Chantilly-based trainer Corine Barande-Barbe and Cirrus des Aigles.

Cirrus des Aigles

The people’s horse

Author: Alex Cairns Photo: Frank Sorge

What makes a champion? Number of victories? An unbeaten record? Longevity? Versatility? Popularity? This is one of racing’s eternal debates. Yet certain horses receive unanimous approval. Cirrus des Aigles is one of them.

Cirrus des Aigles with Christophe Soumillon, Longchamp racecourse 2014.
Cirrus des Aigles with Christophe Soumillon,
Longchamp racecourse 2014.
Having been in training across no fewer than 8 seasons, visiting 6 countries, racking up 67 races, 22 wins, 26 places, 7 G1s, and more than €7.5m in prize money, his fame stretches far and wide. But in the case of ‘Cirrus’, as he is known to race fans across the globe, no mere facts and figures can sum up his superstar status. Indeed, a host of unconventional factors have been at play in making him ‘the people’s horse’.

HUMBLE ORIGINS

In reviewing the record of an illustrious racehorse, one’s immediate tendency is to turn to pedigree, in anticipation of a delectable heritage inhabited by great names of the racing game. For Cirrus, no such distinguished bloodline is in evidence. His sire Even Top was a good racehorse, but very limited sire. Amazingly, Cirrus des Aigles is one of only 2 flat winners he ever sired. The other tasted success on only one occasion, in a lowly handicap at Galway Racecourse, Ireland, in 2006.

On the damside, Taille de Guèpe, who was given away to her breeder having failed to make the track, has produced 7 foals, of which Cirrus was the 4th. Only one other has demonstrated racing merit to date and, at age 18, we can assume Taille de Guèpe’s breeding days are gone.

“Cirrus appearing at last September’s inaugural ‘Rehoming of Racehorses Day’ at Deauville with a Western saddle, rope bridle, and Christoaphe’s 10-year-old daughter Charlie doing the steering”

Christoaphe’s 10-year-old daughter Charlie.
Christoaphe’s 10-year-old daughter Charlie.

Yet the mysterious genetic alchemy of thoroughbred breeding dictated that this pairing would produce a horse who will be given a prominent place in the history of the sport due to his possession of three of the ideals of the thoroughbred breed: sustained high-level performance, soundness, and racing desire.

When Cirrus des Aigles was born on 8th May 2006, he had no notion that his blood was considered ‘inferior’. And when he was gelded on 13th March 2008, having proven a challenge on entering training with Chantilly-based trainer Corine Barande-Barbe, his connections had no notion that this spirited 2yo was destined for greatness.

Cirrus Des Aigles with Olivier Peslier up wins the Dubai Sheema Classic.
Cirrus Des Aigles with Olivier Peslier up wins the Dubai Sheema Classic.

Of course, without such a gelding operation there may never have been any racing career at all, but one can imagine connections still pondering ‘what might have been’ had he avoided the snip, especially as gelding prevented Cirrus from running in the Arc.

As it was, the young horse’s vigour had been channeled and he now embarked on a racing journey the like of which has rarely been seen, in the hands of a trainer whose success can be considered as unlikely as that of her celebrated charge.

THE PERFECT TEAM

With no racing pedigree in her family, Barande-Barbe discovered a passion for horses when joining a riding club in Paris during her teenage years. In 1980, she married bloodstock agent Patrick Barbe and the pair set up an owner-breeder operation, well aware that they were mere minnows in the global pond of thoroughbred breeding.

“As she has previously pointed out, her small yard deals in fairytales, not business deals”

Whether through luck or good judgement (a combination of both is required for success in most racing domains, it seems to me), the fledgling operation got off to a successful start, allowing Corine to take out a full training licence in 1991. A few years later, she received Carling from a small breeder and trained this daughter of another cast-off mare to 6 victories, including the 1995 Prix de Diane.

From here, Barande-Barbe established herself as a fixture of the French racing scene, despite a lack of significant owner investment. As she has previously pointed out, her small yard deals in fairytales, not business deals.

