American-born trainer Gina Rarick (writing as Backside) and racing journalist Alan Shuback (Frontside) are bringing a unique behind the scenes look each week from France's Hippodrome de la Cote d'Azur, a multi-purpose track that offers Thoroughbred racing during a six-week winter meet in the city of Cagnes-sur-Mer along the French Riviera.
The first installment of the Cagnes-sur-Mer diary included an introduction about the track and its location, along with the composition of Rarick's stable.
Monday, Feb. 1
A SURPRISE FROM MOUHJIM
Backside: I'll be completely honest : I've never cared much for Mouhjim, who has almost always been more trouble than he's worth.
Mouhjim is a 7-year-old gelding who belongs to my exercise rider, Clement, and his father. I didn't want to hire Clement because, as a rule, I don't allow employees to have horses with me. But then the horse came up with a tendon problem, so since he was out of the picture, I hired the kid, and he turned out to be an excellent worker. And then the horse got better. Not wanting to lose a good employee, I was sort of stuck with the horse.
Mouhjim is an impressively huge beast not without some ability, and Clement, like many lads who take on horses, has always been convinced he would have been a Group winner if only his legs held out. If only he was trained better at the start. If only … if only …
But the reality is that Mouhjim has swiss cheese for front tendons and has only managed to win one race in his life. And he also has some serious mental issues, certainly linked to previous pain. This spring, when he came back into training after yet another lengthy layoff to let his tendons heal, he became dangerous to ride. He would either bolt or plant himself and rear repeatedly. Clement had just about decided to give up, a decision I wholly supported, when a friend of mine suggested a behavior specialist, what Americans would call a horse whisperer. At that point our level of desperation outweighed our skepticism and we gave it a shot.
Mouhjim spent about five weeks with Fanny Bourgoin, and I have to say the results were almost miraculous. I would see her long-reining Mouhjim the nearly two kilometers from her stable to the training gallops in the afternoon. retraining him from the ground up. By the time Clement was allowed to start riding him again, he was hacking him out in a rope halter with no bridle. The rearing was finished, and it seemed the bolting was, too.
The big test came in December, when we sent him to Lyon to run his comeback race after a nearly seven-month layoff. He would have to go back to a proper bridle with a bit, and he would face the stress of racing again. He handled it pretty well, finishing ninth in a 16-runner field. He then ran twice in Deauville, but couldn't manage to get in the money more because of bad luck in running than anything else.
That put him in a tough position coming to Cagnes, because he had now run five consecutive races without being in the first seven runners, meaning he had lost his handicap qualification. That left us with a choice of either running a claiming race, which Clement vetoed out of hand, or a conditions race, where we would be hopelessly outclassed.
So with little choice, we lined up today for the 2,000-meter “D” race, which had the virtue of having only eight runners, including us, meaning we only had to beat one home to get our qualification back. Easier said than done, because the other seven horses were all rated 39.5 and higher, and three of them had black type. Mouhjim is rated 24 and would go off at equal weight. We were banking on at least one of our competitors having an off day. When the field turned for home, two runners had already given up and were beaten. Whatever happened next didn't matter – we wouldn't be last.
But what happened next was actually quite impressive. Mouhjim had apparently not read the form and had no idea he was out of his league. He kept coming, and picked off another. And he was still coming on at the finish, ending up fourth, beaten only a length and a half ! He picked up a check for 3,800 euros and got his qualification back, so now we can find him a race he can actually win. If only …
Tuesday, Feb. 2
FOLLOW THE MONEY
Frontside: Watching the board has always been a valuable betting tool to a greater or lesser degree, especially during the final few minutes before post time. We are just short of halfway at Cagnes-sur-Mer with nine of 19 cards in the bag, and if anyone going to the windows hasn't been watching the late moves here, they are probably losing money.
Stuck way down in the southeast corner of France, the Hippodrome de la Cote d'Azur is certainly a provincial racecourse. Most of the locals are part-time players more familiar with trotting than flat racing. When the “big” money starts to come in late, rest assured it is being played by experienced bettors from around France plus the large percentage of professional horseman on-course.
The screens in France show two sets of win odds. One reflects the money bet before the start of the first race. The second is the current price. Throughout the meeting it has paid to follow the money, moreso than at any track I have ever seen.
A case in point was Monday's fourth race, a 2,150-meter (50 yards short of 1 3/8 miles) turf conditions contest in which Al Wathna opened at 7-1 and went off at 8-5. Not surprisingly, he won laughing by a length and three-quarters.
And well he should have, having been ridden by four-time French champion jockey Ioritz Mendizabal and trained by Jean-Claude Rouget, the defending champion trainer here and the leader so far this season with seven victories.
Best remembered in America for engineering Millkom's consummately easy score in the 1992 Man o' War Stakes at Belmont Park, Rouget is the French provincial version of Andre Fabre, although some might say that Fabre is the Parisian version of Rouget. Based in the southwest near Pau just north of Bordeaux, Rouget is a trainer whose horses must be considered under almost any circumstances.
