François-Xavier Bertras: a taste and recollection of others

30.01.2020

François-Xavier Bertras: a taste and recollection of others

His announcement that he was to retire from the saddle took everyone by surprise. However, François-Xavier Bertras did things his way, and notably by following his own instincts. On the eve of a new professional challenge, the 40 something reminisced on his past. It was to prove a very moving experience.

On arriving at Pau racecourse on December 21st, even he hadn’t quite fully made up his mind regarding his retirement from then saddle. Although it had been at the back of his mind for a while, François-Xavier Bertras decided to call time on his career as a jockey there and then, that is to say just before the second race on the card.  He said: "I wasn’t sold on bowing out on a winning note, as, at a personal level, it wouldn’t have added to the whole experience. On the contrary, I preferred to leave on a quiet note, and with the competitive juices still flowing to the very end. However, had decided to inform François Rohaut first no matter what, and so as to share the whole experience with him. After which, I made my decision known. In the jockeys’ room, I took my time to pack my belongings and looked at Ioritz [editor's note: Mendizabal] from the other side of the room, and reasoned that he couldn’t have understood (smiling). My fellow jockeys then left to ride in the next race. I then shed a few tears of my own and without anyone seeing me, but it wasn’t sadness – just emotion." He then slowly made his way to the parking lot and added: "I then made a phone call to a very important person, Marie [His agent Marie-Bénédicte Fougy], my agent, to thank her. She was still in shock at the time I think. She said that she would call back the next day. However, the situation hadn’t changed (laughing)."

A decision which is both brutal and assumed. François-Xavier Bertras affirmed: "Nothing triggered this decision. Although I had been wishing to embrace a different way of life for a while. A jockey’s career isn’t forever and I’ve have had to come to terms with the eventual need to move on. The younger generation is emerging on the scene and one needs to pass the baton. Yes, it’s true I was still able to ride good horses and that the backing of a good stable was very much in place…However, what was I going to do? Was I to put everything on hold for further two years? It wouldn’t have made any difference to my current situation, and I would have lost time as regards taking the next step in my career. I’ve no intention on reaching the age of 55 and having to come to terms with the fact that this has been my only job." Fast forward a few weeks and François-Xavier Bertras added: "I feel on top of the world. Many people said that it would feel weird but nothing could be more untrue."

The hand of destiny. François-Xavier Bertras grew up surrounded by animals. « I have grown up in in this particular milieu ever since my childhood, and notably ponies, horses and showjumpers. I think that my destiny was to become a jockey, granted that I was the right weight and size. My sisters got involved in eventing but, personally, I coveted something which was more "speed" orientated. So that is why I chose horse racing." It was an option that enabled him to flourish, having learnt his trade the hard way: "Everybody was in the same boat at the time. I served my apprenticeship with Michel Laborde in tandem with Ioritz. Having just left home as 14-year-olds, we had to wash the stable’s cloths with our freezing hands. The older members of staff didn’t allow us to wear gloves, which was designed to toughen us up.  However, Michel Laborde was a very good taskmaster. He trusted us from an early stage. My good fortune, granted my showjumping background, was that I already knew how to ride a horse. So I could gallop, work them on grass and even school them over jumps." After spending time with Gildas Geffriaud, François-Xavier Bertras transferred his indentures to Jean-Luc Pelletan, and just after the latter took out his licence. He was to become the top apprentice in the South-West and added: "I had just left ’AFASEC’ [Association de Formation d’Action Sociale des Écuries de Course] and joined the trainer as a young jockey. He gave me lots of rides and I must have ridden around 30 winners for him at the smaller tracks. It’s at that time that I came to the attention of François Rohaut, having ridden for him on an occasional basis. That was to prove the conduit for me joining this yard. Although it was at a time when there weren’t many young jockeys on the scene. I rode winners for Jean-Claude Rouget, Henri-Alex Pantall and Jean-François Bernard, and at a time when the latter had Gr1 PA class horses in his stable. It’s thanks to Jean-Luc that I was able to make the breakthrough in my riding career, which entailed me teaming up with horses such as Hurricane Fly (Montjeu) on whom I won the Prix Omnium II (L). We’re all familiar with his prowess as a jumping champion on the Anglo-Irish scene." He was to become a legend in his own right after clocking up a record 22 Gr1 wins over jumps.

