Cagnes-Sur-Mer Diary: French Racing’s Wintertime Playground

by | 01.17.2016 | 11:14pm

Overlooking the sunny beaches of the Riviera, the racecourse at Cagnes-sur-Mer lies at the very heart of France's ultra-chic Cote d'Azur. A few miles east is Nice, the playground of the international jet set since long before jet airliners were invented. And a few miles further up the road is the Principality of Monaco, where Grace Kelly lost her commonness.

To the west is Cannes, of Film Festival fame, and Antibes, where the rich and famous go to avoid the even richer and more famous in Nice and Cannes.

By comparison, Cagnes-sur-Mer is relatively working class, and that distinction is reflected in its 19-day winter race meeting, which runs from Jan. 16 through Feb. 27 with a steady diet of highly competitive handicaps and allowances. The 24 dark days in between are reserved for the social amenities: drinking, dining, drinking, casinos, fishing, skiing, drinking, romancing … and drinking.

Did I mention swimming? No, because even on the Riviera it is too cold to bathe in the wintery Mediterranean. High temperatures rarely rise above 60 and are usually a bit below 50.

Which does not stop trainers from throughout France from sending horses to Cagnes. The country's two major training centers, Chantilly and Maisons-Laffitte, are well represented, as are Lyon, Bordeaux and Marseilles. Trainers from Italy, Germany and Spain also come, the purses at Cagnes outstripping the homegrown product by at least two-to-one.

The state of Wisconsin's contribution to French racing, Gina Rarick, qualifies as both a Frenchwoman and an American. A license holder since 2008, she is the only Yank of either sex currently training in France – or anywhere else in Europe. Coming off a career high 12 victories in 2015 with just 12 horses in training, resulting in a return on investment of 1.19, Gina is sending six horses to Cagnes from her Maisons-Laffitte yard as she seeks to improve on her tally of three wins at last year's meeting.

A veteran of the fiendishly competitive Parisian circuit (Longchamp, Chantilly, Saint-Cloud, Maisons-Laffitte), Gina feels equally at home in Cagnes, as the racecourse, known officially as the Hippodrome de la Cote d'Azur, is very much American in style. The outer Fibresand track is a perfectly level, left-handed oval measuring 1 3/8 miles with wide, sweeping Belmont-like turns. Inside of that is a 1 1/4-mile turf course, while inside of that is the jump racing course. Inside of that is the trotting track, and inside of that is the training tracks. The trotting bunch, you see, shares Cagnes-sur-Mer with the flat racing community, racing on 13 days and/or nights when the Thoroughbred crowd is off pursuing extracurricular activities.

Wisconsin native Gina Rarick is the lone American training in France

Wisconsin native Gina Rarick is the lone American training in France

But what makes Cagnes peculiarly American from the French point of view is that the horses are all stabled on the “backstretch,” in actuality what Americans would call the top of the stretch. Workouts are conducted on-track every morning. And trainers and jockeys rent apartments for the duration, just like they would at Saratoga or Deauville, France's Normandy coast August getaway.

But while Deauville is French racing's Cordon Bleu summer meeting, Cagnes-sur-Mer is France's pot-au-feu winter equivalent. Yet Cagnes may be the more competitive of the two, the concentration of so many horses from so many regions producing large, equally matched allowance and handicap fields that can very quickly turn a horseplayer's hair gray.

The meeting climaxes in late February with three listed races, plus the classy allowance contest, the Prix Policeman, an early classic prep named for the New York-bred winner of the 1980 French Derby. Cagnes, however, is largely an opportunity for the mice to play while cats like Andre Fabre, Alain de Royer-Dupre and Freddy Head are hibernating up north.

This weekly diary from Cagnes-sur-Mer will chronicle the fortunes of Gina Rarick as she goes head-to-head with leading provincial conditioners like Jean-Claude Rouget and Henri-Alex Pantall, while competing for the services of top riders like Alexis Badel, Maxime Guyon, four-time French champion Ioritz Mendizabal, and 2015 co-champion Pierre-Charles Boudot.

MOVING DAY (Thursday, Jan. 14)
Making sure everything is ready for the big move south and then loading the horses and getting them on their way is always a huge stress. We have to keep remembering our objective of a good meeting in the sun – and we're pushed along by ominous weather forecasts. Like most years, the worst of the winter weather moves in just as we escape south.

Freezing rain and light snow are forecast in Maison-Laffitte for the coming days, and the clouds already are gathering as we start to load the truck. On it are a small mountain of equipment – we have to bring not only tack, but everything we need to keep the yard running on a day-to-day basis, like forks, buckets and a even a wheelbarrow. A few bags of feed to get us started until the deliveries are made and our trusty hay steamer also make the trip.

And then, of course, there are the horses themselves. Traveling with us are four of Eoghan O'Neill's horses and six of our own. Four of our six are Cagnes veterans, and two are making the trip for the first time. The most useful runners to bring to Cagnes are hard-knocking claimers and handicappers well-prepared for the meeting, because they will run three or four races over a six-week period. Our string consists of Ray of Hope, a 6-year-old gelding who won both of his races in Cagnes last year; King Driver, a 7-year-old gelding who also won in Cagnes last year; Eternal Gift, a 7-year-old coming off a win in Deauville who has been placed in all of this three previous trips to Cagnes but has yet to win there; Mouhjim, also 7 and in the same boat as Eternal Gift, having made money in Cagnes but not yet winning there; and the two 4-year-old newcomers, Grey Sensation and Bleu Astral, both winners who will be representing the stable's new High Street Racing syndicate.

