by Leslie Knauf
When Eblouissante returns to the racetrack for her 2014 debut in a Feb. 13 allowance race at Santa Anita Park, one wouldn't necessarily recognize a dressage background in the 5-year-old half sister of champion Zenyatta. But while retraining Thoroughbreds for competitve careers in the sport horse world is a positive trend, preparing a young Thoroughbred for racing using classical dressage principles is an equally valuable approach.
Fans who search for videos of this Bernardini filly or see her at the races may be curious to see how closely she resembles her famous half sister, who routinely demonstrated signature prancing movements of her own before each outing. While not as emphatic in her "dancing," Eblouissante accepts the bit and moves in a lovely frame that clearly demonstrates the principles quietly applied by her capable exercise rider.
British-born Jacqueline Kandalaft-Gomez imparts the basic dressage tenets of lightness, acceptance, balance, straightness, and impulsion to all of the young Thoroughbreds she exercises for trainer John Shirreffs. The regular exercise rider for 17-hand Eblouissante, along with the stakes winner Mr. Commons
and other Shirreffs runners, Kandalaft-Gomez, 39, joined the renowned trainer's barn in California nearly three years ago.
A slender woman with a winning smile and a wry sense of humor, Kandalaft-Gomez is likely to be spotted with her long, dark braids flapping in the breeze as she gallops horses for Shirreffs. But her tactful and elegant riding style gives away her classical equestrian background. Initially exposed to dressage in her native England, she finds the classical principles invaluable in educating the young racehorses she rides. Recognized as "ballet on horseback" and demonstrated at its highest levels as an Olympic equestrian sport, dressage literally translates from the French as "training."
"For me, every horse that I ride, I try to use the basis of dressage, but I don't think that's how a lot of people would approach galloping a racehorse, because they don't know (dressage principles)," Kandalaft-Gomez explained.
Growing up in the 1980s in the small town of Oundle, about 90 miles north of London, Kandalaft-Gomez began riding at 6. In her teens, she foxhunted and competed in low-level jumping, cross-country events, and dressage shows. When her grandparents bought Kandalaft-Gomez and her younger sister a pony to share, the teenager rode every day after school. By 17, she had decided to pursue a career with horses, eventually leaving college to work at a local hunting and point-to-point yard in a nearby rural village.
"That was my first taste of the racehorse," she said. "The way they trained the steeplechasers is so different. The lads that I worked with, they'd stick me on one of the racehorses and we'd go gallop in this 40-acre field. I got run off with every single day, but I loved it. I learned to break babies—they were 3 or 4 years old, not like they are here. I learned so much there."
When her sister later sent her "a wild Thoroughbred" that she had rescued, Kandalaft-Gomez conveniently kept the horse at a barn where the owner's daughter was an accomplished Grand Prix-level dressage rider.
"I started getting into dressage and having regular lessons," Kandalaft-Gomez said. "I loved the challenge because I found it so hard, trying to develop the seat, leg and hands, after I'd been galloping (steeplechasers)."
When an opportunity arose to travel to Australia, a country she'd always wanted to visit, Kandalaft-Gomez jumped at the chance. She soon found a job exercising racehorses on the flat at Royal Randwick racecourse near Sydney. Upon returning to England, Kandalaft-Gomez found another position at a point-to-point yard where she again rode steeplechasers and foxhunted.
Although she stepped outside the sport to work in the music business in balmy California over a decade ago, the lifelong rider couldn't stay away from the sport. She landed her first job galloping Thoroughbreds in the U.S. for trainer Peter Miller at San Luis Rey Downs. Kandalaft-Gomez quickly realized her experience with European methods of training—exercising horses on undulating gallops and working them equally in both directions at longer distances—contrasted dramatically with the American approach to working horses in only one direction.
"They have left-handed and right-handed race tracks (in Europe), so whatever the horse prefers is what you run them on," she explained. "I'd gallop here and think 'This horse keeps changing leads—what's wrong with it?'
"The horses were so tough from the beginning because I had been doing the dressage, then riding the steeplechasers. It's such a different kind of style to here in America with the flat horses. A lot of people, you can see if they can ride, but if you'd seen me in the beginning, it was a bit ugly."
Despite the initial challenges, Kandalaft-Gomez soon learned the American way of doing things.
"It was great working for Pete," she recalled. "We went straight to Del Mar
after about two weeks. It was a really good experience."
