Opinions - 2013 - 2015

Where will you be Monday?

Saratoga? Belmont Park? At a desk? On the lake?

Chris Humber will be at Les Landes, Jersey. Not New Jersey, the island of Jersey, in the Channel Islands, 19 miles off the French coast and 85 miles south of the English coast. Humber will become the first person to pull the Saturday/Monday-Saratoga/Jersey double. Humber came to Saratoga to cheer on his filly, New Providence, in the Ballston Spa Saturday evening. Sunday night, he will fly from New York, land at Gatwick Airport Monday morning, catch a plane to Guernsey, then fly his plane to Jersey for closing day of the season at Les Landes.

Humber, a member of the Channel Islands Racing and Hunt Club, will serve as steward for the Clarendon meeting. First race is at 2:30, it's called the "farewell to summer" meet, the final of nine race days at the only racetrack on Jersey, an island stretching 45 square miles and home for 99,000 residents.

The Jersey Race Club began in 1832, a two day meeting kicked it off on the sands of St Aubin. Only two world wars have interrupted the sport since. Les Landes was built in 1961, it hosts nine race days during the year. Nine doesn't seem like many, but it's eight more than its neighboring island of Guernsey.

"On Guernsey, we have one meeting a year. A year," Humber said, while enjoying the view from the Morning Line Kitchen Saturday morning. "We take over the golf course, it goes around the outside of the golf course, they put up with us for one day a year. Probably the way Saratoga started off, it's just fun, a lot of fun."

Les Landes lies on the northwest tip of Jersey. If you stand on the modern viewing bank, you can see the rolling racecourse, which hosts flat and jump racing, in front of you and the neighboring islands of Guernsey, Sark and Herm behind you. For history buffs, they can take a walk through the historic ruins of Grosnez Castle, a 14th century castle built to protect local farmers from French attacks.

"It's right on the tip, it's a fabulous space, you're looking out across the racecourse, the sea is there, you can see all the islands," Humber said. "Over the years, we've encouraged French and German trainers to come across, the prize money is good, we're talking about 3,000 to 5,000 pounds a race. It's well supported, just a great day out."

Yes, purses of 5,000 pounds are considered good in Europe, enough to entice my friend George Baker, who plunders Jersey and Guernsey from time to time. He likes to call himself a Guineas-winning trainer, which he is, the Jersey Guineas with George Baker (the horse). Baker tipped me off to Humber and that's how we met at the Morning Line Kitchen.

"George loves it, I tell him he needs to try a little harder to be champion trainer," Humber said. "We're always against the locals, the locals don't want these expensive horses coming in and taking their spoils. For me, it's about upping the game. It's a fantastic space, great little course, it's growing, it's developing."

Sounds like a road trip. 

"It's not Saratoga, but if you scale everything down to the size of the island, we're lucky to have it," Humber said.

As for Saratoga, Humber was impressed on his first visit. He watched American Pharoah gallop. He had breakfast at the Reading Room. He had toured the Oklahoma, the main track, Horse Haven in Tom Morley's golf cart. He had seen America's best.

"I had no idea this was going to be such a big deal, such a big day," Humber said. "Whatever happens, I get to see American Pharoah up close. I just can't believe the enthusiasm for the sport, to have 15,000 people watch him just gallop around..."

When Humber said it, I felt the same as when Gai Waterhouse gushed over America's enthusiasm for the horse, for the sport. As they spoke about America's best, it was hard not to think about America's worst. I almost corrected Waterhouse, Humber. I almost talked about the empty tracks around the country. Almost. Then, I let them go.

 "The prize money is so good here, throughout the carnival, most of the prize money comes from the betting...when you bet in America, the money goes back into the sport," Humber said. "That doesn't happen in Europe, it goes to the bookies. I don't know why we sold out on that. We've struggled ever since."

But, of course, they have places like Les Landes, a gem of a racetrack, nestled into a corner of an island with views of the ocean, with nine days of racing a year.

Humber asked about Saratoga, about the prospects of development, the pressure of improvement, the chances of change. On his first visit, he got it, "I suppose, the idea is to leave it as it is..."

I nodded.