Sha Tin racecourse Hong Kong, morning trackwork.
Sha Tin racecourse Hong Kong, morning trackwork.

When in 2008 the already imposing Cirrus des Aigles entered the stable that would be his home for the next 8 years, one wonders if his trainer had any inclination of what was to follow. In any case, it happened.

After a debut 4th at Chantilly on 7th October 2008, Cirrus was not out of the first 3 in his next 19 starts, recording his 1st win in a Cagnes-sur-mer Conditions Race and quickly rising through the ranks to register successes at Listed, G3, and G2 level. This incredible run of form was only broken when a close 5th to fellow Frenchie Daryakana on his first attempt at G1 level in the 2009 Hong Kong Vase.

In the years that followed, Cirrus crisscrossed the globe, taking in Dubai, Hong Kong, Ireland, and the UK, at all times accompanied by the ever-amiable Barande-Barbe and his dedicated lass Zoé Garoulaud.

Wherever they went, the trio seduced with the tangible joy they took from proceedings, with Barande-Barbe always ready to talk to the media, pose for photos, and greet fans, whether Cirrus had carried the team to victory or not.

No doubt assisted by such devoted attention, Cirrus performed consistently well in some of the globe’s great races, breaking records, and outgunning equine aristocrats. In the process, he amassed a small fortune and still holds the title of Europe’s highest-earning horse, ahead of Highland Reel and Trêve.

Having been so prolific, I must resist the temptation to run through his incredible race record in detail, but the accompanying ‘3 Greatest Performances’ panel should help readers recall some of his most significant outings.

ACCESSIBLE SUCCESS

Throughout the majority of Cirrus’s career, fans have been kept up to date and given unprecedented access to his training via a Facebook page set up by Barande-Barbe and Marc Doumid, a communications professional with a passion for racing.

Communicating openly and joyfully, in contrast to many in the racing profession, Barande-Barbe and Doumid permitted Cirrus’s steadily growing band of followers to share in the highs of victory, the lows of defeat or injury, and the everyday activities of a racing stable, to which most racing followers do not enjoy access.

Though many in racing have now embraced the full gamut of social media platforms, no other bonafide champion’s connections have ever chosen to or succeeded in communicating such genuine passion and emotion. Indeed, Cirrus’s old rival Trêve was the subject of a similar yet more clinical digital marketing campaign, which failed to capture the public imagination to the same degree, despite the immense talent of this magnificent mare and the generosity of her trainer Criquette Head-Maarek.

As an example of the power of social media as a communicative tool and the great esteem in which Barande-Barbe holds Cirrus’s fans, it was via Facebook that on 28th March 2016 the announcement was made that Cirrus des Aigles had been retired from racing. Mercifully for the horse’s devoted entourage and legion of followers, nothing catastrophic had occurred, but calcification of a ligament suggested that the teak-tough 10yo might be vulnerable to serious injury if asked to give his all again.

In the world of elite racing, some horses, generally entire colts, will be retired at age 3 with their trainers declaring that the horse ‘has nothing more to prove’. One can often interpret this as a bit of marketing-speak, destined to at once vaunt their charge as ‘the full package’ and to fend off accusations of conservatism or even cowardice. For the 10yo Cirrus, there was hardly a dance he had not danced, skipping from one continent to another and always giving his all in the most selective of contests.

So a certified ‘legend’ was hanging up his irons, but, with such a notable public profile and such an adoring handler, it was unlikely Cirrus would be allowed to fade away in an anonymous paddock or disappear into the sometimes-murky world of retired thoroughbreds.

The question remained as to how best to ensure a happy future for this still vivacious equine celebrity…

3 GREATEST PERFORMANCES

1. Prix Ganay 2014, Longchamp, France

By 2014, Cirrus was far from an underdog, but when faced with the exceptional talent of 2013 Arc winner Trêve, punters seemed to have decided that he would play but a supporting role in the G1 Prix Ganay. Indeed, the unbeaten 4yo Trêve was sent off odds-on under Frankie Dettori, but despite taking a marginal lead over Cirrus as the pair tussled up the Longchamp straight, Barande-Barbe’s tenacious gelding would not be denied and rallied in the final 100m to score a memorable win under regular pilot Christophe Soumillon. I was lucky enough to be present for this epic clash and the stretch run will live long in the memory. Returning to the race in 2015, Cirrus once again defied the doubters to land a 3rd Ganay and thus holds the record for number of victories in this famous early-season contest.

