Cagnes-Sur-Mer Diary: It’s Good To Be ‘King’

by | 02.16.2016 | 12:48pm
King Driver gives trainer Gina Rarick her first win of the 2016 meeting

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. 8
Backside : This morning I had to make the final decisions on Wednesday's runners, and the weekend weather complicated matters because all of our entries are on the turf. It pelted down rain all day yesterday and overnight, but today the sun is out in force and it's windy, which will dry things. More rain is forecast for tomorrow, but you never know.

The track in Cagnes is sitting on partially reclaimed land giving into the Baie des Anges, a beautiful part of the Mediterranean Sea. But it means that the turf course behaves like a giant sponge, turning quickly into a bog in the rain but then drying quickly, too. The ground can be anything from heavy to sticky to fast, depending on which way the wind is blowing. Unlike in America, it is almost unheard of for a race to move off the turf because of bad ground.

I had Grey Sensation entered for the 4-year-old handicap, but I literally switched horses when it started to rain. Grey won't go a step on soft ground, and now that Bleu Astral is qualified for handicaps, I supplemented him and pulled out Grey. Bleu won two races on heavy ground in England, so this was our chance to see him on a surface he might actually like.

King Driver and Ray of Hope were both entered in the handicap for older horses. I wasn't bothered about King, because when he is in form, he will perform on any surface. He has won and placed on everything from good to heavy turf and on the Fibresand. For him, the rain was probably a good thing. But I was wringing my hands over Ray. Ray of Hope absolutely loves the Fibresand in Cagnes, but there are only two races in the program for him, and we just lost the first one by a nose. He is oozing great form, so I thought I might run him on the turf just to get a third race and see if it's the sea air that does him good or if he absolutely has to be on the sand, too. I decided to give it a shot, but I was far from confident it was the right decision.

Tuesday, Feb. 9
Frontside: The French love a double entendre. I don't know if they invented them but the phrase most of the world uses to describe the thing is French. A perfect example is the name of the French racing daily, Paris-Turf.

To English speakers with a little French, the name looks like it means a newspaper about turf matters in Paris, the French capital. And it does, especially as most of the best racing in France – on the flat, over jumps, or on the trot (that's a double entendre, too) – is run in Paris and environs. But the first meaning of Paris-Turf is Turf Betting, to which the paper has been devoted since its founding in 1946.

Like all newspapers in this digital age, Paris-Turf has been under severe pressure to maintain readership of late. It has a website on which account holders can bet on any race in France. The publication, of course, is most valued as the primary source for past performances for all of French racing. At many provincial tracks, like Lyon-Parilly, Craon and Angers, Paris-Turf provides programs gratis. So, too, at Cagnes-sur-Mer, where the combined flat/jumps/trot meeting runs from Dec. 7 through March 18, and where Paris-Turf and the Societe des Courses de Cagnes-sur-Mer have teamed to provide racegoers with a novel source of racing data.

Everyone who passes through the gates of the Hippodrome de la Cote d'Azur gets a 16-page, 11 ¾” x 8 ¼”, booklet published by Paris-Turf and subsidized by the Societe des Courses. In terms of past performance data, it surpasses even the Paris-Turf broadsheet in that it includes the form for the last six races for each horse, while the Paris-Turf newspaper itself provides only the last three races in almost all cases. The track program also includes graded entries and full-color reproductions of the colors carried by each horse.

And it's free to all-comers, no strings attached, no memberships required. Just show up at Cagnes-sur-Mer and you get your free program with free pp's inside. Would that the Daily Racing Form or Equibase could find their way clear to provide such largesse, if only for a few weeks – or days.

Wednesday, Feb. 10
Backside: I would love to have a barn full of horses like King Driver. Now seven years old, I bought him as a yearling for a group of owners in Guernsey for just 14,000 euros. He was a big chestnut colt, and his siblings were nearly all multiple race winners. He had his character and he took a bit of time, but once he understood what racing was about, he never looked back. Coming into today's race, he had three wins and 16 places from 31 starts.

King had never strung more than three bad races together in his life. We used to call him the Equine cash machine, because all you had to do was take him to the racecourse – any racecourse – and you'd come home with money. But last year he was showing a bit of arthritis in a knee, so after he finished out of the money at Longchamp in April, we decided to do arthroscopic surgery. The surgeon found his knees quite clean, and the prognosis was excellent.

So after six months off, King came back into training. His first two comeback races in Deauville in December were a disaster, but it turned out he had a low-grade lung infection that had been asymptomatic. We treated it, and brought him to Cagnes.

