When does the horse who loses a race receive bigger cheers than the horse who won? How often is the news about a race dominated by the loser?
We’ve been shocked several times this year. American Pharoah lost the Travers, leaving racing fans numb. Totilas was sent to a vet clinic from the FEI European Dressage Championships after German team leaders decided he was not sound enough to continue.
But when French champion older racemare Trêve lost her bid for an historic third-straight win in the Qatar Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe on Sunday outside Paris, a nation wept.
France and the United States have something in common. Horse racing is not what it used to be in either country. The US had a boost this year in the form of American Pharoah, the first Triple Crown winner since 1978. It turned into a sporting event to remember.
And in France, a woman trainer brought back a mare for a third try at winning that country’s greatest race. No horse has done it before. In true French style, emotion took over. France’s honor was at stake. This was not a horse race, this was a love affair.
The women were in charge. The bond between them was palpable. And everyone was on board.
If you need a reminder of the spin that France can put on a news (or sport) story, think of how the French nation united in expressing its grief after the terrorist attack on the offices of publisher Charlie Hembo in January. They condensed emotion into three powerful words: Je suis Charlie. Those three words became a poignant viral message that the world picked up and passed along.
It was life imitating art: who else was reminded of that scene in Casablanca when the occupied French citizens rose to defiantly sing the national anthem, even as the Nazi general sat at the head table?
When horse racing seemed like it was fading from favor in Paris, fate intervened. An unknown, inexperienced brown filly that most people could never pick out of a lineup stepped forward in 2013 to defeat the Japanese star, Oefevre. The year before, the race had been won by a German filly. It seemed like the great race was dominated by invaders, until Trêve.
She came back in 2014 and did it again. If you could carry a horse on a crowd’s shoulders through the streets, they would have done it.
But it wasn’t just the mare who won their hearts, it was her trainer, as well. Criquette Head-Maarek was the first woman to train racehorses in France, and is the leading female trainer of horses in the world. Gender aside, she is simply one of the most successful trainers in history, and highly respected throughout the world...but also liked, as well.
Paris saluted Trêve with a laser show that projected her galloping image on the city's most famous architectural landmarks. An estimated 100,000 people came out late at night to watch and cheer.
The Head family is the equivalent of hands-on racing royalty, and Treve was bred, born and grew up at the family’s stud, Le Quesnay, which had been built by the US millionaire William K. Vanderbilt, according to the New York Times. The great farm was occupied by German invaders during World War II; by the late 1950’s family patriarch Alec Head returned it to racing glory as headquarters for the Head family, who challenged European racing as breeders, trainers and jockeys with amazing success.
Against all odds for a woman, Criquette Head began training in 1978; a year later, she won the Prix de l’Arx de Triomphe with Three Troikas, ridden by her brother Freddy. But in 1990, there was a brain tumor; she was given a 50-50 chance of survival. And in 2006, she fought cancer, but kept on working with her 100 horses in training even if she couldn’t go to the races for months. She credits the horses with her survival.
The French public was overjoyed when Trêve came along. It was a fairy tale story and even a trainer with a lifetime of success seemed in awe of the filly, who had failed to sell at auction and was retained by the family. As a sign of things to come, she broke a track record by two full seconds in her first major race. Trêve has won six Group One races and was purchased by Sheikh Joaan al Thani of Qatar for a reported eight million euros.
Famed horse trainer Criquette Head-Marek at work in her office. The #FollowTreve social media campaign was written in her voice, a brilliant stroke of personalization. She is beloved by fans.
Mme. Head-Maarek had health problems. And Trêve suffered from back problems. They were both unlikely champions at this point in their careers. Treve was lightly raced, but she showed up when it mattered.
When the decision was made for Trêve to try for a third Arc, France was on board. A clever social campaign by Zelios Interactive called “#FollowTrêve” capitalized on the idea of a nation united behind the mare. Television commercials touted the 2015 Arc as “epic”, and the world believed it.
When Trêve won the final conditioning race three weeks before the Arc, it was pure empowerment.
Athletes and celebrities from other sports endorsed #FollowTrêve. A song was written about her. But the biggest publicity effort was a brilliant laser projection of her galloping through Paris, seen on the city’s most famous architectural landmarks.
As you may have guessed, Trêve did not win the race on Sunday. She lost to a British colt half her age. In a scene reminiscent of Zenyatta’s heartbreaking defeat in the Breeders Cup, she was charging at the end and if the race had been only another 50 yards…
As Golden Horn’s victorious jockey, Frankie Dettori, entertained the crowds with his famous flying dismount, something else was going on at the track. All the way back to the unsaddling area, the crowd was politely applauding for Trêve. Her jockey looked up in appreciation, and applauded them in return.
As reported in The Guardian, Mme. Head went into the stands after the race. She told reporter Will Hayler: "I went to see some of the Treve fans in the stand after the race. They were crying, but I said we must be happy. I told them to come and see me at the stables. Even when Trêve is gone, there will still be horses for us to love."
Note: The owner of winner Golden Horn would like to see him run in the Breeders Cup at the end of this month at Keeneland Racecourse in Kentucky. If he runs, he will have to meet our great American champion older mare, Beholder.