Gina Rarick doesn’t mince her words, as readers of her online blog will testify. The American journalist who became a French racehorse trainer has strong views on all aspects of the sport - from the struggle to make ends meet in Europe, the problems of being accepted in France and the admin issues at France Galop to the medication situation back in the U.S. - as John Gilmore found out in this recent question-and-answer interview.
Gina Rarick has come a long way since her early days on a Wisconsin dairy farm. Dropping out of a music degree course at college, she started out as a newsroom clerk with the Milwaukee Journal after walking past the office and being fascinated by the sound of the printing presses. She went in and asked for a job.
Rarick, now 52, went on to freelance for regional community newspapers before joining the Milwaukee Sentinel as a reporter.
Her first big break came in 1989, when media company Knight Ridder hired her for their financial news section in Chicago. Five years later, she was on the move again to France to become the Paris-based financial editor for the International Herald Tribune. "I would have taken the London job offered, but unfortunately quarantine restrictions were still in place and I couldn't bear to leave my dogs in kennels for six months,” she said. “France had no such problems."
One of the first things she did was to join the local riding club after moving to Maisons-Laffitte on the outskirts of Paris, close to the major training centre. She later began covering big races around the world for the Tribune.
This kindled an interest in racing, and in 2002 she obtained an amateur training licence from France Galop.
After winning an amateur race for journalists, Rarick decided - at the age of 40 - to become an amateur jockey. Although she never won a race, she was placed several times. And she gained valuable experience riding out and working with racehorses.
Training as an amateur, Rarick was allowed to train up to five horses of her own - but not for other owners.
It was 2007 when she took the plunge and left the Tribune after more than 25 years in journalism. She obtained her full French training licence the same year and started training professionally that September. She had trained just two winners from 88 starts as an amateur.
For several years she had been doing both jobs, working with the horses in the morning and at the Tribune from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. "I had the mornings free to work at the yard, but colleagues got fed up with the afternoon phone calls ordering hay and contacting vets," she said.
She credits leading Maisons-Laffitte trainer Jean Paul Gallorini as having been a great help with advice throughout her training career.
Nowadays, Rarick rents boxes in a boutique yard opposite her house. She currently has 10 horses in training but can take up to 15. She has been successful over the years buying cheap horses and getting results. So far she has trained 10 winners in 2015.
After seven years as a full-time trainer, do you have any regrets about swapping a comfortable desk job for one that involves getting up at the crack of dawn each day?
“I must admit that occasionally I do fantasize about what it might be like if I led a ‘normal’ life, but then I'm reminded that I did that for a long time, and it was quite boring. So no, I don't regret making the change. I'm the kind of person that thrives on adrenaline and a challenge. If I don't have those things, I'm actually quite lazy. So training certainly keeps me busy, which is a good thing.”
Coming from farming stock, but with no racing background, how tough was it to get started and find owners from scratch? As an American women trainer how difficult was it to be accepted by the French racing fraternity?
“Actually, I'm not sure I have been accepted by the French racing fraternity. It is a very closed shop in that the Arqana sales company, bloodstock agents, and France Galop steer owners toward the big trainers in Chantilly, or newer trainers there who were either assistants to the big guys or went through the Darley program.
“If you're not in that circle and you don't train in Chantilly, you don't exist, and you're on your own finding clients, which is obviously the biggest challenge for any new trainer.
“The search for new owners never ends, but I have to play to my strengths: I'm a great communicator, and I've had very good results on the racetrack. I don't see the fact that I'm an American woman - and one of a ‘certain age’ at that - as a handicap but rather as an advantage. It gives me the freedom to say what I think and not mince words.”
Your husband still works at the Tribune. How important has he been behind the scenes in encouraging your training career?
“Tim has been indispensable in getting this business off the ground. He handles the administrative side of things, which is very nearly a second full-time job. He's been there to encourage me through the difficult times, he's great with owners. Unlike me, he’s the diplomatic one.”
You have managed to acquire a small number of loyal owners, mostly expats, including the odd American, and you have been successful buying cheap horses and winning handicap races with them. But, despite having your best start to a season so far, including three winners at Cagnes Sur Mer, do you feel that, in order to progress, you will need to acquire better quality horses?
“Unfortunately, I've become a victim of my own success in making cheap horses win, which takes away the incentive to invest in more expensive younger stock. Obviously the goal is to get progressively better horses in the yard, and over the years we have done that. It's a slow process. But the horses we have now are all decent quality handicappers. We have one or two that might get into Listed territory, which is a step in the right direction.
“But, realistically, you need to be able to buy yearlings and 2-year-olds to unearth a higher quality horse, and you need to be able to buy several to get the one good one. My owners aren't in that sort of income bracket, so we have to work with what we have.”
