Thursday, May 3, 2007

A Visit to Hokitika-dans-l'Eure

We travelled to the course with Marion and Polina in one of the stable’s horse-transporters, a glamorous little side-loading two-horse affair, with comfortable seating for half a dozen people as well as the horses, and labelled ‘Vans Barbot’ (‘made in Lisbon’). Have to say I wouldn’t mind exporting one of those either!

Evreux racecourse. Well. It’s a country track all right, with all the atmosphere that one gets from a day out at Nelson or Reefton. Especially on Mayday holiday raceday. Green lawns, huge trees, friendly buildings, a modern but characterful little grandstand, a grand crowd, and some cheerful chappies touting half-a-baguette dripping with mustard and stuffed with those delicious spicy sausages called merguez at 3 euros ($6 NZ) and Amstel beer at $5NZ a large plastic beaker. It’s a long way from the sixpenny race-course pie that (without beer) was a highlight of racedays in my teens, but every bit – oh! every bit -- as good.

Still, as I’d noticed elsewhere, it was the facilities for the horses that were the most remarkable feature of the course. Evreux racecourse – for its one trot, two gallops race-year -- sports forty brand new horse boxes, built in two long, spick-and-span rows, with all mod cons, including washdowns at one end and a staffed vet’s office in what is virtually box forty-one at the other. The whole lined out with fresh straw for race-day. Impressive.

The actual Evreux track – unlike Enghien and Argentan -- is grass. Lush, ankle-deep grass. A 1600 metres oval of grass with, needless to say, long, long, super-long straights which make for fabulous spectator sport, and which encloses sufficient space for five soccer grounds and a rugby pitch in its middle. It is also, however, in regular country fashion, and in spite of no crossings, rather evidently … as one driver described it ‘boom-py’?

The programme was of eight races, a divided three year-old race with 12 starters per heat (and 23 had not got in!), and everywhere else full, over-subscribed fields of 15. More than 100 horses in total had failed to get a start. And the ‘country’ meeting had attracted the most metropolitan of trainers, including a large contingent from the celebrated Dubois team.

The Dubois contingent, needless to say, helped itself to a good, short-priced share of the day’s spoils. And ‘our’ team? Well, ‘mixed fortunes’ all round. Polina (no. 8), first up after a spell (in a country where Trials, as we know them, do not exist!), flew out from the start, straight to the front.
I should pause here to say that the ‘no 8’ is irrelevant. Standing start races in France do not have a draw! You can start from wherever you like. So the start of a race is rather like the start of a yacht race, with everyone jockeying for the position they prefer as the unstoppable countdown goes ‘5-4-3-2-1-top!’ Again like a yacht, you get it in the neck if you go too soon. Obviously, some drivers are better at this rather intimidating war of nerves than others, and it is very clear that Marion is one of them.

Polina got taken on, handed up to the hottish fave, and duly got the trail right up to the final bend. At which stage she collided with one of Evreux’s ‘boomps’, galloped for the first time in her life, and that was that. Verdict: Will do better before long.

Quitus went out at long odds. The commentator didn’t seem to rate his Caen qualifying performance hugely. But Quitus didn’t know that. Marion again shot his ‘yacht’ away into the lead, and this time he did not hand up.

Quitus strode away in front of a stretching field until calming the pace going into the back straight, but still comfortably holding out the horse at his shoulder. He looked so good! As they got to the final turn, he looked to me like a good thing and then ... he galloped. Just a stride or three, but enough to lose 20 metres and the lead. He was a gappy fifth when he recovered. Into the straight with the favourite clear, and Quitus … where? Why, powering back into it down the outside to finish in a clear second, and at healthy odds too.
I didn’t know whether to feel thrilled or frustrated, and decided on thrilled. This is a nice young horse. (‘The price just went up’, grinned Jack in my ear). Ah well, that’s racing.

It was a great day out. I’m getting the same feelings I had when I first rediscovered New Zealand trotting, a decade ago, and covered the country circuits following the fortunes of Davey Crockett and co. I hope it lasts, but anyway, at the moment, I am thoroughly head-over-heels with the French trotting game.

Like all good ‘journalo’s, I took my little notepad along with me today, determined to write down, for your edification and amusement, some of the unfamiliar (to us) things that I spotted. Starting of course with those interesting no-draw ‘yachting’ starts. I can live with them. But they perhaps could be subject to the sort of ‘school bullying’ that we’ve all seen too often in our races.
There’s the no trials business, too. Trials here are only for qualifying, and for re-qualifying. Yes, re-qualifying. For if a French horse gets disqualified for galloping in three races in a row, it has to start over. Very salutary. And typical of a country which trumpets its determination to keep the game and the breed at their highest level. I can think of a few Kiwi trotters which would be spending their lives at the trials.

Then there are the gear ‘eccentricities’.
How about classic tie downs used over and as well as the quick hitch. The swivelling quick-hitch, of course, which helps swing the cart round the corners and, I am assured, saves you up to a second per bend. On a saucer track, you are talking a lot of seconds.
And how about an overcheck equipped not with a clip but a ratchet on the saddle. Makes sense, doesn’t it?
And – could I believe my eyes? – a horse wearing a big blue fluffy not under the saddle but .. under the girth! Maybe he had a delicate belly? I don’t know. But I took a photo (above) to prove I am telling the truth.

Most of the horses, I noticed, spent much of their non-racing time with their ears plugged with cotton wool, and once put into a the box many wore a bucket-mask to stop them eating the straw. An interesting variation on this was to tie the lead several rounds through the horse’s mouth. Effective, but unattractive and rather ruinous, I imagine, on leads.
I also noticed, with considerable alarm, a trainer openly syringing something down his horse’s throat just before the race. With certain recent NZ proceedings in mind, I made discreet inquiries. It is, it appears, a mixture of ordinary salt and water, and a general practice. Well, OK, then…
Amongst the other gear items – and oh! how I loitered around the French equivalent of the Morrison’s Saddlery truck, dreaming what I would buy if I weren’t travelling the world with just one small valise – I liked particularly the ‘gear bag’. It isn’t a bag, it’s a plastic chest on wheels. A five year old can (and does) push it, and it holds a helluva lot more than our classic bag.

I’m learning hand over fist about harness racing French style —the whys and wherefores as well as the hows. I’ve come a long way since my debut at Enghien with its jaw-dropped reactions to everything I saw (and in the odd case – sorry about that -- got a bit wrong!). And I hope to go further.
Come Saturday, it’s my fourth and for-the-moment last day at the French races. No country meeting this time. Oh no. I’m off to Vincennes where, it seems, I am likely to see ‘the best horse in the world’, the little filly Pearl Queen, run.
All I can say is, I can’t possibly enjoy it more than my day out at Evreux in the Eure.

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