Wednesday, Feb. 3
BLEU ASTRAL COMES AROUND
Backside: The racing program in France can be a frustrating thing. Eternal Gift had two good entries this week – one today, on the turf, over a distance of 1,500 meters, and the other on Saturday on the Fibresand at 1,600 meters. He's usually better on the sand, but the race thinned out so dramatically today on the turf we decided to go for it, but keep our Saturday entry just in case.
Unfortunately, we had to make our decision before they announced the draw, which left Eternal basically standing on the beach, far out in hole 18. We had virtually no shot from that draw, so when it looked futile entering the stretch, our jockey didn't insist. Good thing, because we will do something I've never done: run back in three days.
The brighter spot of the day was Bleu Astral. I still haven't found the buttons with this horse, but he had a very easy entry today in a claimer with a tag of only 8,000 euros. He was wearing his hood and a tongue tie, and we gave him magnesium this morning to try to calm him down a bit. Unfortunately it was very windy when Lisa led him up to be saddled, and he spooked at a flapping canvas next to one of the trotter barns and dislocated her shoulder in the process. While she went off to get it put back into place, the horse calmed down and actually ran a decent race, finishing fifth of 14 runners and taking a small paycheck. He doesn't show much of a turn of foot, but he finished this time and didn't give up, so maybe we're getting somewhere.
Thursday, Feb. 4
Backside: With Lisa out of commission I'm on mucking-out detail, which has an upside in that it gets me out of riding Grey Sensation or Ray of Hope. I'll stick to good old Eternal and let the boys do the rest.
We didn't have too much going on today so it gave me the chance to sneak out early to drive a trotter with my friend Florence Lecellier, who is training down here. It was a fabulous sunny day, perfect for rediscovering a sulky. The nice thing about trotters is that you can see the whole horse working in front of you. It's a completely different perspective than we're used to in riding the gallopers and a whole different way of training, too. The horse I was driving has already been out earlier, and would race the next day. Still, we were out a good hour, walking for 10 minutes or so and then trotting steadily the rest of the time.
After a couple of turns on the small track, Florence decided I would be fine on the main track, so off we went, with me concentrating on keeping my sulky even with hers to keep the correct pace. The thing about trotters is that they're on the bridle the entire time, so I have to say that by the time we were heading back to the yard, my arms were tired! Holding a trotter uses a different set of muscles than we use galloping, so I suspected I would be a little stiff the next day.
With no racing of any kind scheduled for the afternoon, the backside took on a lazy sort of rhythm. There were games of boules and another sort of diversion that involved tossing lead pieces at a board, the point of which eludes me but it seemed to involve drinking a lot of beer. In the cantina, groups of stable staff were playing board games, and the foosball machine was rarely lonely. There were very few people staring at smartphones or iPads, and a lot of good old-fashioned socializing. A step back in time.
Friday, Feb. 5
NICE IS NICE
Frontside: After Wednesday's meeting there will be only one day of flat racing at Cagnes over the next six days. That's as good an excuse as any to visit one of the tempting beach towns along the Cote d'Azur, also known as the Riviera, after which Buick once named a luxury car. The beach in Nice is actually classier than the automobile, and a lot less expensive.
The weather has been glorious these last few days. Unfiltered sun with temperatures stretching into the low 70s almost makes me regret I haven't bought a bathing suit, but not quite. There are limits to exposing oneself to the elements. There are also hedonistic pleasures enough along Nice's Promenade des Anglais, where nearly 200 years ago a band of intrepid English tourists hired some unemployed workers to build a beachfront walkway. The English have been descending on Nice ever since, but the locals simply call their very fashionable “boardwalk” La Prom.
It is surprising what a mid-winter day in summerlike sun can do for the spirit of a usually frozen-at-this-time-of-year New Yorker. Seeking refuge from bands of marauding skateboarders angling along the Anglais, I discovered the Galion Plage, an open-air restaurant on the Baie des Anges.
Seated at a table under a bright blue umbrella, the blue sea under an even bluer sky only a few yards away, a family of diving birds made a spectacle of themselves as they kamikazied into the water at 90-degree angles in search of lunch. Getting the attention of a waiter would bring food to my plate with a lot less trouble than the birds were having. A bottle of white was soon popped open, followed by a Caesar salad and a plate of spaghetti Bolognese, while the birds continued to come up empty at almost every dive. I would have thrown them a few bits, but I've read that this particular species doesn't care for pasta.
After lunch, a walk around Vieux Nice, or the Old Town, behind the Quai des Etats-Unis, presents an opportunity to get lost in a jumble of narrow alleys lined with boucheries, patisseries and eateries of every persuasion. With museums dedicated to Matisse and Chagall, there is something in Nice for almost every taste, save horse racing. There used to be a track in town where they ran the Grand Prix de Nice every winter during Edwardian times to satisfy the English passion for Thoroughbreds, but it became a casualty of World War I.
So it's back down the road to Cagnes for Saturday's meeting when the feature will be a rare “A” conditions race called the Grand Prix de la Ville de Cagnes-sur-Mer, in which Jean-Claude Rouget will saddle the Martin Schwartz homebred Academic, who seeks to overturn a narrow loss last time to Apilobar. If I had any money left after an ill-advised afternoon in a Nice casino, I might have had a bet.