In addition to Miller, Kandalaft-Gomez found work as a freelance exercise rider for several trainers in Southern California including Mike Pender, and she spent a year working for trainer Tom Proctor. It was during this time that Shirreffs first saw her ride at Hollywood Park.
"It was funny, because, like everyone, I used to follow Zenyatta, so I knew who John was," Kandalaft-Gomez said. "I didn't ever imagine I'd end up working for him or riding Eblouissante."
The respected trainer recognized Kandalaft-Gomez's abilities and gave her a job in 2011.
"I see the connection she makes with the horses," Shirreffs said. "I see how she keeps the horses up under themselves, always thinking about the horse's well-being. Because the rider is like the pilot of an airplane, you want them to bring it home safely."
Working with Shirreffs and the horses in his barn has been rewarding beyond Kandalaft-Gomez's expectations.
"He gave me such confidence to ride the way I ride," she explained. "He likes you to do whatever's best for the horse, so everything has evolved from his trusting me, and me being more confident about making decisions when I'm on the horses, and riding them better."
Kandalaft-Gomez also credits her husband, former jockey-turned-exercise rider Humberto Gomez, 40, who also works for Shirreffs, for showing her some of the finer points of breezing horses in company.
"When you're working together with another (horse) as a rabbit, you need a good co-pilot," she explained.
The sight of the couple riding together in the mornings has elicited chuckles from some of the backstretch regulars. Kandalaft-Gomez's husband, who grew up riding in his native Mexico, sees a slightly different sort of humor in their respective riding backgrounds.
"She started with dressage, I started with donkeys," he said with a grin.
In 2013, the couple relocated to Belmont Park
and Saratoga Race Course
last spring when Shirreffs' operation moved from California to New York for the summer. Particularly appreciative of the friendly ambiance and the enthusiasm for horses and racing that she encountered in Saratoga, Kandalaft-Gomez found the atmosphere there reminiscent of Newmarket, the well-known horse racing center in England not far from her hometown.
"It made me laugh seeing the jumps in the middle of the infield (at Saratoga's Oklahoma training track). It was more like home," Kandalaft-Gomez said.
It was in Saratoga that Eblouissante, the horse Kandalaft-Gomez has ridden since the mare arrived at Shirreffs' barn three years ago as an unraced 2-year-old, made her third start in the Shuvee Handicap (gr. III) on July 20. Undefeated in her two prior starts in California, Eblouissante was startled by noise in the gate next to her just as the horses were about to start. Thrashing about before jockey Rosie Napravnik hopped off, the big mare was carefully backed out of the gate and checked over by the track veterinarian. She was quickly reloaded but broke awkwardly and was never a factor, finishing last.
Eblouissante came out of the race with two broken teeth and some superficial scrapes, so Shirreffs gave her some time off, gradually bringing her back into light training. Part of his regime included taking advantage of a gentle grassy slope near the barn at Oklahoma to condition Eblouissante and other horses—an approach typical for Kandalaft-Gomez in her native England, but harder to do at most racetrack grounds.
Returning to Belmont Park in late summer, another cloud loomed on the horizon when Eblouissante was included in the Keeneland November breeding stock sale. She was part of the dispersal of the bloodstock of her late owner-breeder Eric Kronfeld, who died of cancer in early 2013.
"I wasn't surprised, but I was devastated," Kandalaft-Gomez said. "It was an emotional morning watching her go off to the van. I thought I'd never see her again."
As she and Shirreffs watched the online stream of the auction from his barn office as the mare was sold for $2.1 million, Kandalaft-Gomez quickly texted a friend at the Keeneland sale to ask who the buyer was. The reply that she received stunned her.
Nearly dropping the phone, she exclaimed to Shirreffs, "Boss, Ian bought her!"
Ian Banwell, another Shirreffs client, had purchased Eblouissante for his St. George Farm racing stable. He promptly returned the mare to the Shirreffs barn—back in California for the winter by then—to resume her race training with Kandalaft-Gomez in the saddle.
"Ebby has been a part of my life for so long, knowing she was coming back was like having my child come back from her first trip with school," the rider said.
Whatever the outcome when Eblouissante returns to the races for the first time since last July, she'll step on the track with the benefit of Shirreffs' patient training coupled with the basic dressage education gained from Kandalaft-Gomez.
"I'm beyond ecstatic knowing she'll get a chance to prove herself now," the rider said.