Arazi hard to catch off the track, too

JOHN EISENBERG

March 11, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

CHANTILLY, France -- I was at the gate of a 16th century Renaissance castle, trying to tell a security guard that the next Secretariat was not, as he thought, on the Riveria "making babies."

Stay with me here. There is an explanation.

On my way home from the Olympics, I set aside a day to locate Arazi, the colt who won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile by a million or so lengths last fall, leading to speculation that he might run away from all comers in the 1992 Triple Crown.

Born in Kentucky and owned by an American, he trains in France because his handlers originally thought he would run faster on European grass. He turned out more substantial than anyone imagined.

I had no contacts or phone numbers. I had just been told the colt was training at the Chantilly track, outside Paris. I figured that was enough. To do your business in the States, you just go to the track and find the barn. Off I went.

My train headed north from Paris on a cold, gray, windy day. In 45 minutes, we reached Chantilly, a country town of old money, summer houses and the most beautiful racetrack I'd ever seen. By 20 lengths.

It was an opening in a forest, essentially, with a grass track, a small grandstand, wrought-iron railings and a hand-operated tote board. Rising on the first turn was a castle worthy of Disney's signature, built 400 years ago. Beside it was a blue lake.

There were just two things missing: horses and people. Nothing stirred except the grass in the wind. I walked down to the castle and found a guard out front.

I didn't speak much French and he didn't speak much English, but we got by. He told me there were no races until June, and any horses would be at a training center five miles away. I told him I was looking for Arazi. He nodded.

"Yes," he said, "except he is not here. He is now in the south of France. Making babies."

I didn't think that was right. Either that or I'd missed a major headline. But the guard was utterly convinced.

"Making the little Arazis, you know?" he said, smiling.

A man and woman walked by on their way to a tour of the castle. They lived nearby and, overhearing, said they were in the horse business and knew of Arazi.

"A trotting horse," the man said. "A trotting horse of average speed."

The guard called a taxi to take me to the training center. The cabbie had yet another opinion.

"I know of Arazi," he said, "but he is no longer here. He is on vacation."

(I'm trying to envision a horse "on vacation," perhaps asking for the suntan lotion and ordering a margarita.)

By now I wasn't sure what I thought. I just knew Arazi was not the people's champion of France.

I found the manager of the training center, a small man in his 50s.

"Yes!" he said. "Arazi trains here."

The Arazi who won the Breeders' Cup?

"Yes!"

Not the Arazi who is a slow trotting horse on vacation making babies?

"I don't know what this means," he said.

I asked to see the horse. The man's face went ashen.

"Oh, no," he said. "He is not here now."

It turned out that horses train at the center, but don't live there. Arazi lived at his trainer's stables, a mile up the road. I asked for a ride, but the manager was busy, so I walked.

The stables were behind a wall of ivy. Everyone was out eating lunch, which, in France, meant they'd be gone a long time. I found a secretary in a small office.

"Yes," she said, "this is Arazi stables. But Arazi doesn't live here."

I was beginning to think I was in a connect-the-dots puzzle with no ending. Not at the track. Not at the training center. Not at the stables.

"Where is this horse?" I asked.

"At another stable down the road," she said, and added cheerfully, "You can't see him anyway."

Ah. So simple. And why not?

She explained that the trainer had to be there for anyone to see the horse, and the trainer would be gone all day. And part of the next day.

"I am very sorry," she said, "but it is not possible."

My flight home was the next day. It was now or never.

"Madame, please," I said. "I have taken a train and a cab and walked several miles. And I have defended this horse against slanderous fabrications all day."

She smiled. I knew I was dead. You can spot a brick wall in any country.

"With this special horse," she said, "you must always call for an appointment, sir."

(Epilogue: When I got home, my boss asked, "So what's up with Arazi?" Well, I said, there was this baby thing . . . )

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