King's first race here was an exercise in frustration, because he had plenty of gas in the tank but got stuck in traffic in the stretch and could never get out. Still, the only thing that counts is the winning post, and for the first time in his life, King was sitting on a string of four out-of-the-money finishes. The pressure was on. And as soon as the field passed the stands the first time, the pressure was off.

I could tell by the way King was traveling that he was going to run a big race. He was skimming over the turf with a huge fluid action, and he was settled easily midfield on the outside. When they turned for home, our jockey Fred Spanu switched King to the outside rail and accelerated away from the competition, opening up a length and a half on his nearest rival to win easily. The King was back.

King Driver

King Driver

His performance followed up a nice run from Bleu Astral, who justified my decision to supplement him into the race with a solid third-place finish. The switch to turf made a big difference, and for the first time since we've owned him, he looked like he was actually trying.

The disappointment of the day was Ray, who told me in no uncertain terms that he had no taste for the turf course here. As sure as I was that King would win when he passed the stands for the first time, I saw that trying Ray on turf was a huge mistake. He was never traveling, and struggled to finish eighth in the 16-runner field. On top of that, he was coughing a bit after the race, and we were afraid he might have bled. So we had him scoped, and much to our relief, he was clean as a whistle. He got plenty of extra carrots, and we'll get him back on the fiber next week.

Thursday, Feb. 11
Backside : All of our runners from yesterday were in good form this morning, and they all appreciated a little leg-stretch in brilliant sunny weather. We didn't have a hugely busy morning, which allowed me to get free and head off to drive a trotter and soak up the sun.

Later on we helped load horses for a couple of trainers who were heading home before tending to our own evening stable duties. The mood was relaxed – all six of our horses have taken prize money now, so we can enjoy the rest of our meeting with the pressure off. We have some owners coming in the next week, and we still have some races ahead we think we can win.

Frontside: Fourteen miles west of Cagnes lies Cannes. The two are frequently confused, so to clarify: Cagnes, pronounced Kan-yuh, as in “Buddy, can yuh spare a dime,” is known for horses, at least in winter; while Cannes, pronounced Can, as in “I can not,” is known for movie stars, at least in May.

The Cote d'Azur train line makes traveling the Monaco-Nice-Cagnes-Antibes-Cannes route easy. So today it's off to Cannes to see what the mythical movie town looks like. In fact, it looks like a lot of other swank villages on the Riviera: a derelict neighborhood around the train station, middle class apartment buildings as you get closer to the beach, and finally mansions and high-end shops along the beachfront. The rather grotesque Palais des Festivals et des Congres is where the Festival de Cannes is held for two weeks each May. Its famous tapis rouge, or red carpet, looks rather tawdry left to the winter elements, especially with no one resembling Brigitte Bardot or Catherine Deneuve climbing it.

Around the Palais the signatures and handprints of the stars have been embedded in cement, at least since 1992. Tom Robbins, who won Cannes' Best Actor award that year for “The Player,” managed to get his handprints down on two different slabs of sidewalk. Charles Bronson pressed his big mitt deep into the concrete the same year, while the regally bred Charlotte Gainsbourg – by Serge Gainsbourg out of Jane Birkin – barely scraped the surface with her fluttering fingertips.

But the names and hands of classic stars like Bardot, Simone Signoret, Yves Montand and Jean Gabin are not to be found, as the Cannes craze for aping Hollywood Boulevard's Grauman's Chinese Theater custom of letting movie stars get their hands all icky for posterity is of recent vintage. Gabin himself was always very much at home in Cannes, perhaps even moreso in Cagnes.

A lifelong racing fan, the star of classic French films like “Pepe le Moko,” “La Grande Illusion,” “La Bete Humaine” and “Les Miserables,” read – and studied – Paris-Turf every day of his life from the paper's inception in 1946 until his death 30 years later. Like many French turfistes, he did not discriminate between Thoroughbreds and trotters, owned horses in both disciplines, and probably lost equal amounts of money at Longchamp and Vincennes. He even made a racing film entitled “Le Gentleman d'Epsom” about a crooked racing tout. Is there any other kind?

Having strained my back bending over to read the often illegible signatures of obscure European film stars, it was off to the Croisette, the fashionable beachfront promenade where festival filmgoers can gawk at naked movie stars taking the sultry May sun. But this is February, and there is a stiff wind blowing a gale directly into my face. A sharp left turn and I am soon at the train station heading back to Cagnes to watch some naked Thoroughbreds make a run on my wallet this weekend.

