3/3/14: American horse trainer trades deadlines for finish lines — Q&A with Gina Rarick

Gina Rarick is a journalist-turned-horse-trainer living just outside Paris in Maisons-Laffitte — the only American currently training in France and the only American woman ever given a French trainer’s license.

Raised on a dairy farm in Wisconsin, Rarick has been through odd jobs and worked the financial news and turf writing beats at the International Herald Tribune while simultaneously getting bitten by the horse training bug. Now she’s got a yard of 12-15 horses, and she’s sending out more winners at the track with each passing year.

Q: How did you get your start in journalism?

A: I started out as a music major, dropped out, got married, was a bartender, worked for an undertaker, worked at the airport, worked at various other things.

I was driving past the Milwaukee Journal one night on the way home from work and thought, “Gee, that’s interesting, wonder what they do there?”

Q: And that was that?

A: I got hired as a news clerk on the metro desk.

I immediately loved it. I thought, people are swearing, they throw phonebooks, there’s a deadline. It was back in the days where newsrooms had a buzz to them. There was a hierarchy, there was a city editor everybody was afraid of, there were phones ringing everywhere and it was great.

Q: How did you get to Paris?

A: (After leaving the Journal) I was working as a reporter in the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and the Chicago Board of Trade. All these foreign postings kept rolling up on the bureau wire.

I sent my resume out to the International Herald Tribune. I had never seen Paris before, and I didn’t speak a word of French, but I got a job as an editor on the financial news desk.

I find financial news deadly boring, but you got eight weeks vacation and it was in Paris. I wasn’t going to say no.

At that time the Herald Tribune was owned jointly by The New York Times and the Washington Post, and it was a fantastic place to work. You could play the two parents off each other and get the best of both correspondents. It was a completely independent editorial operation — we had our own voice.

Q: So when did the horses come in?

A: I had signed up for riding lessons (while reporting in Chicago) just because it seemed like a fun thing to do. They gave me Spanky the cart horse, and he was as big as a house — I needed a ladder to get on him.

After about a year and a half of living in Paris with my husband and two dogs, we were going nuts. It’s just no place to live if you’re a country sort of person.

I got more and more into riding after we moved outside the city. It became sort of like religion — you start with once a week, but then there’s the twice a week, then you can go a third time. It’s a slippery slope.

The house we managed to buy cheaply in Maisons-Laffitte in 1999 happened to be right across the street from a racing yard.

Around the same time, I had said to the sports editor at the Herald Tribune, “Hey, this Arc de Triomphe race, isn’t anybody going to cover that?” And he said, “No, we haven’t. But yeah, go ahead.”

I went to the Arc to write a story for the newspaper. I didn’t know anything about horse racing — besides the fact that they run fast and somebody wins and a pretty horse finished second and some other horse finished third.

I wrote this little 450-story for the Herald Tribune, and that sort of opened the lid.

Q: And you kept up the turf beat?

A: I took all my vacation and the paper sent me to every major race meeting in the world. I developed a racing beat that became pretty well followed.

It was like international racing school. I went to Hong Kong, Dubai, the Breeders’ Cup in the States, the Grand National.

You learn that the only thing these places have in common is that there’s some equine DNA at the end of the lead shank and everyone has their own way of doing it. And in the end, the only thing that counts is the winning post. It was a great way to learn.

Q: How did you transition from journalism to full-time horse training?

A: When I went to the Arc de Triomphe to write the story, there was a little paper posted in the press room saying: “The Annual Journalists’ Race will be held at Saint-Cloud racecourse.”

If you’re a journaliste hippique — if you write about horse racing — there’s a race every year. Trainers donate horses, it’s just for fun.

I didn’t realize at that time the undertaking, what it would be to actually ride a racehorse. Oh, my God. It was a mile race with a starting gate with race horses — not ponies, but Thoroughbreds.

Q: Do they still do this?!

A: Well, uh, that’s another story. They don’t anymore.

My first thought was, is there a parade of lawyers following people around? This is the liability insurance Olympics! Nobody in America would ever let this go off.

Well, I won. Then, I was walking out, and this old turf guy said to me, “You know, madame, you should think about taking out your amateur license. You rode a very nice race there.” And I looked at him and I said, “Look at the size of me, are you kidding?”

It planted the seed. Once you sit on a racehorse and do that, it’s pretty hard to go back to Spanky the cart horse and trot around a little ring.

I hadn’t even owned a scale. But I lost 22 kilos and got my amateur trainer’s license, then my amateur jockey’s license, then bought a horse. The whole thing started to snowball.

Q: When did you quit journalism for good?

A: I started to get more and more interested in horses and less and less interested in journalism, because not only did Kay Graham die and The New York Times took over the Herald Tribune, that all happened at about the same time when this thing called the Internet really came into full fruition. That threw every newspaper in the world into panic mode.

People said they would support my training at the beginning, and I was getting very, very sour at my job. There was less and less money and time to cover the racing, which was what I loved, and the editorial staff was being slashed and butchered.

In 2007, they had another round of buyouts. I wasn’t on the list to go, but I took it. It gave me the start-up money I needed.

Q: You’re the only American training in France right now, and the only American woman ever given a license. Did you feel a step or two behind the curve?

A: There are a lot of people who were jockeys, who were lads — they were born into it, this was their whole life.

I’d come to it with the benefit of experience, of having a whole career behind me that was different. And I’ve seen racing all over the world, which puts me about a light year ahead of a lot of people who are trying to get started.

Am I really making any money? I’m not going to get rich doing this, I know. My retirement plan is either prison or cat food, but I’m OK with that, too.

Q: Would you ever train in America?

A: I’d like to think that I could race in America if for some reason I would like to go. But horse racing in America is a completely different sport.

It is isolated from the rest of the world, because it is based on precocious speed and race-day medication. The catastrophic breakdown rate of horses in America is three times that of anywhere else in the world. Nowhere else can you run with so many drugs in your system.

Lasix (a diuretic used in most American racehorses) was the lid to Pandora’s box, and I don’t know that it could be closed. If the horse is bred properly and conditioned properly and trained over the right surfaces and toughened up to race, they will not have a bleeding problem. It just doesn’t happen here (in Europe).

The American industry is driving itself into oblivion, which is sad because there’s a lot of history there.

Q: Biggest accomplishment so far?

A: Winning my first race at Longchamps. I raced there, I’d placed many times, but I could never manage to crack a win. I had to wait until last year.

Q: You just came back from the Cagnes-sur-Mer race meeting down south. What’s next for you?

A: I’ll be starting the Paris area circuit. Saint-Cloud is next.

Q: So you’re in this for the long haul?

A: It’s a hard business to quit. I do know some trainers who would theoretically like to quit, but they don’t even know how.

It’s so hard to get going, and once you’ve got it, it’s an adrenaline. I can’t imagine what else I would do.

(Photo courtesy of turfbloggers.blogspot.fr)

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