The trip will take between 12 and 14 hours, and I'm probably more stressed about it than the horses themselves. It takes about 45 minutes to load everything from start to finish; none of the horses make a fuss about getting on the transport, and the truck, with two rivers and one of my exercise riders in the cabin, gets away just after 4 p.m. Now it's time to pack myself, as I'll be driving down the following morning.

SETTLING IN (Friday, Jan. 15)
The horses arrive safe and sound at 6:15 a.m. The trip has gone amazingly well and everybody is in good shape. As a precaution, our vet gives each horse an IV of vitamins and electrolytes to help recover from the trip. No medication of any kind is in the mix, because no race-day drugs are allowed in France. Besides, all the horses are healthy so
there is no need to do anything more – the bill for the initial IV is hopefully the only one an owner will see for this meeeting.

Our head girl, Lisa, had gone ahead by a couple of days to make sure everything was ready for the horses' arrival – boxes bedded and tack rooms secured. The meeting brings together horses and trainers from all over Europe, and boxes are at a premium, which makes the first couple of days a scramble to stake out boundaries. Boxes are pre-assigned, but are traded and shuffled like baseball cards as trainers try to get the premium spots in the sun or more space. I've been bringing horses here for six years, and my stabling is always in the same spot, so we know what we need to do to settle in.

I show up after all the hard work is done, really – my fantastic staff of Lisa, along with work riders Pascal and Clement have walked out the horses,set up camp and made sure everything is ready for tomorrow, which is race day for Grey Sensation and Eternal Gift. All I have to do make sure all is in order.

RACEDAY (Saturday, Jan. 16)
Today we get down to business. Pascal and Clement saddle up Eternal Gift and Grey Sensation for a quick tour of the track to get the kinks out before their race this afternoon. The sun is shining brighter than anywhere in France and the horses are lively and happy heading up to do a trot and hack canter around the main track. Once they come back, I saddle up Bleu Astral, who gets his first look at things with King Driver and Ray of Hope, who know exactly where they are. Bleu is a bit stressed about his surroundings and jig-jogs most of the time and also has worked himself into an unpleasant sweat. But he's eaten up overnight, so I know that in a couple of days' time, he'll settle in.

The three of us walk up the main track and turn to head into the training tracks in the middle of the complex, meaning we have to cross the two turf tracks and the main trotter track first. Bleu is getting his first look at trotters pulling sulkies, and he doesn't know what to make of it. Ray and King have never had any love for the trotters, so we have our hands full keeping everybody straight and calm. Most of the other strings are having their own sets of problems, so a sort of gallows humor takes over as we all wish each other a cheery “bonjour” while our horses are jumping right and left. There are no lead ponies here, so it's every man for himself. We manage to get in our circuit trotting and two circuits of a three-quarter gallop and make it home without incident.

The first race goes off at 12:45 p.m. and we run in the fourth and eighth. Both of our horses are going off favorites in their respective races, which I never like because all you can get is a bad surprise – and we do. On paper, there was no beating Grey Sensation in his 15-runner handicap.

But the pace turns out to be brutal, and despite a good trip, he can only finish sixth, beaten a little over two lengths. He's closing strong going to the wire, but too late. The main fiber track has been recently resurfaced, and it is riding heavy and sticky today, which doesn't suit Grey. On this kind of surface, we'll have to send him over a longer trip to let him get ahold of it. He has been in the money consistently at the distance of a mile, which he was running today, but his last race was 1 3/16 miles, and will step to a mile and a quarter next time.

Eternal Gift has a different set of problems. He is loaded last in his 14-runner field, then misses the break, leaving him in the back of the pack early. He has plenty in hand heading into the stretch, but finds himself behind a wall of horses and can't get out.

So we finish the day with two beaten favorites, not how we wanted to start our meeting. But both horses seem fine after their races and we have to pick up the pieces and look ahead, as you so often do in racing.

It's opening day all the same, the weather is beautiful and we all head to the track cantine to have some conciliatory Champagne and catch up with our friends. The place is packed, and it's like a college bar at the beginning of term. Our English trainer friend, Andrew Hollinshead, once aptly described the Cagnes meeting as a pony camp for grown-ups,
and that's pretty accurate. Trainers in general don't get much chance to go on vacation, so Cagnes becomes a winter break for all of us – we're still working, but we all have fewer horses to look after down here than we would at home and we all find a second youth during the meeting.

The big winner of the day was Star Victory, a Jean-Laurent Dubord trainee who was winning for the fifth time in a row in a 10-furlong conditions race and will now step up to a group race or listed class.

A LAZY DAY (Sunday, Jan. 17)
We start late, because we don't have all that much to do, and survey the casualties of last night. Our team is in pretty good shape, apparently having drunk in moderation, but the Irish boys don't look so fortunate as they head off to saddle their first set. All of our horses have eaten up and the legs are fine, so the first order of business is to ride out yesterday's runners and see how they've come out of the race. Both feel like they've done little more than a breeze yesterday, so we can be happy with that. All six head up to the middle training gallops in two sets, and the brilliant sunlight erases any regrets from yesterday.

There's the usual small talk between the sets as we pass each other – when are your next runners, where are you staying, how many have you brought down, know any new places for dinner?

It's a lazy Sunday, and we are focused on the week ahead.

In the meantime, a stroll along Cagnes-sur-Mer's Promenade de la Plage on a sun-drenched Sunday served to absorb Saturday's results. A bottle of red wine for just $10 at a beachfront café helped speed the afternoon and prepare for future battles during the next six weeks.

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. 

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