In France, the overall prize money levels are so good compared to Britain, with handicap and selling races up to six times more valuable, travel paid to tracks, and breeders’ and owners’ premiums on top. Yet, despite this comfort zone, a lot of smaller trainers in France are finding it hard going to make ends meet to cover day-to-day overheads and staff costs. How do you cope with it?
“It's extremely difficult, in large part because the value-added tax [VAT] jumped to 20 percent two years ago from just seven percent, which drove a lot of small owners out of the game. At the same time, the social charges in France are increasing at what seem to be exponential rates. Many trainers are leaving the business, and the small ones who are left are struggling, me included.
“Some trainers have tried to cut their prices to attract business or keep existing owners, while others have ended up owning more of their own horses. Both of those moves are a sure road to bankruptcy, which is where many trainers are finding themselves. The way to cope is to stay within your means - cut staff if you don't need them (even though firing people is extremely expensive in France) and make sure the horses you train are making money.
“In order to do that, you can't cut corners. The horses still have to be eating the best food, getting the best care and getting the best training in order to be competitive. Having a racehorse in training costs money, and keeping up the search for owners who understand that is the only way forward.”
In Britain, the solution to poor prize money and attracting new owners has been the increase of syndicates run by trainers and private enterprises. In France, syndicates also appear to be on the increase, though there are complaints that tedious administration by France Galop constitute a continuous handicap. Is this a reason you haven't gone down this road?
“The administrative hurdles are exactly why I haven't formed a syndicate so far, but we've finally given in and are going forward with one. High Street Racing is in the works, and we hope to be buying horses for our new syndicate this autumn.
“Many of my smaller owners who left because of the rise in VAT are excited about buying shares in the syndicate because it will limit their costs and keep them connected to the yard. Shares are being sold for €5,000 each, and we will have 50 shares available.
“We will be buying horses that have had a bit of form and can be useful in the handicap ranks so they should run relatively often and provide plenty of entertainment for the two-year life of the syndicate.”
When you have a small yard, few horses and small owners, mistakes have to be limited and buying or leasing horses have to be carefully thought out. What has been your approach and how has it worked out on the whole?
“I buy horses three ways: at the Tattersalls sales in Newmarket, in claiming races, or through private deals. I'm looking for horses that have a good pedigree and have raced a bit but might benefit from a change to a smaller yard and some individual attention.
“I've made bad buys, like anyone in this business has, but overall I've done pretty well by sticking to my rules and sticking to the budget, and not getting swayed by a good-looking horse that doesn't fit the profile. I try to stick to horses that qualify for French breeders’ and owners' premiums, but I won't rule out a horse because it doesn't get premiums.
“I've bought some nice horses privately, like Ray Of Hope, who I bought for €15,000 and he's since made more than €85,000 euros for his owners. Same with Gorki Park. I bought him for €10,000 and he has since won €112,000. Obviously, when you're dealing with small owners on a limited budget, there is little room for error. So I try to choose wisely.”
As a former journalist, your blog stories have been a major attraction on your website, with some wonderful hilarious pieces over the years. But of late they have been sadly few and far between. Is there a reason for this?
“Yes, I get a lot of complaints that I've neglected my blog, and I do plan to get back to it more frequently. I have migrated to other social media like Facebook, which has a big reach for market purposes, so frankly, I've gotten lazy. The blog will come back - even my husband is haranguing me to commit to writing at least once a week.”
In this game, for a small trainer it's difficult not to get attached to your horses even though they may not be with you for more than a couple of seasons; especially in your case with Hard Way, who came back from a normally life-threatening neck injury to triumph once again. In France, a major problem appears to be the lack of backup services and facilities for finding homes for the large number of racehorses retiring each year and not going to the breeding barns. How do you avoid them ending up at the abattoir? What is your take on this?
“First, I do my best to place any horse I train that needs to be retired with the best home I can find, even if that means hanging on to the horse at my own expense while I'm looking. I have had owners stop paying the bill the minute the decision to retire the horse has been reached, which is unfortunate (and thankfully very infrequent).
“There are several organizations in France working to re-home racehorses. Some do a very good job and others do not. I'm going to be starting a project with Network Galop, which seeks to connect the various groups placing racehorses with trainers and owners looking to re-home them.
“I own an unraced 2-year-old gelding named Iron Born (out of a mare, Turfani, I used to train) through a foal-sharing deal. He has just arrived at the yard. I have a project to train Iron Born with the help of an online crowdfunding website like GoFundMe.com, where people contribute what they wish to help a variety of good causes. The idea is to raise enough fees to cover training costs of €55 a day, then any prize money Iron Born wins on the track would go to support a charity I am in the process of selecting - for retraining and re-homing racehorses in France. If he's injured, not good enough on the track, or ends his racing career, then whatever money raised through crowdfunding that is left over would also go to the charity.
“While we have to never stop working to keep good programs in place, the numbers in France are pretty good. The annual foal crop is just over 3,000, which is about the right number needed for the racing program here, so the ‘wastage’, to use an unpleasant term, is quite low - much better than in the trotting world, for instance.
