French Contenders Recall Last Summer's Lucky Escape
23 February 2023
23 February 2023 – In July last year, 480 horses trained at the La Teste-de-Buch Racecourse in the south-west of France had to be evacuated at the last minute after a change of wind brought raging wildfires within metres of the tracks.
The Christophe Ferland-trained Big Call (USA), a starter in the Longines Red Sea Turf Handicap and the Elisabeth Bernard-trained Sultana (FR), who is going to try her luck in Friday’s Al Mneefah Cup presented by the Ministry of Culture, were both among the horses that had to leave their home in a hurry and find shelter elsewhere.
Luckily, as always in times of difficulties, the racing community came together and transporters arrived from the neighbouring training centres, while trainers based at Pau, which is a drive of about two and a half hours, opened their yards to accommodate the horses.
"It was a nightmare," recalls Elisabeth Bernard, who trains 75 Purebred Arabians. "We had been told by the firefighters in the morning that the fire wouldn’t reach us and then suddenly, in the afternoon, the wind changed and there it was. It was like an apocalypse. The villagers had already been evacuated, but you can imagine it is not that easy to get horses evacuated. However, the smoke was toxic and we had to move quickly."
Evacuating 480 horses in a rush was no easy task and after the transport companies had filled their horse boxes, there were still plenty of horses left at the La Teste-de-Buch Racecourse.
"We started calling our friends and Xavier [Thomas-Demeaulte] sent me his horsebox," Bernard continues. "And Didier Guillemin sent me his as well. But then we still had to find a yard for them, as I didn’t want to split my horses.
"Also, there was a lot of panic amongst the staff and I thought if I don’t keep my eyes on everything it won’t work. There was only one place I could go and that was Pau, which has the infrastructure to accommodate 20 staff and 75 horses."
It was an anxious 24 hours for the trainers based at the famous racecourse situated on the west coast of France, but Bernard concludes: "In the end, the people were more panicked than the horses, who took it all remarkably well. No horses were injured, but it was quite an operation.
"I think Christophe [Ferland] had to put some of his horses up at a stud, some went to the Bordeaux Racecourse and some to Deauville. Logistically it was a challenge, but the racing world was great, because they all helped out and all ended well."
Happily, the flames did not quite reach the racecourse and it remains operational, with Big Call and Sultana proving that the training centre is still very capable of producing top-class runners.