A loyalty beyond reproach to François Rohaut. Once his career was launched by Jean-Luc Pelletan, François-Xavier Bertras was to prove an unstoppable force, and he was to never to leave once he had hooked up with the François Rohaut stable. It was to be loyalty in its most perfect form during a career pathway underscored by the aforementioned quality. He added: "We didn’t need to talk much in order to understand each other. The trainer reflected that we had become like an ‘old couple’ once I announced my decision to retire, and that meant a great deal to me. Neither of us was pre-disposed to cheating. You don’t have the right to lose a race as the consequences for the owner are huge. If I had ‘stuffed up’ during a race, and François wasn’t aware of this, I knew it. You need to put your ego to one side. Furthermore, I didn’t always ride the horses when they were sent to Paris. However, I was happy as they would be entrusted to me again when they returned to the South-West. As long as the stable was firing, there were reasons to be happy. Our relationship was never affected. It gave me more time for myself. I’ve always prized my family life-work balance (laughing). I never wanted to reach the stage where I felt ‘suffocated’ by my career as a jockey."

Team Spirit. His preference was for a stable that was in-form rather than the lure of glory and glamour of Paris, and it was very much in keeping with a conscientious team player. At a time when his achievements are dissected, François-Xavier Bertras doesn’t necessarily dwell on his winning rides. His take is:  "When I look back at my career, it’s the human dimension which interests me. Of course, when I was racing, the first thing that came into my head was the need to win. If you don’t have that willpower you can’t do this job, but beating my own personal milestones was never an obsession. All I wanted to do was to win for the stable and the people for whom I worked. Furthermore, being attached to a stable meant not having to team up with people that you didn’t want to work for. After announcing my retirement, I took all the team members of the stable aside individually, and told them that we had been on a wonderful journey together. It was very important as it was this which spurred me on, and notably the good times spent alongside all these people." As it turned out, François-Xavier Bertras also encountered the fraternal spirit within the jockeys’ room and stressed: "The ambiance at my work place has been great and I’ve been lucky in that sense. The competition among his particular group of regional jockeys [Ioritz Mendizabal, Charles Nora, David Morisson, Philippe Sogorb…] was fierce, but they had no hang ups as regards beating the drum for their weighing room colleagues in the event that they weren’t able to take a ride. I don’t wish to be critical of the agents as we can’t do without them nowadays, but there was a certain bond between us. This mentality enabled us to exercise an individualistic sport within a spirit of fraternity. When a colleague found himself in a spot of danger, we followed our own set of rules and would angle out slightly so as to ensure that the mount of the jockey in tight quarters didn’t clip the heels of the horse in front of him. We had a fierce will to win but never sought to compromise the safety of our colleagues. At the end of each meeting, we were able to look each other in the eye. We knew that we had given all to the cause and also drank together. This spirit remains intact despite the fact that Charles (Nora) has quit race-riding, as we bump into each other every morning. I have a coffee at ‘la Chapelle’ bar at the Pau training centre in company with Jean Biraben and Michel Cordero…We keep in touch."

