One week before this year’s Belmont Stakes I flew into Paris on a business trip. Oh, sure, it sounds great. When the people I work with found out they were all “oooohhh, Paris!“, as if I were going there with someone other than Nick, my boss. Or that my delving into the finer points of european newspaper circulation might somehow lead me here.
Well, I won’t lie. I was able to squeeze in a little pleasure before business. But once the workweek arrived, it was off to the bright and shiny skyscrapers of La Defense, where we worked all the French day and even into the New York afternoon. We were all business. At the end of the week, I flew back to New York and directly into the whirlwind of the 2014 Belmont Stakes and all of its blustery aftermath. Which is intended as partial explanation as to why these French postcards from a couple of weeks ago are arriving only now, and all have New York postmarks.
Saturday morning, May 31st, Charles de Gaulle Airport, Paris
Flying from New York to northern Europe in late spring is hell on your circadian rhythm. Just as you have sensibly ushered in nine hours of New York darkness with three pints of Newcastle Brown Ale at a Newark Airport lounge, you find yourself trundling down a jetway and into a window seat with an extra hundred dollars worth of legroom that you hope will buy a little shuteye, to no avail, despite several hopeful hours spent with eyes closed, when somewhere south of Ireland the sun starts poking your lids through leaky shutters and – poof! – there goes your New York night. Welcome to Paris, with sixteen hours of daylight, sunsets at ten o’clock, and all-you-can-eat jet lag.
As a black Mercedes taxi sped me away from the terminal, I gazed longingly at an Air France Concorde. Its nose looked like that of another “not quite extinct, not quite alive” bird known as the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, but the rest of it just looked plain fast, even as it sat there stuffed for posterity. It seemed fitting, through my tired eyes, that the supersonic age was hereby immortalized; yet another relic from another vanished era, here on the distant outskirts of this museum of a city.
Saturday afternoon, May 31st, in a corner of the Bois de Boulogne
It’s been twenty-two years since my last visit to Longchamp, and I had been told by an old college friend that you could no longer enter the track via the back door, which had been just a short walk from the Boulogne Jean Jaures stop on the Metro. This was disappointing, as this had been my favorite way to enter a racetrack: from a Metro car, through a bucolic park, entering via a small gate and then downhill to the infield, crossing over a grassy backstretch that had been chewed up years ago by the likes of Sea Bird, Ribot, and Mill Reef.
We dropped our bags at our hotel in Saint Germaine and took the Metro towards Longchamp. There was supposed to be a shuttle bus at Porte d’ Auteuil, but we couldn’t find it. So, instead, we set off on foot, past Auteuil (the steeplechase track) and through the Bois de Boulogne, past hundreds of cars that were parked for easy access to the French Open at Roland Garros, taking guidance from Google until, at last, the track came into view and we came wide around the last turn and in through the main gate, just like everybody else.
Saturday afternoon, May 31st, Longchamp Race Course
Being an American provincial, I like to think of Longchamp as France’s Belmont Park, and these days they seem to have more in common than ever before. They both fill up precisely once per year (Belmont on a June Saturday and Longchamp on the first Sunday in October), and spend the rest of the year seeming mostly deserted. Twelve furlong ovals with massive grounds and hulking grandstands are great on big race days, but even on a beautiful late spring day like this one (one Group 3, plus a couple of handicaps, allowances and cheap claimers), they can both come off as magnificent anachronisms; monuments to a vanished age.
An American horseplayer visiting Longchamp for the first time would almost certainly be put off by any number of differences between French and American racing. Even though the parimutuel system was invented by a Spanish entrepreneur living in France, good luck finding a tote board. Television monitors located near the betting windows supply win odds, but probable exacta (“couple“) payoffs are nowhere to be found. If your preferred exacta combination is getting pounded, you will find out about ten minutes after the race is completed, should it come in.
Watching the race unfold is also a departure for anyone used to watching six furlong sprints on a flat mile oval. At Longchamp the starting gate for twelve furlong races is discreetly tucked away in a far corner of the grounds. After a few jumps out of the gate the field disappears behind the “petit bois” (a small forest placed conveniently in the middle of the racecourse), only to reappear a few furlongs later at the top of a hill on the far end of the grounds before they hang a right that starts a bending mile-long run home. Binoculars are fairly useless here, at least from the lower angles. I watched the early stages of the races on a small monitor in a corner of the grandstand until the field was about three furlongs out, when you could finally hear the pounding hooves and turn away from the TV to start looking for the silks you bet on. While this does create a sense of mystery regarding the first three quarters of the race, the upside is that your hopes typically remain undashed until at least the final two furlongs.
Sunday morning, June 1st, Chantilly Race Course
I met my old college friend at Gare du Nord, and we boarded a standing-room-only train that would deliver us to the town of Chantilly, about twenty-five miles north of Paris. Scott had been to Chantilly some years before, but never on Prix du Jockey Club day, so we got out there early to be on the safe side. We followed some racetrackers for a few short blocks, then across a street and into a park, down a leafy allee that presently opened up onto the flat, expansive pelouse that is Chantilly Race Course. We were directed through a gate and out onto a backstretch that had been glided over fairly recently by brilliant fillies like Zarkava, Goldikova, and Treve. With the Grandes Ecuries (Great Stables) looming in the distance, I decided then and there that I had found a new favorite way to enter a racetrack.
While it was an extremely pleasant day at the races by any measure, the rather small and subdued crowd – maybe 15,000 people? – made it seem like something less than a classic, at least to this tourist. I understand that the Prix de Diane (the French Oaks), which is run two weeks later, is a much better-attended affair, owing mostly to it being the preferred event for fashionable French ladies to wear extravagant and unwieldy hats. In the Prix du Jockey Club, the Irish-bred longshot The Grey Gatsby (#4, green-checked silks) benefited from an inside trip and a parting of the sea a couple of furlongs out to win going away. At 29-1, it was the first time I remember feeling kind of sad that I never liked Fitzgerald. The 2-1 favorite Prince Gibraltar (#6, red silks and red cap) had an extremely troubled trip, only getting free in the final furlong or so to finish a fast-closing third, and perhaps remains the one to watch going forward.
Late Saturday afternoon, June 1st, Chantilly Race Course
The trip back to Paris after the races was calm and uneventful. A train pulled into the station, and there were plenty of available seats. My only regret was that I did not have enough free time to explore more of Chantilly. It is a very old racetrack, with its first race card having been run in 1834. The course was built so that the end of the backstretch abutted against the great stables built in 1719 by the estate’s owner, Louis Henri, a hard-working chap who held down two jobs as the Duke of Bourbon and the Prince of Conde. [The Grandes Ecuries is now home to France’s Living Museum of the Horse.] The Duke built the grandest stable ever because he believed in reincarnation and, certain that he would come back as a horse, wanted a stable that would be suitable to a cheval of such quality. It seems doubtful that any of today’s dukes of the American thoroughbred industry believe in reincarnation, and that’s too bad. It’s not that I am hostile to the more conventional views of the afterlife. It’s just that, if even a few of them thought there was the slightest chance that they might come back as a cheap claimer, they might actually try to do something to make life a little easier on the thoroughbred, and other denizens of the American backstretch.