Cagnes-Sur-Mer Diary: When The Bad Luck Flows - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

Cagnes-Sur-Mer Diary: When The Bad Luck Flows

Ray of Hope gets his nose in front only to be denied by the stewards

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. 15
Backside: I have four horses entered in the 2,000-meter handicap on Wednesday – King Driver, Ray of Hope, Mouhjim and Grey Sensation – and I obviously don't want to run them all against each other. There is a 2,400-meter handicap three days later, on Saturday, so we have some options.

King is fine at any distance between 2,000 and 2,400, so he can wait for Saturday. I'd prefer Ray at 2,000 meters, but he can get the longer distance, too, and waiting with both of them gives them three more days to recover from last Wednesday's efforts. So Mouhjim and Grey Sensation will line up on Wednesday. If Mouhjim runs anywhere near like he did in the conditions race, he should win by open distance. But every time this horse should win, something goes wrong, so I can't be more than hopeful. I'm more optimistic for Grey Sensation, who is such a consistent performer.

Frontside: Training horses, working horses, even owning horses can be stress-filled occupations from which relief at the end of the day is frequently sought with reliable old friends like John Barleycorn. The old fellow may let you down in the long run, but in the short term he's the most reliable stress reliever known to mankind. He is known to have become intimate with women too.

The Hippodrome de la Cote d'Azur provides a haven for relief-seeking trainers, jockeys, exercise riders, stable help and their paymasters, the owners, in the shape of La Cantine. An exceedingly unpretentious bar/bistro situated near the entrance to the track's stabling area, it is a magnet for track professionals in seek of solace after a long, hard day at the races.

La Cantine is divided into two rooms. The bar is a bare bones set-up with plain brown tables, plain brown chairs, plain brown walls and quick service that specializes in beer. Conversation flows free and easy, friends are made and friends are unmade as in bars everywhere. On special nights, you might be lucky enough to witness a difference of opinion between two jockeys. Whether the argument is over one of that day's race maneuvers or something of a more personal nature is up to the stewards to decide.

Traditionally throughout the fifties and sixties, no French café was complete without a pinball machine. In keeping with its working class roots, La Cantine has one in the corner near the end of the bar. As can be expected, free games are hard to come by, adding to the day's frustrations, and so another beer must be ordered to assuage one's rage at losing once again to the machine.

Down a narrow hallway past the toilettes is the bistro. The Russian word for quick, bistros became all the rage in Paris after Napoleon's not-so-grand army returned from their Moscow misadventure in 1814 expecting the same toot sweet service they had become accustomed to in Russia by shouting “Bistro!” whenever they walked into a restaurant. Thus was the first step taken on western civilization's never ending slide towards fast food.

But La Cantine is a first-rate bistro. Fast, friendly, earthy and inexpensive, it is a chow-down joint with a touch of class where healthy servings of veal kidneys, steak frites and camembert au four are offered in plentiful supply, accompanied by a most drinkable vin de table. More fun than the Restaurant Panoramique overlooking the racecourse, and closer to hand and less pricey than the places that line the beachfront Promenade de la Plage, La Cantine is a French horseman's dream eatery.

Tuesday, Feb. 16
Frontside: Almost every racecourse in France has what they call a Restaurant Panoramique, an upscale eatery with the best views of the track through high ceilinged windows that bathe the terraced dining room with bright, mid-afternoon light. Cagnes-sur-Mer has two of them. Le Pesage is a rather cramped space that bills itself as a restaurant gastronomique, which is a clever way of charging near extortionist prices for bistro food. More amenable is Le Paddock, a brasserie that serves much the same menu at two-thirds the price as its next door neighbor.

Patronized by owners, trainers, tourists and a few rather well-to-do locals out for a day at the races, Le Paddock offers upscale fare that will run you to about 100 euros ($110) for two. Not bad if you are used to Paris and New York prices, especially taking into account the nearby betting windows which usually only add about 50 percent to the bill, which in France is called l'addition, because every time you order something new, they add on a new charge.

Seriously, restaurant bills in France are really quite reasonable. After all, the tip is always included, and they still have a professional waiter class — at every level of restaurant and café — a custom not to be sneezed at.

The hallway outside the Restaurant Panoramique is a reminder of France's glorious racing past. Hanging from the walls are 19th Century prints of some of the best winners of the Grand Prix de Paris, the late June fixture which automatically attracted up to 100,000 people to Longchamp through the 1960's. Among them are two horses ridden by Englishman Fred Archer, universally regarded as the 19th Century's greatest jockey.

Archer actually rode three Grand Prix de Paris winners, but he is on view here on his two best: Paradox (1885) and Minting (1886). Paradox won at 1-3 in a race that was delayed for 30 minutes to clear the crowd off the course. No chance of anything like that happening in France today. British victory celebrations so enraged the local citizenry the police had to be called in to break up a near riot.

