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Saturday, 19 January, 2019

Emotional farewell but no winner as French racing's first lady sails off

Scott Burton watches Criquette Head-Maarek send out her final runners

Criquette Head-Maarek receives a guard of honour from the jockeys at Chantilly ahead of saddling the final runner of her career, Monsieur Enzo
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For a trainer who has probably done more interviews and met more media commitments over the course of her 40-year career than almost any other major trainer, Criquette Head-Maarek would almost certainly prefer less fanfare around her final day. 

But such is the love and esteem with which she is held in the sport that it was never likely she would be allowed to slip away quietly, even though Damanda's Dream and Monsieur Enzo will be signing off on a distinctly run-of-the mill Thursday card. 

And it soon becomes obvious that come they will – racegoers and professionals – with a stream of her colleagues called to the microphone by the on-course presentation team. 

Among these high-powered warm-up acts perhaps the most relevant is Head-Maarek's brother Freddy, a man who, had he been born in any other family, would be the gregarious media darling. 

By comparison with his sister, he is almost reserved but, as any journalist or racing fan that followed the adventures of Goldikova and Solow would attest, he certainly plays the game when required. 

"I'm delighted for Criquette she's achieved all she has in her career," says Head.

"Horses have been her passion her whole life and so she began training at a very young age. She really has dedicated her life to horses and racing."

There is to be a presentation after Damanda's Dream runs in race seven, but the entry of the runners into the parade ring heralds the first public sighting of the day's most honoured guest. 

After briefing jockey Adrien Moreau and exchanging a quick word with the presenter to thank everyone for turning out, Head-Maarek seeks the shelter of a small group of racing's leading women, chatting with fellow-trainer Corine Barande-Barbe and Derby-winning breeder Aliette Forien. 

"I'm not exaggerating, I'm more nervous today than ahead of all the Arcs," she tells them.

Head-Maarek has already stressed Damanda's Dream is up against it and so it proves, although with the main setpiece imminent, the trainer is almost the only one to care that the gameplan of covering the filly up went out the window. 

There follows a video montage of her greatest hits on the big screen, then a presentation made by France Galop president Edouard de Rothschild, assisted by local political heavyweight Eric Woerth. 

Rothschild expresses what all present feel when he describes the 69-year-old as "a fantastic ambassador for French racing and breeding. For all of that, thank you and bravo".

Presented with a fine bronze and a large bouquet of flowers, Head-Maarek tries very hard not to cry, insisting: "I don't deserve this at all."

The flowers she is determined to share with Myriam Bollack-Badel, who obtained her training licence alongside Head-Maarek in 1978, the pair of them having knocked on doors that those inside would have rather stayed shut. 

And so to the last act, one played out as so many of the big days were, with friends and media crowded around the racecourse box as she meticulously saddles Monsieur Enzo, assisted for the last time by travelling head lad Bertrand 'Capitaine' Clermont. 

There is time for a quick photo with what's left of the team, although there are plenty of former employees at 26 Avenue du General Leclerc who have made their way from all corners of France to say "Merci Madame Head".

And still the tributes go on, with jockeys forming a guard of honour before the last race, while Head-Maarek barely has time to make her way to the stands after all the interviews and embraces. 

Just as for any Sunday at Longchamp or Chantilly over the last 40 years, she peers intently through her binoculars and, in the final furlong, roars her encouragement of "Allez! Allez!"

Monsieur Enzo and Moreau find any amount of trouble and finish a very unlucky fourth, the trainer's expression quickly breaking into a smile as she realises luck has not been with her this time. 

"He'll win next time for his new trainer," she insists. 

Head-Maarek has talked much in recent days of her love of sailing and her desire to buy a boat, in which she now pledges the bronze will take pride of place.  

She has been the most extraordinary presence in European racing for four decades and the sport owes her more than she can know. 

And it is an ocean-going metaphor which rings in her ears from all the well-wishers as dusk descends.

Bon vent Criquette, and good sailing.

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I'm not exaggerating, I am more nervous today than ahead of all the Arcs
E.W. Terms
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