Friday, July 18, 2008

Trials a la mode de Caen

A title which has nothing to do with the fact that yesterday Teresa served us up for lunch quite the best plate of tripe (a la mode de Caen, of course, for we are in Normandy) that I have ever eaten in my life. It was ‘artisanale’, home-made tripe, fresh from the local butchery which is one of Les Baux de Breteuil’s only two shops (the other being a part-time bakery), and it simply melted in one’s mouth. Dietary heaven.

But I digress.

This morning I was out of bed at 4am. Now, this is not a thing a thoroughly retired gentleman of leisure would normally do, but we were what they call ‘off on a mission’. Marion, David, Laura, Jack, Kurt and the three year-old colt Rosario des Baux had a date at the qualifying trials in the sizeable tripe-famous city of Caen. Caen is some two hours’ drive from here, the trials began at 8am, and Rosario was set to go in heat one, so it was still dark when we set off through the unseen caramel fields of barley and poppies, and the half-timbered, churched spired Norman villages, to the rendez-vous in the north-west.

Now, I’ve been to a good many qualifying trial sessions back in New Zealand, but I am here to tell you that they bear little resemblance to what I saw today. To start with, Downunder triallers wouldn’t dream of starting at eight in the morning. More like eleven. However, there is a very good reason for the eight o’clock start at Caen. But let me start from the beginning.

Caen Racecourse, owned by Cheval Francais, which runs harness racing in France, is a really fine track, situated right in the heart of the city. It has an imposing, locally-styled grandstand and admin block, a superb area of impeccable horseboxes, and the track is a grand red grit ring of nearly two kilometres round. A real racetrack for real horses. It hosts, of course, its quota of racedays, but it is also one of the country’s principal venue for trials, which are held there with great regularity and efficiency.

Imagine, New Zealand, if you can, trials where an electric scoreboard displays each heat’s field, and the qualifiers’ times. And imagine, if you can, a qualifying session – not once in a while, but regularly -- in which some 120 horses take part. And today there were something like that many there, because I saw number 114 (the saddle clothes run consecutively) warming up.

And that’s just the start of the differences. All trials are over 2000 metres. All trials are started from the walk-in start used on racedays. And the biggest difference of all? The level. The time a horse has to achieve to be allowed to compete on a French racetrack. This even differs according to the age of the horse and the time of the year. For three year-old Rosario, in July, it was a kilometre rate of 1.20.5: ie 2mins 41secs for the distance. If he’d been ready in May it would have been 1.21, if he’d waited till October it would have been 1.20. 1.20.5 for a three year-old trotter from a semi-standing start … that’s a 2 09.5 mile rate, and I reckon it wouldn’t leave too many fields-full of baby Kiwi horses on their feet.

Why so tough? There is a reason. Each year, some 13,000 trotting-bred foals are born in France, and in spite of the vast numbers of race meetings round the country (something like 30 on some Sundays), there would quite simply be no room nor opportunity for most of them. It’s actually more complicated than that, people are involved too, but that will do. So Cheval Francais fixes a qualifying limit which will cull out the under-talented horses and bring the yearly intake to the racing game down to something like 4,000. Still a lot (for many, many French races ballot out large numbers of their entries), but considered manageable.

Today showed me just how difficult it is to become one of the magic 4,000. I watched the first three heats, each filled to the brim with nine starters. A total of two horses from twenty-seven qualified. Two winners. In the second heat, run at what seemed a fair pace, everyone got sent home empty-handed.

Happily, one of the winners was Rosario. He clipped to the front, gapped the field after 500 metres, and powered away by what looked like 100 metres to win by so far that, for my camera lens to capture both him and his followers, I had almost to bend over backwards.

His time was the best of the session, 1.18.1 (2000m in 2.36.2). A 2 05.7 mile rate. My dear old Davey Crockett, who won five races for me in the 1990s, and who placed in good company at Alexandra Park in his time, never went faster than a rate of 2 05.0. My two young New Zealand trotters who qualified last year did so in 2.11 and 2.13. So I imagine they wouldn’t even be allowed to race here. It’s frightening. And it means that my new little Rosy des Baux, as yet unraced, is easily the fastest trotter I have ever owned. And I’ve owned a few.

Of course, times aren’t everything, and New Zealand-bred horses have shown in the past that they are capable of racing competitively against American and even European opposition. But all the same, I can’t help feeling glad that this year I’ve had my two New Zealand trotting broodmares inseminated by top young French stallion Love You. If one and one really does make two, Jack and I could be on to a winning formula.

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