A year later, Archer engineered the victory of the 4-6 Minting, defeating Prix du Jockey-Club deadheaters Sycamore and Upas, which didn't exactly endear the him to the local turfistes. Archer had actually beaten Paradox and Minting in their respective Epsom Derbies aboard Melton and Ormonde, yet he was a such a keen judge of horses — and so much in demand — that he was able to pick up the winning rides on the Derby losers in France's greatest race.

Less than five months after riding Minting, Archer was dead at the age of 29. Distraught over the death of his wife in childbirth two years earlier and sick from continual wasting to make weight for fourteen years (he was 5' 10” tall), he blew his brains out. The Restaurant Panoramique would certainly have been out-of-bounds for Archer, or any other rider struggling to make weight, then or today.

Wednesday, Feb. 17
Backside: Some days, I can't think of any occupation that tests your mental fortitude more than being a racehorse trainer. We took two horses up to be saddled with every chance to win – Mouhjim and Grey Sensation were second and third in the betting in the 16-runner field. Mouhjim was much more calm this time than when he last ran here, and I thought he might finally break his jinx and win. I expected Grey Sensation to go close. Then the gates opened and all that changed.

Fabien Lefebvre, aboard Mouhjim, lost an iron coming out of the gate because the horse broke awkwardly. After that it was a perfect storm. Fabien is a tall jockey and he was riding in a very light saddle. And Mouhjim is a huge, big-striding horse. So when Fabien tried to get the iron back, he managed to twist the saddle to one side. Miraculously, he stayed aboard, but all chances for Mouhjim were finished.

Alexis Badel, meanwhile, had Grey Sensation settled just behind the leaders on the rail. But turning for home, the leader was tiring and with a field that size, it was impossible to get out. A glimmer of a hole opened for an instant, and Grey Sensation started to scoot up the rail to take it, just as the leader shifted back over. Again, we were lucky there wasn't an accident, because Grey got clouted hard and fell out of the running.

It was hard to believe that both of our horses could have been so unlucky in the same race. This was the first time I can remember getting sympathy messages from far and wide. The Queen Mother would have just shrugged her shoulders and said, “That's racing.” But we were feeling more like : “We wuz robbed!”



Thursday, Feb. 18
Frontside: Racing journalists tend to concentrate primarily on group races and graded stakes; the progress or otherwise of leading trainers, owners and jockeys; betting trends; and racecourse politics. Lost in the shuffle are the work-a-day rigors endured by trainers high and low just to get a horse fit and ready to run.

As a novice owner with Gina's High Street Racing, (yes, I admit, I am not an impartial observer), after watching races for 60 years and writing about them for 25, I have lately come to appreciate racing from the trainer's point-of-view. As Andre Fabre said in a recent interview, training racehorses is an art. There are no scientific formulas at hand. What transpires between trainer and horse is an almost mystical relationship, like that between a poet and his muse.

This art seems to consist in equal parts knowledge, guesswork and luck, that two-faced creature who smiles upon you beatifically one day, only to burn a searingly malicious grin into your heart the next.

Gina's winter in Cagnes has been snake bit by the worst sort of luck. Early on she was thrown by a horse during morning work – twice. Then she lost her head girl for the season to a separated shoulder in a pre-race saddling accident. Later she lost a claim for the absurd reason that her American style “6” on the claiming form was interpreted by France-Galop officials as a French-style “4”.  Thus 16,177 euros became 14,177 euros and the claim was disallowed.

And then there was yesterday, Black Wednesday, when the devil himself seemed to confound Gina's interests at every turn. First, the rider of Mouhjim lost his irons leaving the gate. Then all hell broke loose when Grey Sensation, one of High Street Racing's own, was sawed off in mid-stretch while making a rail move that might have brought him at least third place. He eventually trailed home last, the devil laughing all the way to the line.

Sobering stuff, but now's not the time for weeping. It's the time for courage: for trainer, stable hands, owners, jockeys and supporters to rally to the cause. No fair weather friends need apply. And there is reason to believe. On Saturday, the aptly named Ray of Hope runs in the Prix Juan-les-Pins on his preferred fibersand. And next Wednesday, the unlucky Mouhjim is entered to run in the Prix de Saint-Raphael. You remember Raphael. He's the archangel who is a particular enemy of the devil, adept at ridding the world of demons.

Just the bailout Ecurie G. Rarick needs.  

Friday, Feb. 19
Frontside: The Owners' Lounge at Cagnes overlooks both the racecourse and the paddock. It sits just above the clerk of scales room making it convenient for owners to take care of raceday business, and it offers a tempting menu of smoked salmon and and a selection of saucisson sec, or hard sausages.

But the real attraction is the bar. Situated right next to a betting window and immediately beneath a pair of screens displaying the odds and the races, both live at Cagnes and simulcasts, it is the ideal spot for owners and trainers who like to mingle betting with socializing, although it helps to be a good handicapper to keep up with the $11 flutes of champagne.

But perhaps the most pleasant on-track dining area is the informal, open-air café adjoining the paddock at what Americans would call the clubhouse turn. A delicious serving of two Merguez sausages with a large helping French fries washed down with an ice-cold pint of Heineken sets you back the same as a glass of bubbly in the owners' lounge, and lasts a lot longer before a refill is required. It ain't haute cuisine but it sure goes down easily.

