22 Febbraio 2002

archivio: L'EDICOLA

The New York Times

Varenne conquista NY

''Alla fine si sposerà?'' si chiede il quotidiano The New York Times


New York, 22 febbraio 2002

by MELINDA HENNEBERGER, The New York Times, 22 febbraio 2002

Will the Much-Loved Playboy Finally Get Married?

Before the race, Varenne was in his stall, receiving the whispered reassurances of the young Finnish woman who takes care of him, a woman known all over Italy as "Varenne's fiancée."

But it is the Italians themselves who have a collective crush on Varenne, "an athlete called a horse," as the promotional hats, T-shirts and scarves put it. "The Captain," as he is also known, is considered the Secretariat of trotters, and has brought a rather remarkable new respectability to harness racing here.

So when he raced at Milan's Ippodromo di San Siro on Sunday, the stands were packed with families — not the usual crowd at any track — and gamblers talked of holding on to their winning tickets for sentiment's sake.

Varenne was born near Ferrara and returned to his roots after being dumped by his original French owners. He had a bone chip in his right leg, but recovered and went on to win 51 of his 61 races since 1998, including all of Europe's most important harness racing events. Last July, he set a world record while winning the Breeders' Crown at the Meadowlands in New Jersey.

Last month, he carried home the Prix de l'Amérique from Paris for a second straight year.

In May, though, Varenne will turn 7, the age at which most European male trotters are put out to stud. So Italians are caught up in a national conversation over whether he should keep racing or go out on top.

There is some feeling that it is time for Varenne to settle down. "With his beautiful hair, toned muscles and charming gaze, Varenne is a real playboy," an article in the national weekly Panorama argued. The Italian press certainly covers him that way, noting that he is a Taurus who enjoys carrots and long walks on the beach near his home by the sea outside Rome.

At the track in Milan, however, the majority view was clearly that neither the horse nor his public was ready for him to stop running.

Varenne deserves special consideration, his fans argue. He has brought honor to Italy, they said, and some welcome class to harness racing, which here as in the United States has always been seen as the seedy, struggling stepbrother of thoroughbred racing.

"He made it a sport," said Susanna Cremonesi, who was at the race with her daughter. Also in the stands was Edoardo Marazzi, age 4, wearing a cap that said, "We are the shadow, and you, Varenne, are the sun."

There were also plenty of TV cameras and before the race, four security guards posted in front of Varenne's stall to handle crowd control.

First in line to watch the horse pass by on his way to the track was 12-year-old Alice Fabrello, of Verona, who uses a wheelchair.

Because Varenne himself overcame a physical challenge, he has become a particular hero to the handicapped.

Asked what was so special about this horse, Miss Fabrello smiled. "Everything," she said.

When he finished first, it was no surprise. Still, screaming spectators waved Italian flags and rushed the track, as the announcer said, "Here's Varenne, enjoy him!" The crowd mobbed the horse, who showed his breeding by standing stock still.

"As long as he has his girlfriend with him, he's fine," remarked one man in the stands, Enzo Spinella, 54, referring to Varenne's Finnish "fiancée," Iina Rastas.

His owners donated Sunday's $80,000 purse to a charity for the handicapped, and virtually no one collected the literal 2 cents in profit that a $10 bet on Varenne would have paid out, according to a spokeswoman for the track.

Especially because the race might have been one of Varenne's last, "I'm going to keep this as a memento," said Emilio Confalonieri, 51, showing his winning ticket.

After the Prix d'Amérique at the end of January, Varenne's owners began openly discussing whether they should retire him. In the United States, top male trotters usually stop racing at age 4, his owners said.

At first, the public seemed sympathetic to the idea that Varenne deserved the chance to rest and enjoy life. But that changed after it was made clear that he would not become a father the old-fashioned way, but by artificial insemination.

"Povero grande Varenne," wrote Il Messaggero. Poor, great Varenne.

Enzo Giordano, the Naples stockbroker who bought the trotter for $90,000 when no one else could see the champion in him, acknowledged that while it is standard for a horse to start breeding at his peak, "this horse doesn't want to retire — it's his life to run."

Francesco Ruffo, the manager for SNAI, a company that services betting parlors and holds a 50 percent interest in the horse, now valued at around $10 million, said all discussions of Varenne's future had been "a fight between the head and the heart."

"Rationally, we should have put him out to stud already," he said. "After the season he's had, there would have been a lot of money and a long list of bookings."

In all likelihood, the aptly named Breeders Crown back at the Meadowlands in July will be Varenne's last race, Mr. Ruffo said.

But he added that he and Mr. Giordano might give in to public pressure and let Varenne start a real family, the old-fashioned way, as well as a lucrative breeding business.

"We might make an exception for him," he said, at least half seriously, "with a very special female."


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