2. Champion Stakes 2012, Ascot, UK

How different the profiles of 2 champions can be. Frankel: immaculately bred, unbeaten, conservatively campaigned, (almost) never off the bridle, cosseted in certain eyes. Cirrus: far from a blueblood, 44 races under his belt, globetrotter, fierce competitor, known to dig deep. This was to be Frankel’s swansong, so no doubt a hint of concern entered the sadly departed Henry Cecil’s thinking when he noticed the French colossus among the entries. In the end, Frankel was not undone, but Cirrus did prove a worthy adversary to ‘the best horse ever’, travelling with his usual zest, sticking to the task in the final 200, and requiring Frankel to at least go through the gears. Cirrus may not have won, but his band of admirers was swollen with a significant English contingent that day at Ascot.

3. Dubai Sheema Classic 2012, Meydan, Dubai

Barande-Barbe was never afraid to travel her cherished charge, despite his great value to her both emotionally and as a money-earner for her small yard. Indeed, thanks to her attentive care and can-do approach, for 7 seasons the pair reaped due dividends in terms of finance and fame across the globe. The biggest payday came in the G1 Dubai Sheema Classic at Meydan in 2012. In the hands of Olivier Peslier, Cirrus was always to the fore, taking the lead on the home turn, and keeping on as others cried enough to beat the top-class St Nicholas Abbey a quarter-length. If you watch the video back, you will see Cirrus in fact finished with ears pricked and plenty of gas in the tank. Meanwhile, connections walked away with broad smiles and $2.5m in the bank. Positivity pays.

BEYOND THE TRACK

As you may have garnered above, Corine Barande-Barbe cares deeply for her horses. Not as vehicles to her own glory and financial gain, but as living beings and friends. Without big-money owners in her yard, the majority of her horses are in her own possession. Unlike Cirrus, most are not miracles. Just relatively humble thoroughbreds, with their qualities and flaws. Some of them prove limited as racehorses, others never make it to the track, but all are well cared for and provided with the best post-racing life possible.

Sadly, this is still not the case for all thoroughbreds and, until recently, there was no body dedicated to retraining and rehoming retired racehorses in France.

Thankfully, under the impetus of prominent French racing figures and with the support of such powerful entities as Godolphin and France Galop, the charity ‘Au-delà des pistes’ (‘Beyond the track’) was founded in 2016. In a short time, this worthy venture has made a significant impact in promoting the thoroughbred as a versatile breed, as well as assisting in the retraining and rehoming of individuals.

“For the 10yo Cirrus, there was hardly a dance he had not danced, skipping from one continent to another and always giving his all in the most selective of contests”

Unlike many thoroughbreds, it was never likely that Cirrus would be neglected in retirement and indeed his adoring rider Christophe Soumillon requested to that he might be homed for life at his property on the Normandy coast, where Christophe’s father will oversee his retraining as a riding horse following the principles of ‘natural horsemanship’.

It seems Soumillon Senior’s efforts have quickly borne fruit, with Cirrus appearing at last September’s inaugural ‘Rehoming of Racehorses Day’ at Deauville with a Western saddle, rope bridle, and Christophe’s 10-year-old daughter Charlie doing the steering.

Thanks to the ‘Au-delà des pistes’ programme and the cooperation of Corine Barande-Barbe and the Soumillon family, Cirrus remains in touch with his followers not only online but in the flesh.

As the years pass, it will bring pleasure to so many to witness this racing phenomenon mellow into his senior years, strolling the paddocks where he once limbered up before unleashing his inimitable racing prowess, and receiving the undimmed adulation of his people.

This story was published in Gallop Magazine, Autumn/fall 2017

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