Head of the field: Christiane's winning tradition

Story highlights

  • Christiane Head is in charge of one France's most famous racing dynasties
  • Head trained Three Troikas to the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in her first season
  • The 62-year-old's brother rode Three Troikas and is now a trainer himself
If anyone knows how to win the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, it's trainer Christiane Head. The 62-year-old explained to CNN how she did it in only her first full season as a trainer.
Chantilly is the heart of the French horseracing industry. At 6.45am on a hazy September morning the sun is threatening to rise over Les Aigles, a 500 acre warren of trails and tracks that serves as a training ground for the 1,800 racehorses that are exercised here daily.
A woman -- in her 60's, bespectacled, unassuming -- peers into the soupy mist. She waits. Suddenly the silence is broken by the sound of hooves. A pair of horses, followed by another pair, and another, canters into view, emerging as if from behind a curtain of fog.
As the parade of thoroughbreds passes by, snorting steam from their nostrils in the morning air, the woman calmly appraises each one, looking at their legs, theirs heads, occasionally throwing a question to the rider bobbing atop the prancing animal.
If an unspoken sense of deference hangs in the air, that's because this woman is no ordinary racehorse trainer.
She is Christiane Head, scion of France's most famous racing dynasty; the first female racehorse trainer in France and the first woman to win the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, France's most prestigious race.
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"I'm the fourth generation of my family to train," explains Head. "Ever since I was very small I wanted to be a trainer but my dad [Alec Head, a successful trainer and breeder in his own right] said, 'No, there are no female trainers in France.
"'Maybe you can marry a trainer but you won't be able to train yourself.' So I started working with him as his assistant. It took a little time but eventually I applied for my license and in the end they gave it to me. That was more than 30 years ago and I've been training ever since."
Head, whose family trace their roots back to England, has trained for some of the biggest owners both inside and outside France and has won more than 100 Group races, including the Arc, which she captured in her first full season as a trainer.
Indeed, the 1979 Arc was something of a Head family affair: the winner, Three Troikas, was trained by Head, owned by her mother Ghislaine and ridden by her brother Freddy; then a top jockey, now a trainer himself.
"I see the race as if it was yesterday. Freddy was in the middle of the pack going very easily. Before he got into the straight and I said to my mother, 'We've won the race.' She just turned to me and she was furious! She said 'Never say that!' But she was traveling so easily, the filly, that when Freddy pulled her out she just went. He never asked her to do anything, she just went. It's something that I'll never forget."
The victory was all the more unusual because Three Troikas was only the 10th female horse to win the race, beating older males. "That filly was so good, but she had to beat the best," recalls Head.
"That year there was the winner of the French Derby and the winner of the English Derby [in the race]. For a filly she was very strong. She looked more like a male than a female. And, like all good fillies, she had a lot of character."
Although there has not been a female winner of the Arc since Zarkava in 2008, this year's field features a strong filly contingent, including the favorite Sarafina and the fancied Galikova -- trained, appropriately, by one Freddy Head.
The life of a trainer is one of early starts, late nights, dashed hopes and disappointments; for every Arc winner, there are hundreds of horses who will never make the grade.
Not a life, in short, for anyone who is anything less than 100% committed to the cause. But despite being in her fourth decade as a trainer, Head is showing no signs of slowing down.
"I'll keep going as long as I can because it's very difficult to stop. Every year you receive new two-year-olds and yearlings and you want to see how they turn out. I get up at 5 o'clock every day and I'll be here until half past 12, 1 o'clock.
And that's every day the same: Saturday, Sunday, there's no weekend, nothing. But you know, it's also never the same. You never get bored."
With the next generation of Heads already coming through, there is no indication that this family's domination of the French racing industry is set to come to an end any time soon.
"Freddy's got a son who works with him and I've got a daughter who's married to a trainer. It's in our blood. Sometimes I think we have more horse blood than human blood."