“Still, France Galop tried to put a program in place a few years ago with the Ligue pour la Protection du Cheval, and that turned out not to work very well and has since fallen into ruin, and France Galop has done nothing to replace it. We need a strong hand of support there, and we haven't gotten it.”
You have been quite outspoken over the years concerning your fellow countrymen in the States using medication banned in Europe and race-day Lasix. Not much has changed and even some European trainers use race-day Lasix when having runners in the States, claiming they “want to compete on equal terms with the locals". Meanwhile, American runners coming to race in Europe who may have been training on medication banned in Europe need only make sure they test clean prior to arriving. Are we talking double standards here?
“I'm not sure double standards is quite the right way to put it, but yes, horse racing in the United States is a completely different sport because of the medications allowed. The small number of European trainers that send runners to the big meetings there really have no choice; otherwise they're giving away an advantage to their competitors.
“Meanwhile, horses trained outside France are not subjected to the same non race-day testing protocols as French-trained horses, so yes, that's not fair.
“I think any horse entered in a Group race in Europe needs to be available for testing from the minute it’s entered, no matter where it stands. The British decision to prohibit steroids at any time in a horse's life and using hair analysis to back it up is an excellent initiative, and I hope they stick to their guns.”
“So far, France has not followed suit, which is disappointing. Eliminating steroids and the overuse of so-called therapeutic medications is the only way to ensure the future of the Thoroughbred.”
France Galop during the past couple of years have introduced a new marketing strategy for the top races and a more professional approach in taking care of owners on and off the racecourse. Do you think they are on the right track, or do they need to do more?
“Some of their ideas have been good, but overall their execution has been a dismal failure. They've succeeded in alienating the small number of racegoers who were faithful, they haven't attracted new fans and they've made it difficult for trainers to make sure their owners are welcomed to the track and not stopped at the gate.
“I agree that we need to put a value on our product, but France Galop have missed some very basic steps in doing so.
“First off, race meetings need to be scheduled so that people who want to come know where and when to go. The racing calendar is so confusing these days that even the professionals don't know where the day's meeting is being held. There is no internet site that lays out the calendar for the general public. The existing France Galop website is archaic and incomprehensible to anyone who doesn't have to use it every day.
“If we want to draw people to Longchamp, for example, we should set up the calendar so that during the summer there are meetings every Thursday evening and every Sunday, for example, so people can get in the habit of going. And, while efforts have been made to improve the food service at the racecourses, you can still eat better at a roadside service station than you can at the track. The food on offer is expensive and stale. It is slightly better on the big race days, but then the problem is they run out.
“So yes, more effort needs to be made to revive the on-track experience in France. The quality of racing itself, and the prize money on offer, are second to none, and a strategy to make the racing experience the focus is needed.”
At the International Herald Tribune, you also covered the top international races for the paper. What is your favourite international racecourse and why? And which is your favourite in France?
“Racing in Hong Kong is the most honest, cleanest, and best-organized racing in the world, and the international meet in December was always a high point of the year.
“For the beauty of the course itself and the atmosphere, it's hard to beat Ascot.
“In France, I've always had a soft spot for Craon. It's a beautiful track, the owners and trainers are very well treated, and there's always a great crowd on hand. Same with Cagnes sur Mer, which has its own kind of Riveria magic.”
What is the worst thing that has happened during your racing career, and the best?
“The worst thing is easy: early in my career, I had a new owner who was coming to Deauville to see his horse race for the first time. He had an important business meeting at the airport near Paris the next day, and then a flight to Guernsey. First off, his horse ran badly. The next day, I completely underestimated the time it would take me to get him to the airport, so as the kilometres ticked by, it was clear we weren't going to make it.
“Then there was a detour on the autoroute for road work, after which I took a wrong turn. As I was biting my lip wondering how this could get any worse, the warning light came on indicating I was nearly out of gas. I managed to get him to the airport just in time for him to leap out of the car at the curb and sprint for his flight (there were only two a week, so I couldn't even think of what would happen if he missed it. The business meeting was already cancelled).
“The happy ending is that he made the flight, and he still has horses in training with me. But I didn't think it was going to work out that way at the time.
“The best moment was when Hard Way came back from his serious vertebrae injury in 2010 and what I thought would be retirement to win at Saint-Cloud in 2012. I bred Hard Way and he's the reason I started training. I have tried to retire him twice, but he's not interested in that and his close up fifth in a handicap at Vichy last month shows he's capable of winning again - at the age of 10.”
In this game, you can spend a lifetime without getting even that one horse who will take you into the big time at least once. Does it bother you that this may never happen, or do you feel confident it is only a matter of time?
“If I didn't believe it was only a matter of time, I would stop training. My goal is to get a horse I can take to Hong Kong, Dubai, or Royal Ascot. Sooner or later, I'm going to get that horse. And hopefully not just one.”