Saturday, Feb. 6
JOURNEE DE CAGNES-SUR-MER
Frontside: Today is Cagnes-sur-Mer Day at Cagnes-sur-Mer, but isn't every day? The eight-race card was supplemented with riding demonstrations, food stands and kiddie rides designed to attract the locals, who generally don't pay much attention to the ponies, but did show up in somewhat larger numbers for the festivities.
The feature race was the 36,000-euro ($39,600) Prix de la Ville de Cagnes-sur-Mer at 2,000 meters (1 1/4 miles) on the Fibresand track. On Thursday, following the American angle, we had the temerity to select the Martin Schwartz-owned Academic. Most everyone in Cagnes and the rest of France agreed with us by making him the 11-10 favorite, but most of us were wrong.
In the end it was the second choice, the 11-5 Apilobar, who got the money. Trained by Fabrice Vermeulen and ridden by Pierre-Charles Boudot, Apilobar had beaten Academic by three quarters of a lengths in a similar event on Jan. 20. This time it was even easier. Academic took the lead inside the quarter-pole but Apilobar was sitting on his flank and he quickly cruised by with Boudot sitting pretty, looking like he might be a good one. The race was written “for 3-year-olds which have never won a group race,” conditions under which Apilobar may not be eligible much longer.
Runner-up owner Martin Schwartz, the stockbroking author of Pit Bull: Lessons from Wall Street's Champion Day Trader, has horses with the meeting's leading trainer Jean-Claude Rouget. Racing-wise Schwartz is a devoted Francophile, with 21 of his 26 graded race winners in the States coming with French-breds, among them Grade 1 winners Zagora (Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf, Diana Stakes), Stacelita (Beverly D., Flower Bowl Invitational) and Alterite (Garden City Stakes). All of those fillies had begun their careers in France under Rouget's care carrying Schwartz's colors, so it may not be too long before we see Academic, a Zamindar-Galileo cross, on this side of the pond.
Backside: I'll admit my written French isn't what it should be, but I never thought a difference in mere penmanship could cost us a horse.
I was trying to claim the winner of the first race, Saon Secret, for my friend who trains in Belgium. The idea would be to run him again down here before shipping north. He was in for a tag of 12,000 euros, but I knew his owner planned to defend him with a friendly claim and the horse looked quite useful, so I thought we'd have to go to 16,000 and change. I put my claim slip of 16,177 euros in the box. Much to my surprise, when the steward reading the slips came to mine, he read 14,177, and put it below the owner's defense of 15,335.
“You've made a mistake,” I said. He insisted he didn't, and that my bid was 14,177. I was astounded and protested to the other stewards. Under French claiming rules, if there can be any confusion about a bid, the bulletin is thrown out. I was out of luck, pure and simple.
I got a copy of my claim slip and proceeded to show it to about 20 people. It was amazing: Nearly every French person immediately read “14” and every anglophone, German and Italian immediately read “16.” The French are taught to write the number 4 with a single stroke, as opposed to the cross-hatch used by so many other languages, English included.
The subjectivity of reading claim slips has claimed other victims in the past. If an owner or trainer really wants to keep their horse, they can lodge any number of protests. After that, it just depends on how the stewards are feeling that day. Last year, I nearly lost a claim because the underbidder argued I hadn't correctly placed a checkmark within the confines of a box. The stewards ruled in my favor that day. But another trainer had a claim slip voided because she spelled out the numbers, check-style, rather than use figures – her effort to be crystal clear backfired.
I was still fuming when I saddled Eternal Gift to run the last. He put in a good effort, but we paid for the race on Wednesday in the last 100 meters, when he couldn't find an extra gear. The pace of the race was quite fast, but Eternal did manage to hang onto fifth place, bringing in a bit of money. He's such a lovely consistent horse, and an all-around good guy to have in the yard. He may have one more go at the end of the meeting, but for the moment, he'll be on the easy list.
Sunday, Feb. 7
THE HALFWAY POINT
Backside: The glorious sunshine we've enjoyed for much of the meeting gave in to a horrible downpour today, and with the meeting now half over, some trainers' spirits were following the weather.
This is about the time of the meeting when the wheels start to come off if they're going to, and several trainers were sending horses home that were looking like they weren't going to be successful. Boxes, which were at a high premium when we arrived, were starting to free up here and there.
We're sort of in the middle. Five of our six horses have been in the money, although we haven't had a winner yet. Still, they're knocking on the door and we have some decent entries ahead, so we're encouraged despite the weather. Three of our entries this week are on the turf course, and two of our horses like heavier ground, so the rain is welcome at this point. We are looking forward to being able to dry out a little tomorrow, though.
To be continued …
Gina Rarick is an American trainer based in Maisons-Laffitte, France, and the former racing correspondent at the International Herald Tribune. Alan Shuback is a former columnist and foreign correspondent at Daily Racing Form and The Sporting Life.
Correction: The original version of this article stated the incorrect manufacturer of the automobile named for the French Riviera. The Riviera was made by Buick.
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