Although no “Hemingway sat here” plaques adorn the grand-stands of the eight Paris racetracks, the American writer was a regular horseplayer when he lived here from 1921 to 1926. Since the French racing establishment has done little or nothing to attract tourism – not even one brochure at tourist information centers – racing is one of Paris’ best kept entertainment secrets.
Each track has its own character, so there are eight different “spectacles.” Unlike American courses, which are relatively symmetrical, the French tracks are lush green labyrinths. Each hippodrome has several distinct configurations. Some races go clockwise, others coun-terclockwise. Some are flat while others climb up and spring down. There is even a figure-eight course at Auteuil. A horse with a one-track mind cannot compete successfully.
There are many possible reasons for a day at the races. First, the powerful yet graceful imagery, the moving mosaic of colorful silks passing though brilliant green, the smart men and women who drive the not-so-smart colts and fillies at 40 mph through dangerously un-predictable traffic patterns.
Then there is the sociological adventure that long ago produced the Marx Brothers’ “A Day at the Races” and now gives birth to Ph.D. computer specialists who labor to synthesize infinite combinations of past performance data into one winning method. In Paris, the social scenario acquires a cross-cultural dimension, since immigrant communities are quite well represented on the betting lines, thereby contributing probably more than their fair share to the national treasury.
Class structure at French and U.S. tracks alike varies from prole-tarians in the infield, to the middle-class grandstand, up through various clubs of the elite.
However, sociology and betting cannot be neatly divided. After all, what is a racetrack but a more accessible version of a stock exchange? To understand how it works, check out the free literature on wagering rules available at any PMU (off-track betting) café. Unlike lotteries, roulette and all fixed-percentage games, the races offer a very slight long-term possibility of winning – if, and only if, you can interpret past performance info more creatively than the public at large, since it is the wagering public that determines the odds. Any type of random betting at the races is doomed to fail in the long run.
Should you still choose to hazard your 10F, the Paris-Turf past performance section is required reading. If you have no time for intense study, it will be more exciting to watch others bet than to bet yourself. Such an approach begins with morning coffee at your nearby PMU. On Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays, observe tiercé madness, with heavy action coming down lottery-style on racing bets that have outpaced the various lotteries as money makers for the French government.
Admission is generally 15-40F and most sites have a special grassy infield section with free entry. A different racecourse operates every day; free calendars are available at virtually all press outlets (wherever Paris-Turf is sold).
Longchamp: The most famous French track is notable for its manicured gardens, old windmill and numerous children’s facilities, including a child care center, pony rides, a train ride and a playground, all free. Longchamp is also the site of France’s version of the Kentucky Derby, called the Arc de Triomphe, traditionally run the first Sunday in October. On Arc day, British horse-players fill the grandstand. English becomes an official language, and the race is simulcast in the U.S. Bois de Boulogne, free bus from Mº Porte d’Auteuil.
Auteuil: This track, home to the jumpers (steeplechase and hurdles), was Hemingway’s “demanding friend,” as he called racing. Demanding because it required an exorbitant amount of study in order to be profitable. Auteuil’s infield permits the nearest view (sometimes only a few meters away) of thundering thoroughbreds jumping gracefully over high hedges and water traps. For pure spectacle, Auteuil is unsurpassed. Mº Porte d’Auteuil.
Saint-Cloud: This thoroughbred track goes beyond the lush green and pastels of the other racing sites, with tall shade trees just past the finish line, the taller hills of Mont-Valérien beyond the back-stretch and the old stone buildings in the stable area. Somewhere in the distant middle of this idyllic picture stands La Défense. Mº Pont-de-St.-Cloud, then bus 431 for a few stops.
Maisons-Laffitte: An out-ing to this track also includes a pleasant village, a castle and a woodsy neighborhood of seigniorial mansions. Its outer boundary is the Seine river. RER A, Maisons-Laffitte, plus one of the best promenades in the Paris area.
Vincennes: Chariot racing near the Château. Vincennes is the trotting capital of France, perhaps of the world. It differs from the more traditional tracks with its Défense-style architecture of broad sweeping lines. Most racing establishments provide free child care, but Vincennes’ child center is truly an attraction. Vincennes also features night racing from March through October. If Monet had known this, he could have captured the changing colors of the forest as the sun sets and night edges in. He could have marveled at how the drivers’ pastel silks stand out in a special way against the black gravel rac-ing surface that is typical of this track. RER A, Joinville-le-Point.
Enghien: Another Hemingway hangout; a special feature of Enghien is its mixed meetings. On a number of its race days, two different disciplines are featured – trotters and jumpers. SNCF, Gare du Nord, five stops.
Chantilly and Evry: Farther out from Paris (by SNCF), but worth the trip, these tracks feature thoroughbreds. At Chantilly the horses gallop by the town’s fairytale castle and 18th century stable.
Paris-area racetracks offer a sensory feast with an expanded feeling of space and a profusion of color. No wonder this was the setting for some of the greatest paintings of Degas and Dufy.