Cagnes-Sur-Mer Diary: The French System - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

Cagnes-Sur-Mer Diary: The French System

Gina Rarick’s stable at Cagnes-sur-Mer

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.

Last week's 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, Jan. 18

Backside: Now that we've been here a few days and the first race meeting is over, we settle into our routine. Our horses do pretty much the same thing every day: walk up the main track, cross over the minefield of other tracks to get to the middle and then do one round of trotting at 1,000 meters (five furlongs) and two rounds of what the French would call either galop de chasse (literally a hunting canter) or petit canter, which to us is about three-quarter speed. The two rounds total about 2,400 meters (a mile and a half). Then we join other horses walking in the center circle for a couple of tours before we walk home.

Because I am neither light nor young, I ride the biggest, least complicated horses. Sometimes these don't come in the same package. Bleu Astral is a nice big horse who can easily carry my weight of 72 kilos (just under 160 pounds), but typical of a lot of horses coming from England, he has an absolutely horrible mouth, meaning while the engine is there, the brakes could use a little work. He's also not the most sensible horse in the world, which makes him a challenge to control, particularly when we're in proximity to the trotters or the tractors harrowing the track.

He was galloping along relatively nicely this morning when unfortunately the tractor driver chose that moment to start harrowing our galloping track. Rather than stop, Bleu chose to lug out and cross into the hurdle track before finishing on the inside trotting track, bolting along with no idea of where he was going. I managed to get him back on the gallop track in front of the tractor, and I got him settled enough to finish his work, albeit missing a few back teeth from how hard I had to haul on his mouth to get him back under control. It wasn't pretty, but it had to be done.

He doesn't seem to be a particularly unhappy horse here. He has a good roll when he comes in, calls for lunch and the manger is always cleaned. But our challenge is to get him to settle down a bit on the track. He's set to race on Saturday and will have one fast work before then, so that might get his back down a bit.

Tuesday, Jan. 19
Backside: Today is forfeit day for our entries for Saturday, and while now it looks like Bleu Astral will get in, it looks strongly like Mouhjim will not make the cut for his handicap. Entry deadlines for non-Pattern races in France are a week from race day, and entries are free. There is a small fee if you pull out at the forfeit stage, and a slightly larger fee if you stay entered but then choose not to start. Many races are oversubscribed and most handicaps will have full fields of 16 to 20 runners, depending on the size of the track.

Bleu Astral's claimer drops down to 15 horses from 36 entered, which is often the case for an amateur race. The competition is tough, but we have no better races for him at the moment. Mouhjim and King Driver are entered in the two-division handicap but there aren't many forfeits, so while King is sure to pass because of his higher rating, Mouhjim doesn't look likely.

Wednesday, Jan. 20
Backside: Our three runners for Saturday (we still hope we have three) plus Ray of Hope worked this morning on the main Fibresand track. One benefit of the meeting in Cagnes is that many of the jockeys stay here, too, and they get a chance to work the horses before the race, a luxury we don't normally have.

King Driver and Mouhjim make up the first set, with Fred Spanu working King because he will ride him on Saturday. When my horses work, they start out on the back turn of the 2,200-meter track and gradually accelerate though the backstretch, picking up speed in the far turn and then coming together to work as a pair up the straight. It usually turns out to be about seven furlongs (1,400 meters) of speed, but nothing is too carefully scripted, and we work according to each horse's abilities. Workouts are not timed and we never push a horse – the speed comes from within, and when they get upsides they will naturally get on the bridle and work.

Mouhjim accelerates a little too quickly in the stretch and King Driver has a bit of a challenge to catch him, but they both look very good passing the post, both horses striding out like they're enjoying themselves.

Ray of Hope and Bleu Astral go next. Ray has his jockey, Mickael Forest, on board. Bleu seems comfortable out front but unpleasantly surprised when Ray moves upsides. He throws his head up a bit but then gets back on the bridle and they finish nicely. Ray loves Cagnes, and he swaps leads impressively just before the post, telling his jockey he could keep going if he wanted.

All four horses come back well, and have us looking forward to Saturday.

(video of Ray of Hope and Bleu Astral breezing)

Frontside: Today is Day 2 of the 19-day Cagnes-sur-Mer flat meeting. The first race goes off at 12:30 but unless you pay close attention to Paris-Turf, the French national racing daily, you might not wander onto the course until after the second or third race.

The 19 days of racing include seven different post times, ranging from noon until 2:00 pm. A late night before a day of racing and you would be forgiven for mistaking the first race 10,000-euro claimer for the third race 29,000-euro conditions race. The reason for the varied post times is to allow the Pari-Mutuel Urbaine (PMU, the off-track betting system) to stagger the start times of three or four national betting meetings. Sometimes Cagnes is designated the premier meeting, sometimes the secondary meeting, sometimes the tertiary. The result: a different post time almost every day.

