Roaring With Life on Behalf of a Tragic Mare

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Vandebos with Vionnet in November 2017

By Chris McGrath

Sometimes even the heart of a lion is not enough. “She fought so hard, all those months, to keep her foal alive,” said Jan Vandebos Naify, reflecting on the loss earlier this year of her mare Vionnet (Street Sense). “And we were almost home free, only about a week away.”

It had started, last summer, with just a little abscess. But then the bone became infected, one thing led to another, the bloodflow began to suffer. Soon they were dealing with a full-blown case of laminitis.

Nor was this just any mare. Her first foal, Roaring Lion (Kitten’s Joy), was emerging as one of the best juveniles in Europe. Moreover her cherished dam Cambiocorsa (Avenue Of Flags) was really the fount of the whole racing and breeding adventure Vandebos had embraced, initially as an outsider to the whole world of horses, with her husband Bob Naify: RanJan Racing, his initials welded with her name. And, to put everything else in perspective, Vandebos had in the meantime lost Naify himself, around the time Vionnet’s first foal was being prepared for the Keeneland September Yearling Sale. One way or another, then, this stricken animal entwined several tender strands of emotional legacy.

All that said, to Vandebos the very idea that Vionnet was “not just any mare” is meaningless. Vandebos fervently believes that “any mare”, and every Thoroughbred, is owed exactly the same debt by those who make it their business to try and profit from their existence. Matching words with deeds, she has no fewer than 17 veterans of her own stable keeping her busy in their retirement at Springtime Farm in California. But we will come back to that. For now, suffice to say that Vandebos could not have felt a more anguished investment as Vionnet fought not just for her own life, but for that of the More Than Ready foal she was carrying.

“We had all the best vets, all the best help possible,” Vandebos recalled. “We tried everything. Stem cell. Tenotomy. I wasn’t thrilled about that, to be honest, but I was happy to try anything. Everyone was conferring, everyone was doing their best. And we were so close.

“We sent her to the clinic for the foaling, to be safe, in case she needed any special IV medications and so on. But then, as so many do when outside their farm, she unfortunately had a bad accident. Though she had been ill for so long, to lose her like that was very unexpected. So obviously it was devastating.”

Grief, however, was immediately parlayed into a fresh trauma as the vets desperately tried to salvage Vionnet’s foal. Vandebos had felt certain that she was carrying a filly, and so it proved.

“But an emergency C-section is not the same as a premature delivery,” she explained. “The foal was perfect in every way except for her lungs, which were too weak to cope. It was all so tragic.”

The fighting spirit Vionnet showed in her final crisis was no less than Vandebos had come to expect. And, seeing the subsequent achievements of her son, you could almost imagine that she had made him some bequest of surplus vitality. Roaring Lion made a rather disappointing reappearance, a few weeks after Vionnet’s death on February 1, but he has got better and better with every run since: last horse off the bridle when third in the Derby, he dropped back to 10f to register his first Group 1 success in the Coral Eclipse S. at Sandown 12 days ago. Having earlier produced a brilliant performance over that trip at York, in the G2 Dante S., he will return to the same track for the G1 Juddmonte International S. next month. Vandebos is excitedly looking forward to making the trip herself.

“You see what a big heart Lion has,” she said. “And his dam was always that way too, she was unbelievable. When she was racing, she spent a lot of time here on the farm–just for rest, lay-up and so on. So it was a very proud moment for me, when she went back to Richard Mandella after six months here and was able to get her Grade 1 placing in the Rodeo Drive.”

Vandebos resolved on a break from the track after losing her husband, but Roaring Lion is reawakening a particular affinity with the European Turf. She stresses her admiration for those who bought the colt at Keeneland-namely David Redvers, and his patron Sheikh Fahad at Qatar Racing–and for John Gosden, as a trainer.

“I do love European racing, and wish they could all train on those kind of gallops all the time,” she reflected. “Bob and I were lucky enough to visit Coolmore a few years ago, and I just fell in love with them all: Sadler’s Wells and [his sons] Galileo (Ire) and Montjeu (Ire). We went on to the Irish Derby, and I learned a lot about European bloodstock, and the differences between there and here. To me, it seems a kinder, gentler sport in Europe: there’s so much less breezing, the horse is allowed to come to itself. If ever I were to race again, I imagine it would be in Europe. I really think it’s a very humane way of training and racing horses, and just a little more sophisticated. That’s my take on it anyway.”

At the same time, Roaring Lion has actually shown up some deficiencies in the European industry: a narrowness of perspective, perhaps, a complacency. For one of the best colts of his generation in Europe to have been picked up for $160,000 as a Keeneland yearling surely invites the kind of renewed traffic, between transatlantic gene pools, that to some of us seems desperately overdue. As such, Vandebos and her late husband performed what could yet prove a vital service, for the international Thoroughbred, in their choice of mate for Vionnet.

“Not too many people were that high on Kitten’s Joy at the time,” Vandebos recalled. “But I think we were still having to manoeuvre a fair bit to get to him. She was a maiden mare and had an okay record on the track, not a great one. But I was so set on the sire, and my husband was always so supportive when I was picking out matings. He said: ‘You always have these intuitions, let’s put in another call.’ I’m pretty sure they’d turned the mare down, at that point, but I’d say they’re happy they took her now!”

Vandebos has been similarly astute, you suspect, in picking out another Kentucky stallion with strong European eligibility, in Quality Road (Elusive Quality), for two of Vionnet’s half-sisters. Nor is that the only connection she is forging with Lane’s End. Roaring Lion himself is among the RanJan stock previously to have been through the hands of Taylor Made. But while Vandebos stresses that she still absolutely shares the industry’s esteem for that operation, the mares are nowadays at Lane’s End.