Friday, Feb. 12
Backside: Twelve of the 19 days of flat racing are in the books at Cagnes-sur-Mer with the best yet to come, starting with a pair of listed races on Sunday, the Grand Prix de la Riviera Cote d'Azur and the Prix de la Californie.

As things heat up, a look at the trainer and jockey standings reveals no surprises. Defending champ Jean-Claude Rouget sits atop the trainers' table with nine victories, four more than Tony Castanheira, Julien Phelippon and Henri-Alex Pantall.

Pierre-Charles Boudot, who last year tied with Christophe Soumillon for the Cravache d'Or – the French jockey title, – is the meeting's leading rider with 12 wins. P-C, as he is known in the jockeys' room, has a two-win lead on four-time French champ Ioritz Mendizabal.

While Rouget looks home free in the trainers' race, Mendizabal can still catch Boudot, especially as he rides first call for Rouget.

Sunday's listed Grand Prix de la Riviera Cote d'Azur has come up a hot contest. For 4-year-olds and up on Fibresand at 2,000 meters, or a mile and a quarter, it's worth 60,000 euros ($66,000) and could prove to be the race of the meeting.

The likely favorite is Royal Dolois. A three-time listed winner, the Jean-Michel Lefebvre-trained Silver Frost 4-year-old is dropping back to his favorite distance following a front running score in a 1 1/2-mile conditions race here on Jan. 22. P-C Boudot will take his regular seat in the saddle.

Looming large is the Patrick Khozian-trained, Nicolas Perret-ridden Affaire Solitaire. The Danehill Dancer 6-year-old returned from a nine-month absence to be fourth in a 1 1/4-mile conditions race here on Jan. 16, but is dangerous off his previous effort, a very good second in Longchamp's Group 2 Prix d'Harcourt.

That race had come after a win in the Group 3 Prix Exbury, the mid-March Saint-Cloud fixture for which everything in this race is pointing.

The Cinderella factor comes in the shape of the modestly bred Star Victory. By Tot ou Tard out of a mare by Kadrou, the late blooming 5-year-old has won five in a row at places like Mont-de-Marsan, Bordeaux and Toulouse, but is coming off a Jan. 16 course-and-distance victory. Trained by Jean-Laurent Dubord, he will be piloted by unheralded provincial rider Dimitri Ibouth.

Sunday, Feb. 14
Frontside: With mostly sunny skies and warm temperatures today, it was fitting that the co-featured listed races were named the Prix de la Californie and the Grand Prix de la Riviera Cote d'Azur. If a contrarian had taken the hint, he might have come up with the two winners: Tempete Nocturne and Hurricane.

In a seven-runner race in which my unfortunate selection Royal Dolois was sent off as the 4.30-1 second choice and finished a tailed-off last, the Jean-Pierre Gauvin-trained Tempete Nocturne landed the Riviera Cote d'Azur at 8-1 by a short neck from the 6-1 Zefiro. Affaire Solitaire was a one-paced fourth while Star Victory saw his five-race winning streak come to an end as he faded to finish sixth. The winning time for the 2,000 meters was a quick 1:59.61, as the previously sticky Fibresand course is now producing some very fast clockings.

While the Riviera turned out to be a largely inconclusive affair, the Prix de la Californie at a mile for 3-year-olds may have produced a budding star in Hurricane. By Hurricane Cat out of a Hector Protector mare, the Jean-Claude Rouget trainee made it 3-for-3 with a very handy three-length score that looked more like four lengths to the eye. Stuck on the rail inside the quarter pole, he was angled out cleverly by Ioritz Mendizabal and scooted home under a hand ride, the jockey looking over his shoulder for a challenge that was never coming. As the 2-5 favorite, Hurricane got the mile in a swift 1:34.12, extra swift when you take into account that races in Europe are timed from a standing start, unlike the U.S., where they are timed from a running start.

Hurricane has an interesting pedigree. Although his sire Hurricane Cat only won the seven-furlong Group 3 Horris Hill Stakes at Newbury as a 2-year-old, he was the product of a mating between Storm Cat and 1992 American champion juvenile filly Sky Beauty. What's more, Hurricane hails from the female family of Dayjur, probably the best European sprinter of the last fifty years.

Problem is, Hurricane is a gelding, and so is ineligible for the European classics. Rouget may have difficulty finding a top class spot his brilliant 3-year-old should he merit it, as France has few Group 1's open to geldings.

Meanwhile, up in Paris, Prix d'Amerique winner Bold Eagle added to his growing legend with a victory in the Grand Prix de France at Vincennes. The 5-year-old has now won 22 of his 25 starts, making the trotting world very much his personal oyster.

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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