Gina Rarick is the only American trainer in France. She grew up in Wisconsin dairy country and was schooled as a journalist--not the usual backgrounds for a racing career. She became a jockey in France, perhaps the oldest apprentice in racing history. Thus, she could ride in a race and then write about it. Eventually she settled in as a trainer.
Film directors take note--Gina Rarick is an unusual character and in the treatment we also have a most unusual horse: Hard Way. No novelist could have conjured up a more symbolically accurate name. In August 2010, after 16 races, Hard Way endured a crushed first vertebra and was basically lucky to be alive. Rarick sent the horse to friendly pastures, gave him time off. Treatment involved only one pharmaceutical product, Tildren, for improving bone density.
Six months later, an MRI scan showed that the damage was healed into a bony mass and nothing was touching the spinal cord. “Oh, and by the way,” Gina explains, “he also has a slight case of wobbler’s syndrome.”
Hard Way was given the green light to resume training, but Rarick hesitated: “One day he had a stiff neck and I decided not to take the risk.” She retired Hard Way.
But Hard Way did not adapt to retirement. Back in his days after foaling, he was raised with a nurse mare who was a draft horse. Rarick believes this is why he didn’t socialize with the other Thoroughbreds.
“I’m pretty convinced that he thinks he’s a draft horse, too,” she says. Over the winter, Hard Way grows so much hair, as if he were ready to pull a milk cart. "He was absolutely miserable turned out with the other retirees,” Rarick recalls. “When I saw him last fall, he seemed pretty much begging me to take him back home.”
So she took him back. By January of 2012, he seemed ready to race. A few months later, he was given two prep races at a country track called Lisieux, the Penn National of Normandy, where he finished mid-pack.
Hard Way’s real test came on May 5, Kentucky Derby day, 21 months after he had been sidelined. He was entered at the beautiful Paris track, Saint-Cloud, in a handicap for 20 horses, on a surface labeled “very soft.” It was at 1 1/2 miles, but Hard Way’s one previous win was at a longer distance.
Back in November 2009, Hard Way had finished third at longshot odds in a field of 20 over a heavy surface at the same Saint-Cloud at 1 9/16 miles--close to his May 5 distance/surface: a positive clue. He also once finished second for rider Christophe Lemaire, who was back aboard. His odds were 13-1.
There are several subplots. Two of Hard Way’s original three owners stuck with the horse, and the third owner was on hand to bet him.
Another subplot revolves around Gina Rarick’s advocacy of drug-free racing. The only doping you can find at her beautiful stable in Maisons-Laffitte (a town where street signs tell car drivers that horses have the right of way) is the caffeine that Madame Rarick swigs down before sunrise in preparation for her sunrise gallops.
Rarick wrote on her blog:
We barbarians here in Europe and most of the rest of the world are abusing our horses by forcing them to run with absolutely no pharmaceuticals in their system on race day. Really. How could we? How could we possibly wait until our horses are sound without the aid of drugs to race them? We should be ashamed of ourselves.
Rarick also counters the argument that drug-free racing would push the little guy out of the sport:
I’ve got a yard full of ‘little guys’ who are having plenty of fun racing horses at lower levels on hay, oats and water. Yes, they see an occasional vet bill. They will never, ever spend a fraction of what the 'little guy' in America has to spend on vet bills alone, never mind the training fees.
I am very lucky to have owners who are in the sport for the right reason: to enjoy themselves in the company of the noble Thoroughbred. Some 8 hours before the Kentucky Derby, the supremely patient owners and trainer of Hard Way were rewarded when their horse galloped to an easy victory. It was their Derby and Hard Way did defeat 19 other horses.
It’s great to have him back. He’s always been sort of the yard mascot, and we’re all looking forward to seeing what happens this year. He gets to decide where and when he wants to race. We’re just along for the ride.
Mark Cramer is the author of the crime novel Tropical Downs and the bicycle racing chronical Handicapping on the Road.