“It’s just that we’re writing a new chapter now, and looking for more of a European presence,” she explained. “And I must say that everyone at Lane’s End-Will Farish and Mike Cline and David Ingordo–they’ve all been fabulous.”

Cambiocorsa herself, meanwhile, is still going strong at 16, and Vandebos is excited to report that she is back in foal to Street Sense. Needless to say, the hope is that she can produce a sister to Vionnet.

It was Cambiocorsa who had really got RanJan started–albeit the reverse was also true, as the mare only embarked on a winning spree (mostly down the turf chute at Santa Anita, including a couple at Graded level) after Vandebos and Naify took a stake in her.

“We wanted to find a good broodmare off the track, and had followed Cambiocorsa for a while,” Vandebos recalled. “She wasn’t perfectly bred, but had a lot of heart, and when we bought into her she won seven or eight in a row. Her ankles weren’t great at that point, she’d done plenty of racing, so we bought out our partners and retired her.”

Her first four foals were all fillies, and all black-type operators: Schiaparelli (Ghostzapper) and Moulin de Mougin (Curlin) both won Grade 2 races, Vionnet got her Grade 1 podium, and Alexis Tangier (Tiznow) is a stakes winner; likewise a subsequent colt by Medaglia d’Oro.

“Cambiocorsa is a very special mare,” Vandebos said. “A little bit hot maybe. Schiaparelli was too and, like Alexis Tangier, liked to run in front. But Vionnet was always very mellow, you could rate her; and Moulin de Mougin the same. They were more versatile.”

Cambiocorsa has colts coming through by Medaglia d’Oro (foal) and Uncle Mo (yearling). Plenty of sire power going on here, and the same–unsurprisingly, after her acquisition for $2.2 million dollars at the Keeneland January Sale in 2015–is true regarding the suitors of Up (Ire) (Galileo {Ire}), a Group 2 winner and Classic runner-up during her days at Ballydoyle.

“She has a wonderful American Pharoah colt going to the September Sale,” Vandebos said. “He’s very racy, with a beautiful conformation. We used to ask for fillies, and we got fillies; but now that we’re selling commercially, we need colts–and luckily that’s what we’ve been getting. I haven’t told David Redvers or Sheikh Fahad yet, but as and when Roaring Lion goes to stud I have decided to send Up over to him. She has such a beautiful page, and it would work conformation-wise, too: she’s not an especially large mare, so he’ll add some bone and size. The American Pharoah has quite a bit of bone, so I hope we’re on track with her.”

If this kind of investment does not pay off, however, the resulting stock does not get one minute’s less attention. Cambiocorsa’s first colt, by Arch, is now flourishing as a hunter/jumper in Virginia. Next came a sister to Schiaperelli, but she had issues as a yearling and was bred at three. If a RanJan horse is demonstrably lacking stakes potential, then an early decision is made to find another road: either breeding, where the family warrants it, or re-training.

“Of the 17 horses here, most of them have not been the runners they’ve been bred to be,” Vandebos explained. “They’re by A.P. Indy, Giant’s Causeway, Forestry, all the sires we could afford. But something has precluded them from becoming good racehorses. Maybe breathing problems, maybe injury. But whatever it might be, bringing them back to health almost makes me as proud as Roaring Lion. They all have great personalities, they all make me so happy.”

While she accepts that your own retirement home requires time and resources beyond most, Vandebos insists that nobody–at any level of the business–is ever absolved of the obligations of aftercare. One practical proposal is that a $5,000 stipend should be committed towards a horse’s eventual rehabilitation as a condition of being accepted into a trainer’s barn.

“I think that could work, if we could get the trainers together,” she said. “Because then, when a horse eventually needs a year to get sound or to re-train, and a local organisation intercedes to get them adopted, the funds are already in place for that to happen.”

Besides those retraining on her own ranch, Vandebos has given a couple of dozen horses a fresh start through New Vocations in Lexington. “Once we have got them sound here, I send them over with a nice stipend,” she explained. “And so far every single one of them has found a fabulous home. I get videos and messages about them nearly every day and it gives me so much pleasure to see. I am so impressed with their program.

“I think we need to show that whether you breed or race or train or ride a horse, you are responsible for that horse when you’re done. It’s very simple. Unless you can take that responsibility, you shouldn’t be breeding or racing Thoroughbreds.”

Though Vandebos knew little about horses until she met her late husband, the rapport she discovered has changed her life. Moreover she suspects that a due affinity between horses and their earliest handlers will play out, all other things being equal, in their fulfilment on the track.

“What I love about raising horses is sending time in the pasture with them,” she said. “That’s when you get to know a foal, that’s how you bond. Frank Taylor [of Taylor Made] would always joke that every time I pulled up the car, after two or three months away, every single one of the mares and foals would run to the fence.

“I believe that to be so important, that personal touch. I think it helps to make the special horse. There’s some kind of unusual intelligence they have. These 17 wonderful horses here helped me through some tough times after Bob passed away. To ride four or five of them every day, it’s so fulfilling.

“There’s something very innocent about horses, something unconditional in their love. I didn’t start riding until I was 45. I wasn’t raised with horses, really knew nothing about them until I met Bob. Now I can’t imagine a life without them. Bob used to tell me it’s a game of disappointment. But it’s a very rich life, and I feel so blessed to be in their company. And I can’t wait to see what the future brings.”

 

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