Talent and luck in equal measure. His was the good fortune to have exercised his profession at a certain time, in addition to meeting the right people. Is this really that important? "Of course you need luck, even if you have to graft in order to succeed. Talent alone isn’t enough. You need to be in the right place at the right time. My stroke of good fortune was to be able to join the stable of François Rohaut. You obviously need to be right fit for the job, but many other riders could have been in my place. There is an affinity between François and myself." One inevitably harps back to this particular union, which was to have a profound effect on the life of jockey François-Xavier Bertras. "I was told that I wouldn’t last six months in the job. No jockey had ever lasted long. I would like to tell them that I’ve only been in the job for 23 years! (laughing)" One horse in particular, Coach (Bering), is symbolic of this particular symbiosis; the jockey won his first Listed race on him, in addition to losing his allowance on him. "I found myself riding some talented horses and that made life a whole lot easier. It all revolves around the horse. You merely try to ensure that they don’t lose their race. It’s perhaps pejorative but it’s true. Many favourites fight out the finish unless they meet a considerable setback. We are there to ensure that the horses perform consistently as possible."

Lahib and the Rohaut methodology. The position with François Rohaut also enabled him to observe something else. "During the course of time, I’ve been able to witness how quickly the breed has evolved. Nowadays, they are getting faster and faster, which provides for an adrenaline rush. The PA breed is at a place where it deserves to be thanks to the passionate support of the Arab countries. They have both invested and created a market which was good for everyone. The passionate support for the PA breed has enabled many people to find their niche, and it has also given renewed impetus to the racing industry. Even allowing for the fact that there are those which are invariably obstinate, the sector is evolving." Among the PA breed, one horse, a certain Lahib (Kairouan de Jos), enabled him to experience an unforgettable moment in a historic edition of the Qatar Arabian World Cup (Gr1 PA) on the Arc [de Triomphe card] at Longchamp. "This horse is a typical example of the methodology employed by François Rohaut.  This horse wasn’t even the best that year but François reasoned that it was best to allow the competition to face off against each other during the course of the season. We took a roundabout route so as to ensure that Lahib was tip-top on the big day. It was the most prestigious prize in the world for the PA breed at the time, and the starting point for the other big events which were to follow. The horse had been lightly campaigned and won in first time blinkers. It was a race which François had been aiming at for a long time. During the course of my journeyman’s career, I had yet to win a Gr1 prize and, getting the better of my friends, "JB" [Jean-Bernard Eyquem], Charles [Nora] and Thierry [Jarnet], after a titanic struggle, was something else. On passing the wire, nobody knew who had won. Although we were subsequently announced as the winners by a nose.…"

An exceptional track record. If one is to set the record straight, "FX", as he is also referred

to by his fellow jockeys during racing, had in fact won his first Gr1 prize for ‘purebred’ Arabians aboard Mizzna (Akbar) two years earlier at Newbury. However, Lahib also enabled him to savour another great moment after the rider’s magical treble, also at Longchamp, in the Gr1 prizes for the breed. Rewinding back to September 7th 2007, he was to prove successful in the Qatar French Arabian Breeders’ Cup for three-year-old colts on Lahib, before adding the Qatar Arabian Breeders’ Cup Femelles de 3ans on Gabra (Dormane), in addition to landing the Qatar Total - French Arabian Breeders’ Cup Mile on Al Jakbar (Al Sakbe). The following year (2008) was to prove his consecration following victory in the Qatar Arabian World Cup. The modus operandi of François Rohaut was again to the fore in 2019, when Raahah (Asraa Min Albarq) proved tops in the Qatar Arabian Trophy des Juments (Gr1 PA). "The filly was still a maiden. Although she was firing on all cylinders for the ‘Arc’ Festival race. I still ask myself how François does it. Having worked with him for 23 years, I still haven’t understood (laughing). You need to take a step by step approach with horses, and allow them to develop in their own time. When D-Day arrives, you know that heisn’t going to miss the target. He has this special instinct for a horse which very few have, and that’s why I will never become a trainer (laughing)." Being associated with a PA horse, a more compact quadruped, and one with a shorter neck, gives rise to a more immediate question of a technical nature. "They are completely different riding propositions. At the extreme end of the spectrum, they’re very hard rides as their intelligence is above average. You need to imbue them with a sense of purpose and by adapting yourself to their ways. Their physiques are less imposing and that invariably affects your position in the saddle. Everything is that much tougher with them both from a mental aspect, as you need to understand them, and physically. Experience is a definite asset. After which, we can draw the same conclusion: when the best PA horse is in a class of his own, they invariably win."