All of this is done in the interest of the bettor, whether playing at the track, a PMU café, or at home on the Internet. Racing in France, as in America, is very much driven by the betting public, yet a day at a French racecourse can be somewhat frustrating from a bettor's point of view, and not necessarily from a winning or losing perspective.

The most frequently expressed complaint from Americans visiting French racetracks is the lack of betting information available on-track. There are no toteboards on the infield, nor any large screens inside the grandstand. One must make do with small flat screen TV's stationed here and there, all of them indoors at the Cagnes-sur-Mer. And don't expect to find anything but the win prices on display. Screens showing exacta prices, or couples as they are called here, are nonexistent. The best you can do is to gauge what an exacta price might be by the advertised win prices.

Just as frustrating is the 15-minute wait bettors must endure after a race to receive their winnings. The PMU doesn't seem to understand that the sooner you put winnings into a bettor's hands, the sooner he will plow it back into the system. And if there is a stewards' inquiry thrown in for good measure, expect a 20 to 25-minute wait for your hard-earned cash.

But, hey, this is Cagnes-sur-Mer, so just sit back, order another bottle of vin rouge, and take a long look at the sun glinting off the Mediterranean beyond the backstretch. The sublime view helps make up for any number of bizarre foreign customs.

Of the 86 runners in today's seven races, only one of them was an American-bred. That was Eye Candy Kitten, owned by that increasing rarity, an American with an international outlook, in this case, Ken Ramsey. By Ramsey's foundation stallion Kitten's Joy, Eye Candy went in a 1300-meter, or 6 1/2-furlong, handicap. Sent off at 13-1, she rallied to finish a neck second to the 3-1 favorite, Judgement of Paris, earning Mr. Ramsey 4,000 euros ($4,400). At least one American won some money at Cagnes-sur-Mer today.

Tomorrow racegoers get to sleep late: first post isn't until 1:50.

Thursday, Jan. 21
Backside: The horses who worked yesterday all seem in good nick this morning, with legs cold and mangers licked clean. Unfortunately, though, we have to digest the bad news that Mouhjim won't get a run because too many horses have declared.

Frontside:  Bleu Astral may be one of the most difficult horses in the world to place in a race. The reason is the classification system France Galop employs in writing races. French races below group and listed level fall into six categories based on their prize money. Class A races include the very best conditions races; B races are the better handicaps and very good conditions races; D races are good conditions races and good handicaps; E, F and G are lesser handicaps, conditions races and claimers. Maiden races may also be classed anywhere from B to G.

Bleu Astral won a pair of Class 6 handicaps going a mile in Britain, seemingly the equivalent to an F race in France. France Galop, however, deems even the cheapest races from any foreign country as the equivalent to D races in France. That means Bleu Astral is eliminated from any conditions race written to exclude D race winners, even though he has never won anything better than an F race.

Thus, Bleu must either run in D races against any number of minor stakes winners or minor stakes-placed horses, or drop down into claiming company. He can't even run in a handicap because a horse must have three runs in France before he is given a handicap rating.

In his first start for High Street Racing at Deauville in December, he finished 10th of 13 in a D conditions race. Dropped into an F claimer next time, he improved slightly but only finished ninth. On Saturday he will again run in a E claimer as he returns to a mile for the first time since his two wins at Ffos Las in August.

Only then will he receive a rating enabling him to be entered in a handicap. If all this sounds confusing, it is. But Gina has mastered the mysteries of the French condition book and always seems to find a spot where her entry can give a good account of himself.

Friday, Jan. 22
Backside: We confirm Grey Sensation as a starter for Monday in the 2,000-meter handicap, and get the bad news that he just squeaked in as bottom weight in the second division rather than keep his place as top weight in the third, which would have been a much better entry for him. We're looking forward to seeing him at the longer distance, but he will be up against some very decent horses on Monday.

Frontside: Tomorrow Bleu Astral goes in the Prix General Saint Didier, an unpretentious race with a high-minded name. A one-mile claimer on Fibresand, it has drawn just eight entries, which means that Bleu has a good chance of earning the High Street Racing Syndicate its first check, as France pays down to fifth place.

But as he's entered for 20,000 euros ($22,000), a finish in the first three would put him at risk in the claiming box, moreso than it would in the U.S. However, even if he is claimed, he can be claimed back, or protected, by his current owners.

In France claims are put in for horses after the race, not before like in America. Moreover, the French claiming process is akin to a silent auction. The price for which a horse is entered is the minimum price which a claimant may enter. If a claimant really wants a good chance of getting the horse, he must bid at least a few thousand euros higher. The highest bid wins.

