Thanks to the talents of Mike Lachance, Ron Burke and Ray Schnittker, a barnstorming tour of France to inspect 67 trotters on behalf of the SOA of New York’s French American Trotting Club was successful in whittling the number down to 24 and strengthening the relationship with Le Trot.
by Dave Briggs
In terms of building closer ties between American and French trotting interests, this was beyond the young French woman’s dream. All she knew was a group of American horsepeople was coming to her region to inspect the horse she was grooming to possibly buy it to race in the United States. She didn’t expect to be face-to-face with a multiple Hall of Famer.
Striking up a conversation with Mike Lachance, she shared a fond memory of once travelling to the Meadowlands with her parents.
“Have you ever been to the Meadowlands?” she asked Lachance, who quickly played coy.
“Yes, many times,” he said simply, as his fellow Americans — Ron Burke and Joe Faraldo, in particular, began to laugh.
“We kept talking and she said, ‘Did you ever drive in the races?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ I was joking around with her,” Lachance said, slowly letting the woman in on the secret that he was “with the Lachance family.”
“At the end, when she found out who I was, she said, ‘Not the Lachance who is driving?’ I said, ‘Well, I was driving, but not anymore.’ Then she started calling everyone and texting everyone. That was fun.”
It was a moment of levity in a hectic, whirlwind trip to France a few weeks ago in which Lachance, Burke and Ray Schnittker traversed the country inspecting 67 French trotters in order to purchase 24 on behalf of the Standardbred Owners Association of New York’s (SOA of NY) newly-formed French American Trotting Club that is the brainchild of the SOA of NY’s executive director Alex Dadoyan (see 2018-03-16 story on page 13)
Faraldo, the president of the SOA of NY, said the scouting trip, which was organized by France’s Le Trot, was a necessity.
“If you go to a sale and you try to buy a horse from the catalog and you don’t have a horsemen look at it, you’re a dope. It isn’t going to work out your way,” Faraldo said. “That’s not the way to be buying horses and just looking at the background of these (French) horses doesn’t tell us very much because it’s a different style and so on.”
But picking them out would be more challenging than first thought.
TRAVERSING THE COUNTRY
Faraldo said he understood the original plan was to have all 67 horses brought to the famed Grosbois Training Centre near Paris to be inspected. Just before leaving for France, he learned the group would have to travel all over the country to see all the horses.
That was compounded by the fact the group’s Saturday night plane from New York to Paris was cancelled.
“Our plane was cancelled, so instead of Sunday we got there on Monday,” Faraldo said. “When we arrived, we couldn’t get into the baggage area because they suspected somebody planted a bomb, so we were stuck in a room that was 90 degrees with a whole bunch of other people, standing there waiting. We got to the hotel, threw out bags in the room, took a night bag and went directly to Grosbois and trained eight that day. Then, we went right back to the same airport we came from. We didn’t sleep, just got back on a plane and flew to Nice.
“We checked into the hotel, had dinner… went to bed, got up the next morning and trained 12 or 14 in Nice. There’s a beautiful racetrack right on the water, on the Mediterranean. Back on the airplane again, and the first good sleep we had was Tuesday. It was exhausting. Then we got up the next day to go to Normandy in a little car, with Burke’s knees up in his chin.
“I’ve got to give (Burke) a lot of credit. He was crammed into a small car and the shortest trip I think was two hours and the longest was four.”
Schnittker said Burke had his share of tight squeezes in race bikes, too.
“We had to make sure where the seats and stirrups were on them,” Schnittker said, laughing. “We had some good chuckles about that.”
Lachance said it was, “a fast and tiring trip… One day was in Cannes, one day was in Bordeaux, so all over. There was two hours on the train, three hours on the train, an hour-and-a-half on the plane. Basically, we had to meet in the lobby at 6:30 in the morning and get going. We trained the horses in the afternoon and then came back to the hotel where we were, in central France. We would come back around 7:30 or 8:00 at night. We’d take a quick shower, meet in the lobby and go for dinner. Then we had to get right back at 6:30 in the lobby in the morning and start again.
“It was a lot of work, but it was a beautiful experience… The French people were so nice. They were bending over backwards.”
There were so many horses to see in such a short amount of time, Schnittker, who was supposed to go home on Thursday, decided to stay until Friday to help out.
“I had two great guys with me,” Lachance said of Burke and Schnittker. “I was very impressed with those two guys… The thing I was impressed with was the way Burke and Ray Schnittker worked… Those guys did that for the sport, not to make money, but they did the work just like they were buying horses for $200,000.”
Schnittker said he didn’t mind the barnstorming tour that also had two translators from France’s Le Trot along for the journey.
“We bounced from track to track, which was nice, because they had about 15 at every track. We’d just go and warm up a mile and then, bang,” Schnittker said, adding he was surprised at the age of some of the equipment.
“I thought that the tracks were in good shape, the ones we were at, but the equipment was incredibly old. It was kind of comical,” Schnittker said. “I bet three quarters of the bikes were tie-down, like we had 30 or 40 years ago. About a third of them had quick hitches, that’s it… I think there’s a lot of part-time guys.”
Despite being three top U.S. horsemen, Schnittker said Lachance was the only person some French people recognized.
“I don’t think they had any idea about me, just some schmuck,” Schnittker said. “Ronnie Burke is probably the best trainer in the world right now, but I don’t think a lot of them knew who he was.”
At the same time, the trio had little idea what they were dealing with in terms of French horses.
“I thought a lot of them looked like American horses,” Schnittker said. “I thought we were going to be these big, clunky-looking things, but a lot of them were better than I thought they were going to be, a lot better gaited. A couple of them were kind of slow, but most of them had good gaits. I think it would be like going and buying $25,000 claimers from around here.”
