Tuesday, May 21, 2013

GUEST BLOG: High Drama at the Grand Steeplechase of Paris

Why isn’t jump racing more popular in the USA?

by Mark Cramer

The 2013 edition of the Gras Savoye Grand Steeplechase of Paris brought racing fans a multitude of dramatic plots and subplots in a 5,800 meter race (3 miles and 5/8) with 23 varied obstacles, including a river jump and a long open-ditch jump.

David Cottin: from the operating table to the Grand Steeplechase

Ten days before the big race at Auteuil, in west Paris, jockey David Cottin fell and broke his collarbone. He was operated on Monday, six days before the big event on May 19. The 23-year-old Cottin did not want to miss his chance to win this race for the first time, aboard Shannon Rock, who had finished second in last year’s edition.

Can a 12-year-old win her fourth Grand Steeple?

Mid Dancer won this legendary race in France in 2007, 2011 and 2012, as an 11-year old.

Since 1950, only two other 10-year-olds besides Mid Dancer had ever won this race, and only one other 11-year old (back in 1962) besides Mid Dancer was able to get the job done. Mid Dancer’s sire was the American, Midyan, in turn sired by Miswaki.

Can Nathalie Desoutter become the first woman to win the Grand Steeplechase?

Miss Desoutter would be riding Quarouso, for trainer Jean-Paul Gallorini, who also trained Shannon Rock. Desoutter had been riding hot, with 5 wins in her last 30 races and nearly 50% in the money. I had once seen Desoutter fall from a horse that was prepping for a major stakes race. She was back aboard for the big race and ended up finishing second.

A few days after that great ride, I asked her if she had not become hesitant or shy about getting back on the same horse after such a fall.

“It was my own fault,” she said, “and I knew what I had to do so that the same thing would not happen again.”

In Sunday’s Grand Steeplechase, Quarouso galloped near the leaders but began to run out of gas before the last of 23 jumps, after having leaped elegantly over the long open-ditch jump and the river jump right in front of the grandstand. Desoutter and her partner finished 8th of 16.

Mid Dancer came up with a courageous late run before his fan club, but could only capture third place, some distance from the two leaders.

David Cottin and his partner Shannon Rock (6.4/1) caught the favorite Belle la Vie (4.5/1) in the last 100 meters and looked like a winner with about 75 meters to go. Belle la Vie’s rider Bertrand Lestrade changed leads and his partner burst back forwardly to win by a half length.

“I needed to jump a little less high over the final hurdle,” Cottin told the press, “because Shannon Rock stopped slightly after the jump, and that may have cost us the victory.”

Of the 16 starters, two were eventually stopped from fatigue and four threw their riders. Regarding falls, after speaking with several jump riders, I’ve discovered a level of courageous competitiveness that my cowardly soul cannot fathom. It is so pronounced that a fall makes them even more eager to reach a peak performance, as was the case with Nathalie Desoutter previously and David Cottin in the 2013 Grand Steeplechase of Paris.

In her last 100 races, Desoutter has fallen or been thrown 7 times and on three occasions has come back to finish in the money. Cottin had only fallen twice in his last 100 races, finishing fourth after the earlier fall.  Back in August of 2012, rider Benoit Giquel was thrown in three of four races. He came back to win three of his next five with another second thrown in.

All drama aside, in some countries, various advocacy organizations, including animal rights groups, have called for banning obstacle racing. As I once noted, a medical journal in Australia listed being a jockey as more dangerous than being a boxer, with only off-shore fisherman having more risk to lives.  

The Australian and New Zealand racing industries responded to the protests with measures to make the game safer for both horse and rider. This included a new transparency, with statistics being published on fall rates and jockey and horse fatalities.

One of the ways to make it safer for horse-and-rider partners is for a rider to simply stop a horse during a race when doubts arise about the horse’s condition or stability. Even with an amazing 37% in the money statistic, David Cottin has stopped his horses 25 times in his last 100 races.

Bertrand Lestrade has stopped his horses in 22 of his last 100 races. In the race immediately following the “stop”, he’s won 8 of 22! He’s fallen in 8 of his last 100 races, coming back to win twice and place twice. These statistics are illustrations of the incredible sense of competitiveness of the best jump jockeys. 

You’d think bettors would shy away from obstacle races, where the race can end abruptly for the horse they’ve bet, long before the stretch drive. But in places like France, England and Ireland, bettors perceive that the jumpers are more formful than the flats.

Raised on American racing, I had shied away from playing races where my horse might fall or be stopped during the race. I blotted out the jumpers from my racing boundaries until I discovered obstacle racing in both France and England.

Sunday’s Grand Steeplechase certainly proved to me that American players and fans should at least have the chance to judge for themselves whether or not they’d like to add this genre to their bouquet of aesthetic racing pleasures.

The 12-year old Mid Dancer may be an extreme case, but he illustrates the greater longevity of jump horses compared to flat racers. Jump race fans and players get to follow longer horse careers and thus become more attached to their equine heroes.

I lost my win bet on David Cottin, but I collected the placé (show) bet on my system of betting jockeys in their race following a fall. 



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