But the trainer and owner of a horse can try to protect their charge by entering a claim of their own. If that bid turns out to be the highest, they keep their horse. The difference between their horse's claiming price and the amount of the owner's bid goes to the French racing authority, France Galop.

So if Bleu Astral runs well tomorrow, he may well be claimed. Gina and her owners at High Street Racing would then have to decide whether he is worth protecting. Ideally, Bleu will win his race and not be claimed, but that is an unlikely scenario.

The outstanding French jockey school, AFASEC, may have yet unveiled another rising star today in Lukas Delozier. The seven-pound apprentice combined with trainer Henri-Alex Pantall for three winners on today's card, a 7 1/2-furlong maiden on turf and a pair of one-mile claimers on Fibresand. Currently third in the French jockey standings, the 18-year-old is one to keep an eye on. Meanwhile, three-time listed winner Royal Dolois wired them in a 1 1/2-mile turf allowance in preparation for the listed Grand Prix de la Riviera later in the meeting. A relentless galloper, the 4-year-old Silver Frost colt was plucked out of a 26,000-euro ($30,000) claimer as a 2-year-old by owner Michel Ghys. His early season objective is the Group 3 Prix Exbury at Saint-Cloud in March.

Saturday, Jan. 23
Backside: We have to hustle this morning because racing starts early, with Bleu Astal running the first at 12:45 p.m. We take him and King to the small track for a round of trotting and hack cantering just to stretch a bit. We usually ride our runners out on race day to get the kinks out and keep the stress down as much as possible by keeping to the routine. Better they don't know they're racing until we tack them up to walk up to the racecourse. Bleu Astral is the bigger concern – King knows the routine well and generally likes his racing.

Bleu Astral, with Gina Rarick up, proved a handful in the morning and afternoon
Bleu Astral, with Gina Rarick up, proved a handful in the morning and afternoon


Bleu is calm enough until we saddle him up, when he starts to sweat. By the time the jockeys come out, he's worked himself into a lather. Our jockey today is Guilain Bertrand, one of the best amateur riders in France, and he has a wrestling match on his hands getting Bleu to the gate. He loads fine and breaks well, but then does what he wants to do in the morning – bolt off. The pace is very strong, and he gets his nose in front at one stage on the backstretch, but has no turn of foot to finish and ends up last in the field of eight.

Guilain can hardly pull him up, and when he gets back to unsaddle, he confirms our impressions – the horse is impossible to control and basically in a panic the entire race, never relaxing to breathe properly. He has a bit of ability, but unless we can get his head on straight, it will be hard to exploit it.

Then it's King's turn. We are anxious to see how he'll do, because he had two bad races in Deauville before this meeting. Since then, we've treated his back and he seems in good form, but we need to see the proof on the racecourse. We are drawn stall 2, which is normally a good draw, but it works against us today. King settled in midfield and was moving very nicely, but the race lacked pace and when they turned for home he was completely stuck in traffic and couldn't get a run. It was disappointing not to finish in the money, but it's clear that we only missed out because of bad luck in running, not a problem with the horse. Jockey Fred Spanu said he was sure he would win his race down here, and I agree. You could see it in his eye that we've got our King back.
Sunday, Jan. 24
No racing at Cagnes today except for a seven-race trotting card with an ungodly 11:10 a.m. start. A cool but pleasant sun is shining down on the Cote d'Azur, making for a vibrant afternoon walk along the Promenade de la Plage, aka the boardwalk. A mid-afternoon stop at the Café del Mar for a ham and cheese on a baguette accompanied by a carafe of the local red warms the soul and prepares one for the long climb for dinner up into Haut-de-Cagnes, or Cagnes Heights, the medieval village that leads to the imposing Chateau Grimaldi, an ancient fastness that remains unconquered after 700 years.

The road up, known as the Montee de la Bourgade, is well named, with an accent on the “Montee.” A half-mile climb that would break the heart of a native San Franciscan, you are literally walking up the footsteps of the Alps. Along its narrow passageway there are any number of inviting restaurants. The Fleur de Sel is one of the best. A pate with aubergines on the side followed by a most tender Gibier, or venison steak, reminds you that you are near the epicenter of French cuisine, despite being nestled away in an impossible cul-de-sac unknown to most of the civilized world. More of the red stuff gets one ready for the long roll back down the hill, a flop into the apartment for a late night study of the Paris-Turf form for Monday, when Gina will saddle Grey Sensation in a 1 1/2-mile handicap, and Tuesday, when she sends out her 2015 Cagnes-sur-Mer winner Ray of Hope. Hope springs eternal after a day like this.
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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