The challenge, said Lachance, was buying a quality horse for a limited budget.
“We were studying horses there for a price,” Lachance said. “You don’t go to France and buy a real good horse, because they are not for sale. The ones to be bought are older horses that are nine and 10 years old. They can’t race anymore when they are 10 there,” Lachance said.
Faraldo said the original list given to them by Le Trot had 132 horses on it, but the group quickly scratched any horse that hasn’t raced in 2018 due to the need to be ready to race at Yonkers by Aug. 5.
“If they are off a month, it’ll take them a month to get back. If he’s off two months, it might take three months to get back. Can’t do that,” Faraldo said. “Alex did a lot of work looking at their lines and watching their videos. We got down to 67 horses.”
Lachance said the group tried to, “pick horses that were sound and not too hyper, because the French horses are pretty hyper.”
He said people should be realistic about the horses’ ability.
“I don’t know how much future they have at Yonkers,” Lachance said. “I’m pretty sure that something is going to come out of it, that there are going to be a couple of decent horses, but overall… the most we were paying for a horse is 20,000 euro. You go to Toronto and you say ‘Find me 10 horses for $20,000.’ Can I get the best? You’ll get the aging horse or the horse with problems, but, overall, everybody is going to have a chance.”
Schnittker said the key would be the horses that adapt the quickest to American racing.
HOW IT WORKS
Faraldo said it was Dadoyan that suggested a year ago that the SOA of NY should buy some French horses and have races here just for these French horses.
“I said, ‘Wait a minute, do you understand how difficult this project is?’ Just saying it and putting it into reality are two different things.’”
About a year later, the horses have arrived in the United States. They landed at JFK in New York this week and were scheduled to be picked up by their new owners Saturday (June 16) after being released from quarantine.
Faraldo said a lot of work went into crafting the program.
Interested buyers had to commit to a $10,000 non-refundable deposit and later pay the balance of $18,000. Each person could only buy one horse.
All 24 slots were sold, but Faraldo said they were careful to tell investors there was no guarantee of making any money.
“It’s not an investment towards a goal of making money that we’re telling people, because then we’d be in violation of the SCC rules and regulations,” Faraldo said. “Everything had to be very carefully worded and stated, so we don’t get into any trouble. We did that by saying that it’s the French-American trotting club. We’re going to do our due diligence in picking these horses, but there’s no expectation of anything except some fun and the ability to race in this selected series of races – period, end of sentence.”
Faraldo removed himself from consideration for buying one of the horses to avoid any criticism and then he and Dadoyan worked on making the program fair for all investors.
“One of the components had to be that whoever goes with us can’t pick the horse that they want for themselves because that wouldn’t be fair,” Faraldo said. “So we devised this method of doing it through a lottery, which the French do with other European countries – they sell horses and do it by a lottery.”
Then there had to be something for the French horses to race for before being put into the general racehorse population.
“I told Alex that we couldn’t just bring these horses here and just have French horses. The horses must be segregated to race against one another,” Faraldo said. “We should have a series that makes people feel like they have a shot to get their money back, because they are taking a risk. This is not one of those risk-aversion things – you’re heading right into it.”
Thus a series at Yonkers restricted to the French horses was born featuring three $30,000 legs and a $100,000 final.
“My plan is to try to get the race office, since everyone is short horses, to write races just for these French horses. In other words, when the series is over, to try to write a condition that will incorporate at least one competitive field of horses that are just part of the French American Trotting Club,” Faraldo said. “We can get an extra race out of these horses when we need and, if we’re smart and schedule these races on Sundays, we can send it over to France.”
Building closer ties with France to enhance betting markets is a major goal of the initiative, Faraldo said.
BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS, OPENING MARKETS
“I want to keep the relationship going and I want to grow the global market. We’d be pretty stupid to stick our heads in the sand here,” Faraldo said. “All of this is being done to make nice with people globally, to get the American product on their radar screens and eventually get them to understand the benefit of cross-breeding the French and the American horses.
“I’m just trying to show guys how to do business with the French and hopefully that opens up a number of other things, like
Faraldo said the program will cost the SOA of NY “more than six figures to do this. But, we’re willing to do it because I’m a believer that if you don’t invest in your business, you’re not going to have your business forever.”
The French American Trotting Club will first hit the track on Aug. 5 when the series begins at Yonkers.
“I think in part because of some of the things we’ve done in the past with the International, with the French and other European countries, we’re now going to have on August 5 races from Saratoga thoroughbred and Yonkers Raceway going into France,” Faraldo said. “I’d like to construct some bets between the thoroughbred and the harness track on that day, maybe a Pick Four or something like that. I think it would be good, because we’ll have much larger pools and now we’ve gotten some interest from Sweden now for them to take our bets and some other counties in Europe… Sweden has sent us an agreement to take our races and, perhaps, comingle.”
As for the three horsemen of the analysis, all agreed the scouting trip was a worthwhile endeavor.
“We talked about a million things on the train or in the car or plane,” Lachance said. “Those two guys are a little bit like me, it’s all horses, it’s all they think about. So, we were right at home.”
Faraldo called the trip, “a wonderful experience and I think Ron Burke put it well when he said, ‘This is a novel idea and it’s something in the industry to get excited about.’”
“It was definitely a really good experience,” added Schnittker, who has been to France three other times to see the Prix d’Amerique. “No one ever wants to try anything in this game… We’ve got the same crap that everybody has been doing in harness racing for 100 years and I thought this was kind of interesting.”