The long shot

An Israeli horse makes an improbable run at victory in England.

Oren Sada with horse 88 248 (photo credit: Sarit Uziely)
Oren Sada with horse 88 248
(photo credit: Sarit Uziely)
"It can be done, all right. Oh, it can be done," insists Itamar Mashiah. "I've seen it happen too many times before. Don't worry." Off a muddy path in Pardess Hanna, among orange groves and a menagerie of sleepy dogs and cats that pass the time watching horses graze at Ilan Vered's Bally Ranch stud farm, Mashiah is regaling his friends with tales of horses that came from nowhere to shock marquee competition. "There are plenty of Cinderella stories in this business," says Mashiah, a fellow breeder, "but you have to have a good horse." Then, leaning toward Oren Sada, he pounds his fist on a picnic table laden with fruits and pastries and says, "And I'm telling you, you have a good one!" Sada can use the cheering up. His horse, a three-year-old chestnut filly named Vanilla Bally, has been in England since September, preparing for the daunting task of racing against some of the best horses in the world. Sada trained her himself in his backyard in Be'er Ya'acov, near Rishon Lezion - first putting her on a rope and guiding her around a pole, later getting her used to a saddle, then adding a light rider and so forth, until she was ready to race. Without Vanilla around to train, Sada has grown bored and distant. He stays in bed for hours, he says, and has put on 10 kilos. "My wife is glad to have me home more now, but she kind of wishes the horse were back," he says. If all goes according to plan, though, the time apart will be well worth it. The chance to see Vanilla Bally become another stunning winner like the famous Seabiscuit is too great to pass up. "Yes, there are Cinderella stories in this business," Vered says with a modest smile and a glint in his eye. "We hope this is one of them." "Around the world, this whole industry is built on dreams. You get a foal and you start to imagine… could this be the one?" says Paul Alster, the British-born spokesman of the Israel Jockey Club who used his personal connections in England to set up this opportunity. So, could Vanilla Bally be the one? Imaginations are running wild for this small group of dreamers. "You can write this down," Mashiah says. "Vanilla Bally will win at least one race in England." It's quite a boast. "If she wins," Alster says, "all of England will go crazy. They'll be absolutely amazed." And with good reason: No Israeli horse has won in England before. In fact, only one has even tried. Some 20 years ago, Yefefiya made a decent showing in Italy but came away from England a humbled horse. Vanilla Bally is walking into a scene where races are run 363 days a year at more than 60 venues. She was a family pet that Sada took as far as he could, but now she is sharing a stable with 70 horses in the English countryside. She got there through human hutzpa - "In sending Vanilla Bally to England," Alster confides, "I am putting my reputation on the line" - and on her potential. In nine races here, Vanilla Bally took seven firsts, a second and a third. There's no more competition for her here; she has reached the end of the line. THRUSTING THIS filly into the limelight in England, though, says at least as much about the state of horse racing here as it does about Vanilla Bally's skills. The track she used to dominate closed down in June and, with the prospect of the entire horse racing industry following suit, the publicity from a good showing in England may be the last chance for Israeli horse racing to attract the kind of attention it needs to survive. As much of a long shot as Vanilla Bally is, the local horse racing industry is an even bigger one. For starters, racehorse owners face high costs and low returns. Food, care and training can run NIS 3,000 to NIS 4,000 a month, while a horse might not win that much in a year. So why do it? "We've caught the bug," Mashiah says with a shrug of the shoulders. Like a lot of loves, he seems to imply, the draw of breeding and racing horses can't be explained. It can only be experienced. "This is a very demanding field, but some of the nicest people in the world are in it," Vered adds. But for him, too, horses are more of a hobby than an occupation. Although his heart is with the horses in his yard, it is the 30,000 birds in his chicken coops that help him pay the bills. Vered, Alster claims, is the only Israeli breeder to have exported racehorses, with customers in Poland, Lithuania, Ireland and England. Still, the breeder says, "there's no future in it. There's no guarantee that there will be any more interest in Israeli horses." As it is, horse breeding is a small-time business here. During a trip to Ireland, Vered says, "people kept telling me they were shocked to learn that we raised racehorses in Israel. They kept saying, 'We thought you only had camels!'" Jokes aside, it's almost certain the field will soon wither, if Vanilla Bally fails to shine a spotlight on local breeders. Horses that had been racing have stopped training, due to the lack of races. And since a racehorse's career typically lasts only two or three years at the most, that lost time is critical - not only for the horses, but for their breeders and trainers as well. Without a racetrack and the market forces to fill it, racehorse breeding will surely meet its end. As Vered says, "Who wants to a buy a racehorse when there are no races to be run?" THE GILBOA racetrack was never a glamorous place, but these men loved it just the same. Situated in an unfarmed field along a nondescript part of Route 65 between Hadera and Afula, it hosted festive outings for nine years. The fan base was diverse, Alster says, recalling Jewish families with bowls of oranges, Muslim men who would pause to pray between races, nargila pipes and playful children. "It was quite a contrast from the British, who treat a day at the races as seriously as if it were the opera," says the former Londoner. The judges and commentators looked