The Meydan consecration. After hitting the heights on PA horses, François-Xavier Bertras

also experienced another ‘high’ at the very top level in Dubai thanks to The Right Man (Lope de Vega). For in 2017, he savoured victory on the Didier Guillemin flyer in the Al Quoz Sprint (Gr1) in front of a global audience, and namely on the Dubai World Cup card. It was a victory which he shared with a group of friends, and which remains etched in the memory. The horse was purchased for €32,000 as a yearling by Thierry Delègue. Indeed, the latter’s partner, Géraldine Richshoffer, formed the owners’ partnership in tandem with other friends: Azzedine Sedrati, Zied Ben M’Rad, Samira Turki and Guillaume de Saint-Seine. François-Xavier Bertras began his association with the speedster on his fifth career start. "They realised that the horse had a ‘chip’ in his knee. After the operation, I rode him on his comeback race at Toulouse in a small field and on a heavy track. We were tailed off last.

Afterwards, I told Didier that it was like riding a horse made of glass. I rode him again at Mont-de-Marsan and, despite still being a little ring rusty, he won. From that moment on, and on the back of each victory, I said to myself: ‘ Wow, he has again gone up a level.’ The horse even evolved in terms of his gait. He managed to win practically all his races until his victory in the Prix de Seine-et-Oise (Gr3). We then took the risk of going to Dubai and it was a complete stab in the dark. He was third in his prep race. We were unsure as to whether he would be invited to run in the big sprint. Furthermore, we had never tackled such exalted international company, and were completely in the dark as to the final outcome. Eventually, we found out that the horse had ‘qualified’ and, on the big day itself, it proved to be a sheer adrenaline ‘rush’. I can still picture myself reaching the wire. These are moments which are very personal. Those seconds when you reach the winning post and pull up are magical! Particularly so for a jockey like myself! After which it’s very much a shared experience. I have an image which is forever etched in my mind: namely that of Thierry Delègue who ran towards me, his arms aloft as he waited for me on the track in an emotional state. I’ve also raised my arms in triumph and remember the horse looking at him. Seeing the owners celebrate in such a manner considerably adds to the emotion of it all. Ditto Didier and Géraldine who took my hand. We were both in tears. These are the good things about the job and that is what will remain with me. The horse is the link as regards stirring powerful emotions. Beyond the realms of victory, and even with the passing of the years, the memory lingers. We reminisce about it each time with Guillaume de Saint-Seine, and everyone else… They can’t take it away from us."

The handover. As a new profession awaits, François-Xavier Bertras has only one request, and he said: "I only wish for one thing and that is for someone to fill my role, and that all goes well. A smooth transition would make me very proud. I would also like to occasionally ride François’ horses during morning work. I’m keen for the stable to go on and that someone else is able to experience what I did." However, the spirit of human adventure quickly takes over and "FX" can’t stop himself from recalling his friends, and the owners which meant a lot to him. "I recall a partnership headed by Michel Cordero - for whom I won my first Quinté race; and Gilles Lorenzi; one of my last winners was aboard Saint Nom (Turtle Bowl) for them Michael Cordero and associates at Pau on December 8th. " Symbolically, it was also for ‘them’ that he notched his first Gr3 win on Baldwina (Pistolet Bleu) on a very heavy track at Saint-Cloud: "It was a great journey from a human standpoint. I’m quietly getting on with sorting myself out, and the idea is for me to join the above owners’ partnership as regards having a horse in training with François Rohaut (laughing). It would give me so much pleasure. It’s on the cards and I’m looking forward to it. That way the circle would be complete. It’s not a journey into the unknown. I’ve always being afraid of what will happen tomorrow and have planned for the next stage ever since the beginning of my career." There are no regrets. A new life beckons.