By Emmanuel Roussel
As Criquette Head-Maarek prepared for her final runners at Chantilly on Thursday, TDN’s French correspondent Emmanuel Roussel spent one last morning with her on the gallops
Noises matter. The humming of a racing yard in the morning is very typical. Forks briefly rattling on the box’s concrete floors, the straw, the bings and the bongs of stuff, horses moving around, the sound of boots dragged from the deep for another step ahead of another day, whispered hellos from old pals getting about their business in the dark.
All these familiar noises sound special today, as everything is a bit odd around Criquette Head-Maarek, lately. There’s a special, unreal atmosphere. The other day, she found a case of oysters on her doorsteps. She doesn’t know who sent them. Now it’s flowers every day, letters from Britain of people wishing her well, phone calls from people all around the world. Later, people will gather from all over the country, friends, colleagues and admirers, to attend a dull midweek card on an almost sunny day at Chantilly in February.
Literally out of the blue, one of the most popular and successful trainers in the world, has, at the age of 69, decided to call it a day.
Hopping from one bump to another in her electric cart on her way to the gallops, she follows a second lot of six horses, three of them from Khalid Abdullah due to join David Smaga and Pascal Bary any time soon. One of them, a grey Mizzen Mast filly named Adhere, has pleased Criquette. “She won her maiden last year and then ran flat,” notes Criquette. “I don’t know what happened but I am pretty sure she will bounce back. The last three are all Motivators owned by the family. They will be sold soon at Arqana. Others will go to my previous assistant, Charley Rossi, who now trains in the south. Some I don’t know yet. They’ll all go away.”
Criquette’s decision caught a few people off guard but it was bound to happen someday. Her last runners, saddled on Feb. 1, came just two weeks short of the deadline for the French Classic entries.
“It was a bit funny not to start working on that. It has always been a very good start for the season, these Classic entries,” she muses, looking at the fields of her last two runners ever, whose races were pinned on a cork board next to her office. Two average horses, Damanda’s Dream and Monsieur Enzo, featuring on a board where the likes of Three Troikas, Ma Biche, Hatoof, Bering, Green Tune, Poliglote, Anabaa, Special Duty et Treve once did, the stellar pedigrees of Juddmonte’s, the Wertheimers’, Maktoums’, Al Shaqab’s best horses were gathered every year, along with many bred by her own family. That list, however, had ceased to grow.
“Last November, my sisters, Freddy and I decided to take all our horses and sell them. I was the only one against it so I had to abide. Then I lost Sun Bloodstock’s horses, including National Defense, who could have come back a champion at four but had had his issues. Then private matters made to think, ‘Ok, that’s enough. You’re not going anywhere’, and I took my decision. I guess I could have changed the way I work, try to set up a kind of boutique yard for a small selection of owners, but I am 70. Who would I fool doing that? I started with 30-something horses and got to 100 five years later. I have had lots of horses but very few owners. I work with a dedicated team in a big organisation. I am unable to work differently.”
Overseeing that short second lot, Head reflects on her career and the overwhelming passion that became her whole life: “A horse trainer is lonely by nature. Even though you have all your staff to help you, to advise you, the decisions have to be made on your own. Sure, Papa helped me a lot throughout my whole career. When I began training in 1977, after he told me that I was ready to set up my own yard, many people thought that he was actually training my horses. It was a kind of protection for me, as people thought the mistakes I made were his. But so were the successes. When things were going our way, people used to come and congratulate him as if he was the actual trainer. It was funny. It annoyed Freddy but not me. Papa was deflecting the attacks.”
It is important to remember how Alec Head was regarded when his daughter decided to start training. He was Alec the Almighty, a famed trainer and breeder all over the world, if you like, a Coolmore team concentrated in one single man, a mix of Vincent O’Brien and John Magnier, with his partner Roland de Chambure acting as the French equivalent to Sangster. He indeed provided good armour for Criquette, but by the time the old man began slowly to vacate the racing scene, she had become a famed trainer in her own right, only a bit softer, more private perhaps, and dedicated to her horses. That dedication also extended to her colleagues as she has been head of the Trainers’ Federation for the last 20 years and has also represented the trainers on the France Galop Board during that time.
In recognition of her career, France Galop gave something of a feast day at Chantilly for her final day as an active trainer on a racecourse. Tributes were paid by colleagues and friends, testimonies to her kindness and amazing career, while a bronze trophy was presented by President Edouard de Rothschild, and a guard of honour featuring some of the country’s best jockeys was formed to welcome her to the paddock. Many trainers who didn’t have a runner on Thursday at Chantilly turned up to pay their respects, and Head called up Myriam Bollack-Badel, who started her career a few months before her as the first woman to train in France, to share the honours with her.
When asked if there is such a thing as a feminine touch when training horses, she takes a while to answer before saying, “When Anabaa won the Prix Maurice de Gheest we could have tried him in the Prix Jacques le Marois the following Sunday. Both Papa and Freddy wanted me to go but I refused. After all he’d gone through [Anabaa had almost lost his life as a 2-year-old when he slipped during a gallop] I thought it was asking for trouble. I didn’t want to hurt him. Now I regret that because he would have won. They were right. Maybe I’d have been bolder had I been a man. I don’t know. Bah… Anabaa became a great sire all the same. Maybe a female trainer will build a relationship with her horses that would elude most men. Maybe we are more protective. Yet we get things done all the same. It hasn’t prevented me from winning big races with young horses. Many were females but I think it’s not up to me. Most of my patrons were breeders and they were sending me fillies, mostly. It stuck.”
Three days before that last hurrah, Olivier Doleuze, who had just won a Group 1 in Hong Kong, posted a tribute to his former boss on Twitter. She gazes at his kind tweet on her smartphone and sighs, “Aaah, Olivier…”, smiling in the way a mother does when she thinks about a good son. Then she goes back to a piece of paper lying on her desk, in that office overlooking the yard that is about to be filled with horses trained by Francis Graffard and her brother Freddy.
The yard is also her home and she will stay there for the time being. It’s a good place to gather one’s thoughts and Criquette has spent 40 years there thinking about her horses’ futures. Now is the time to think about her own.