on from a small tower above the short, 1,400-meter track, adjacent to a roped-off parade area where the horses could be viewed before races. A little pink bush marked the finishing post. All that is gone now, though. The only sign on the highway is a large, garish one announcing "country furniture" for sale up the road. The only structure still around is the little hot dog stand that the landowner stationed there as a sort of concession. The track, made of natural clay that Alster says was great for racing, is now grown over with grass. One end has been taken over by a massive dump for old tires; bulldozers, not horses, circle it now. Alster looks at it now with the heartache of a grown man seeing his boyhood home in ruins. Sada stopped by on his way to the Bally Ranch and came away "heartbroken," he says. The other men cannot bring themselves to look at it anymore. There was simply no way to keep it going. Rent and maintenance of the track cost around NIS 10,000 a month, which proved too much for the Israel Jockey Club. Letters of support and encouragement for the races came in from former British prime minister Tony Blair, Queen Elizabeth II, EU ambassadors and others. But without the income that legalized betting would provide, Alster says, "we'll never reach the mainstream." This is the harsh reality that racing lovers have fought against for years. Elsewhere, horse racing may be known as the sport of kings, but here, Vered laments, "there's still not enough of a tradition. We have to build it." In Ireland, Vered took note of the way a racetrack owner brought busloads of schoolchildren to a day at the races, investing in the next generation of fans. He also was impressed by Newmarket, England's racing city, where 3,000 racehorses train and compete, providing thousands of jobs. That's a model that the Israel Jockey Club dreams of duplicating. These men see how horse racing thrives not only in the United Kingdom and America but in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Qatar, Bahrain, Cyprus and Turkey, and they insist that they could build a sparkling industry here as well. If there were higher standard racing and sanctioned gambling here, Alster firmly believes, Diaspora Jews and even non-Jews would be eager to come see it. There are a handful of Israeli jockeys and trainers working overseas and they would love to come back to race, Alster says. All these dreams depend entirely on the viability of betting, however, and so far the Israel Sports Betting Board has not allowed gambling on horse racing. Alster holds out hope that recently appointed ISBB Director-General Ofer Peri, who is more open to the idea than his predecessors, will authorize betting. But there is still no telling when, or even if, that authorization will be forthcoming. All this amounts to hope on top of hope - the hope that the ISBB will allow betting, based on the hope that Vanilla Bally will make a big splash in England. That's a lot of weight on the back of one little filly. VANILLA BALLY'S gallop to fame in England got off to a rough start. After her flight to France, a fire in the Channel Tunnel forced a lengthy delay that "knocked her a little bit sideways," says George Baker, her trainer in England. "But she's a tough filly and has bounced back from that," he adds. "She took a little time to acclimatize, but now she is enjoying going out in the paddocks and having a munch of the green stuff. You can see what a gutsy little trier she is." Baker worked in finance for many years before turning to horse racing. He was an assistant trainer for three years and spent a year as a racing journalist before he began to train horses himself a year ago. Since then he has trained 22 winners. Compared to the serious business of racing in England, Vanilla Bally's races on a shorter-than-standard track here is like "comparing the soccer World Cup to a kick-around in the local village," Baker says. But when Alster called him to propose the unusual attempt, he says, "I thought it was a fantastic plan. I'm a believer that if you never try you'll never know." It was "an enormous gesture" for Sada to let his horse try her luck abroad, Baker says. And it isn't cheap. Her flight, insurance, food and care are all being paid for by a group of British investors, in exchange for any winnings she earns. They'll get their first chance to see what Vanilla Bally can do on January 22, when she runs her first handicapped race at Wolverhampton. "We will know a lot more about her after that," Baker says. Already, though, the Israeli is showing a sporting spirit. "She's a really sweet, tough, dependable little thing who eats everything I put in front of her," Baker says. "Basically, I love her." The local British media have taken up Vanilla Bally's story and been very supportive, Baker says, with no scoffing or belittling what she is trying to accomplish. The racing community will be happy to see her perform well, Baker says, but none more than he and his partners. "It's great for us to be able to play a part in this fairy tale," he says. "And if it works, someone will have to write the movie!" Actually, Alster says, Channel 1 television is preparing a documentary about the against-all-odds tale. Tempering expectations, Baker warns that a storybook ending is not assured for Vanilla Bally. "To be completely honest, it may be that she's not good enough," he says. "We have to be ready to face that. But we have to give her a chance. "What would be ideal would be for her to run a nice race and for the jockey to get off and say that she can win a race. If the jockey gets off and says, 'Listen, I don't think she can do this,' then we'll accept that, and she'll go home. But it will have been a wonderful experience." In the meantime, daring to dream of success is excitement enough for Vanilla Bally's network of friends. And for Sada, at least, Vanilla Bally is already a champion. "It doesn't matter what happens in England," he says with a mix of defensiveness and pride. "To me, she will always be No. 1."