later in July with his exercise rider up. They hadn't seen any recent evidence of bleeding, and he had just shown something we suspected, that we had reason to know was in him. I heard hope.

"No," I said. "I have an offer for a leasing contract on him. I have to accept."

This was not, in hindsight, the best decision to have made at all. It was the decision I felt I had to make, given everything, including my own panic. I had misunderstood risk. I had failed to understand that risk in racing depends entirely on the depth of the pockets of the owner, and given that mine were actually sewn shut, I had had no business imagining that because breaking even is about the best anyone can hope -- and what should make any owner of race horses happy, but far, in fact, from what happens in the vast majority of individual cases, in which money is lost, --  it was what would happen for me. Breaking even is facilitated by owning several horses and diversifying one's risk exposure; I owned one single horse, and there was something going on with him.

On July 12, I signed the contract, and Fibs went to the yard of trainer Jérôme Clais. I researched every horse he had raced in the last 3 years, and I knew I had no reason to hope to see any return on my 15% interest. But, it was worse than that. He ran once in Deauville in late July, and then every entry was scratched. Three of them. I called my contact and said, "There's something wrong, either with Jérôme or with the horse."

"I'll go right over this evening and see what's up."

What was up was that Jérôme was out of money, which happened oftener than could be hoped. There were some 10 horses in his yard, not all of whom were being fed and exercised. Fibs had fallen into the unhappier lot. He was standing in his box, the lights out. The contract, I said, is broken. We're getting him out. Fibs is retired.

I still watch the races and imagine Fibs on the turf or the fibersand. I watch him in the field, and I see him standing on the grass on the backside at Saint Cloud, his head high in the air, his ears pricked toward the hooves pounding their way to the last turn, I see him walking proudly in the presentation ring, accepting his jockey like the Queen of England accepts the adulation of her people, and I see the photo in the newspaper of him crossing the line first at Beverley, April 22, 2010.  I wish that for him again because I believe Fibs was suited to it. He was not a graded winner, his victories were not at Ascot and Longchamp, but when he wanted to, he could turn it on, stretch out his legs in a magnificently huge stride and fly over the sand, his feet touching earth only an instant before taking off again.

Fibs and Flannel wins at Beverley, April 22, 2010

I did not know that I was saying that Fibs would come home to me, out here on the edge of Normandy. It took some days, conversations with my husband, and phone calls, but on September 3, 2012, Fibs and Flannel stepped down from a horse van one last time and settled into the fields of the "boucle de la Seine", not very far from Giverny and Vernon,  and La Roche-Guyon. And all because of my name on his certificate of ownership with les Haras Nationaux and a barely audible and formed promise to look out for him made when things started to look not so good. In my heart, I always knew I'd want to keep him, but in my mind I knew it would take more than what was in my heart, or maybe just that alone.

Our story since then is the one I have not told.
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