And the outdoor dining area is hard by the paddock. You don't even have to stand up to see the horses in the parade ring. They used to have a similar set-up at Longchamp, but the current destruction of the grandstand and surrounding grounds to make way for what looks very much like a suburban shopping mall with upscale dining areas for people who make at least 200,000 euros a year has likely put an end to Parisian racegoers looking for a paddockside bite to eat at what used to be the world's most elegant racecourse.  

Saturday, Feb. 20
Frontside: Today's feature, the listed Prix Saonois, is named for the 2012 Prix du Jockey-Club (French Derby) winner who began his road to classic glory with a victory in Cagnes-sur-Mer's Prix Policeman.

Run at 1,600 meters (one mile) on fibersand for 4-year-olds and up, it went to Incahoots, who progressed from fifth to lead over a furlong out, then held safe by a short neck the late charge of the unlucky 5-2 favorite Almorox, who was ultimately disqualified and placed sixth for barging through a hole that wasn't there. Coupled at 5.20-1 in the wagering with stablemate Sharpalo, the winning 4-year-old daughter of Oasis Dream stopped the clock in 1:34.01, the fastest time of the meeting for the distance.

Bred in Great Britain by George Strawbridge, Incahoots was running for the first time since Nov. 3 as well as making her first start for the Wertheimer brothers after having gone one-for-eight for her breeder, that being a victory over winners in a one-mile conditions race at Compiegne on June 16. Entered in Tattersalls December Mare Sale, she was bought by the Wertheimers for 420,000 guineas ($662,000). A half sister to Strawbridge's Prix de l'Opera winner We Are, Incahoots has been trained throughout her career by Freddy Head, who knows a thing or two about distaff milers, having won two Breeders' Cup Miles as a jockey with Miesque, and three as the trainer of Goldikova.

Backside: It was deja vu all over again for us on Saturday, because Ray of Hope and King Driver were again favorites in the same race, and we had every expectation that we might be able to go one-two. Optimism was high in the saddling ring, and Ray's multinational owners –  from Canada and England – were here to cheer him on. After the bad luck on Wednesday, it just couldn't happen again. Could it ?

Why yes, it could. King missed the break, which is something he never does. And since he was breaking from stall two, he got quickly relegated to the back of the field, where he stayed until mid-stretch. He made a bit of an effort and covered some ground, but it was clear there was no way he'd be in the mix.

Ray, on the other hand, had a wide draw of 12 and broke smartly to settle in third, just behind the leaders on the rail. The pace was fast, which suited him. In the stretch, he started to make his move. Third-favorite Paco Keed moved with him, and a furlong from home knocked Ray off stride. Ray got his balance and dueled with Paco Keed to the wire, just getting a nose in front. We had it – Ray had won the race in a photo finish. And then the enquiry siren went off.

I was sure it had nothing to do with us. I was wrong. The enquiry took nearly 20 minutes, after which the stewards relegated Ray to second and declared Paco Keed the winner. We wuz robbed. I went to protest, but I knew it was hopeless when I was nearly run over by another trainer storming out of the stewards' room after her horse had been declared a non-runner over a ridiculous interpretation of a rule on blinkers.

I reviewed the head-on film with the stewards, and I could not understand how they could possibly have taken Ray down. After he got clouted, both horses started to drift toward the rail, but without any contact. I explained, as respectfully as I could, that horses will run to the rail – Paco Keed would have drifted even if he was all alone. In no other racing jurisdiction in the world would my horse have been taken down. But in France, once the stewards have made up their mind, you have no hope. Like the Pope, they are infallible. And there is no possibility to appeal, because the France Galop stewards in Paris will never overturn the track stewards. The only appeals ever to succeed are those involving a procedural matter – and you usually can't win on those, either.

French stewards have been hugely controversial, because they are not professional, but rather « volunteers » who have been granted their position because of their years of involvement in racing or their connections – usually both. Many of them were amateur jockeys with aristrocratic last names.  Trainers and jockeys run afoul of them at their peril, because despite their advanced age, most of them seem to have quite sharp memories with weapons of fines or worse at their disposition.

So poor Ray had to settle for second again, even though he won fair and square this time. The owners and I headed off to a dinner well-watered with Champagne just the same, because sometimes, that's what you have to do.

Sunday, Feb. 21
Backside: This has been a difficult week to digest, to say the least. It's one thing to get beat by better horses on the day, but that only happened to one of our four runners this week, with King just not firing. The other three were all ready to win and through circumstances no one could have predicted, we're settling for one second place. So we do what we always do. Regroup, look ahead and get back to work.

It did help that today was one of the most beautiful, sunny days we've had down here. Our horses are all fine, and we have a few more chances to win here next week (again!). To clear my head, I went to the trotter barn and got in the sulky behind my friend Alex des Champs. I've driven him a few times now and I'm growing quite fond of him. And tomorrow is another day.

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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