Hard Way Back - by John Gilmore

(Originally published in the May 19, 2012 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)

Story and photo by John Gilmore

As the horses galloped up the finishing straight in the 2,400-meter (11⁄2-mile) Prix de la Lomagne Handicap at Saint-Cloud on a gloomy, rain-sodden evening May 5, Hard Way cruised to the front, eventually winning as he pleased. Racegoers enthusiastically cheered his every stride to the wire and beyond.

Hard Way Returns to Winning Ways

Hard Way is shown above with Gina Rarick (L)

The victory, with Christophe Lemaire aboard, provided a sharp contrast to some 20 months ago in August 2010, when the then 5-year-old gelding’s racing career looked in shreds. A scan by Deauville veterinarian Xavier d’Ablon had revealed a crushed Atlas vertebra, which is the vertebra connecting the skull to the spine. The fragments were not touching the spinal cord but could very well do so.

“Dr. d’Ablon thought the compression caused by the fracture led to the sub-par performances of Hard Way’s last two races at Saint-Cloud and Clairefontaine in June and August 2010, when he had nothing to give at the end of the races, which was not like him,” said American Gina Rarick, who trains Hard Way and obtained her professional French training license in September 2008.

To this day nobody is any the wiser how the injury occurred, appearing more consistent with a steeplechase horse having fallen on its head.
“The vets had not seen a horse survive such an injury, so the scans quickly made their way to vet schools around the world—including University of California-Davis,” Rarick said. “The advice given was to treat the injury like a fracture and wait and see how it healed. I sent him to Madame Francoise Guibert’s home for retired and breeding horses in Normandy, where the vet gave him a dose of Tildren—a bone-building drug—and he was turned out for three months.”

After the three months an MRI scan showed the fracture had remarkably healed into a boney mass and the fragments had stabilized. D’Ablon gave Hard Way the green light to come back into training, according to Rarick.

“Not wanting to take any risks, I sent Hard Way into pre-training to see how he would handle it, but after three weeks he got a stiff neck and I decided to throw in the towel and retire him with Madame Guibert,” the trainer said.

Rarick checked on Hard Way at Guibert’s retirement center last October and thought he looked miserable standing out in a field. She then decided to bring him back to Maisons-Laffitte, with the idea of being the stable pony.

“Within a month it was clear Hard Way had other ideas: He was walking better than ever, and I didn’t hurry him back to the track—spending all winter hacking in the forest at Maisons-Laffitte near my rented boutique yard,” Rarick said.

Hard Way eventually had two minor races in April 2012 at Lisieux, coming back sound, before a first serious race back on his favored soft ground and distance at Saint-Cloud.

“Everybody was just thrilled to pieces,” said Rarick, who has had a soft spot in her heart for Hard Way since his first day in her barn. Hard Way’s dam, Nicosia, was the first racehorse she owned, and after the mare injured a suspensory tendon a trainer friend, Jean-Paul Gallorini, put her in touch with Denis Grandin, who had a stallion—the aptly named Ultimately Lucky.

“Grandin offered to take Nicosia as a broodmare against the first foal, if I wanted to go that way, but it turned out badly,” Rarick said. “The dam was put down a few days after Hard Way’s birth, developing septicemia. I almost quit racing and everything to do with it when I learned of Nicosia’s death, but my husband, Tim, and Gallorini convinced me to stay in the game.”

As a foal, Hard Way went to Guibert’s farm, where Rarick keeps a broodmare and sends her horses for 

“He was in a field with two other weanling colts and one of them kept picking on him relentlessly. Instead of fighting back he always just ran away,” said Rarick. “This experience has left its mark. Hard Way gets too worked up and stressed with other racehorses and only goes on the gallops when we do fast work. The rest of the time I hack him alone. At the track we bring him into the presentation ring last, onto the track last, and into the gate last, though once the gates open, he just wants to beat them all.”

Rarick still owns Hard Way but leases him to the French-based American owner Mark Tronco and American Kay Minton. Tronco, however, said he considers the gelding “everybody’s horse.”

“We all love him,” he said. “We were over the moon when he won, and he could certainly go on to win more this year.” 

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