Monday, April 30, 2007

Love Among the Buttercups

It was a grand day out, rain or not. But I have to say that the races at Argentan were not, for me personally, its high spot.

Earlier in the day, Jack, Hilary and I called in upon their friend Bill Green, a businessman and trainer from Manchester, England, who is currently setting up a new harness racing establishment at ThiĆ©ville, near St Pierre-sur-Dives, on some 90 acres of glorious Calvados countryside. The vast project has been ‘en chantier’ for a couple of years, and is as yet incomplete, but like all good horsemen Bill has seen first and foremost to the comfort of his horses who are housed in luxury in three magnificently restored and organised barns.

The big, old farmhouse – where the people live! – has yet to be put to rights, but in the meantime Bill has constructed what he calls ‘the apartment’ above the stables. Apartment? I’d call it a luxury penthouse!
We brunched there on fresh baguettes, French cheese and charcuterie, before going on to stroll around the stables where I was introduced to the inmates, most notably Jack and Bill’s four year-old Perfect Future (I am the Best – Java Dream by Blue Dream) a stunning young entire of haughty mien and, apparently, lively manners. Teddy Petitjean, the stablehand, has been put out of action twice by ‘Blue’s’ front-footing activities, and no one was game to count up the debris of the back heels job. The previous day, too, he had gone tempestuously through a concrete fence. And had come through with barely a scratch.
Work was finished for the day when we arrived chez Bill at near midday, but apparently there was one horse still to be jogged.
By me.
When I planned this trip to France, there was one thing I wanted to do more than anything else. Not the Louvre, not the Eiffel Tower or Notre Dame. No. I wanted to sit behind a French racehorse. Nothing fancy. Not this first time anyway. No racing. Not even fast work. I just wanted to get into a French sulky and take a whirl round some sort of a track behind a real French horse. And Jack and Bill had set it up for me.
I was introduced to Quaddro Philio, a three year old bay horse by Esotico Star. And, yes, thank goodness – unlike most male horses in a country where many races are reserved for entires – a gelding. I quickly realised that Quaddro and I would get on fine together. He is one of those wonderfully relaxed horses that seem almost to go to sleep while being geared up! And he gave me a nice, crooked smile of complicity as if to say ‘I’ll look after you, old feller’.
Bill fitted Quaddro out with what was to me an entirely unfamiliar shape of work cart – great stuff! it is (for someone with very short legs) not nearly so hard-to-reach-with-the-feet as the ones I’m used to – handed me a pair of very wide, short leather reins with hand grips, and we were on our way. Off to the track.
The training track is something that is still under construction, so for the moment Bill has set up a grass track of something like a kilometre in length around a huge paddock. It is quite a sight, for the bits of the paddock which aren’t ‘track’ are, at this time of the year, a solid mass of golden buttercups. Something like the poppyfields in The Wizard of Oz. And so, Quaddro and I set out at a lively jog, carving our sometime rather bumpy way through this almost unreal world of flowers. I don’t think I shall ever forget that quarter of an hour. It was as if there was nothing else in the world but me, Quaddro and millions of flowers. Only on the corners, even tighter than Argentan, was it advisible to come briefly back into the real world and do a tiny bit of weight shifting.
All too soon, our half dozen kilometres, and the subsequent walk around and home, were over. But I’d had my ‘fix’ of horse. Better, my first French ‘fix’. And it very, very certainly won’t be the last.
But best of all I have an imperishable memory.
Thank you Bill, and above all ‘thank you, my friend Quaddro. I hope you go on to win a heap of races’.

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