Paris… a Day at the Races

Feature, Horse Racing in Paris, April 1992
Although no “Hemingway-sat-here” plaques adorn the grandstands of the 8 Paris racetracks, the American writer was a regular horseplayer when he lived here from 1921 to 1926. In fact, the French racing establishment has done little or nothing to attract tourism, not even one brochure at tourist info centers. As a result, the racing spectacle is one of Paris’ best kept secrets.

In reality, each track has its own character and so there are 8 different “spectacles.” Unlike American racing, which is relatively symmetrical, the French tracks are lush green labyrinths. Each hippodrome has several distinct configurations within. Some races go clockwise, others counterclockwise. Some are flat while others climb up and spring down. There is even a figure-8 course at Auteuil. Horses with a one-track mind cannot compete successfully under these circumstances.

There are many possible reasons for a day at the races. First, there is 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 miles per hour through dangerously unpredictable traffic patterns.

Then there is the sociological adventure that long ago produced the Marx Brothers’ “Day at the Races,” and now gives birth to Ph.D. computer specialists who labor at synthesizing 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 vary from proletarians in the infield to the middle-class grandstand, up through various clubs of the elite. It was from the proletarian infield at Auteuil on December 5, 1990, in the 5th race, that a rebellion remarkable in the annals of racing was unleashed. After 3 of 10 horses failed to start, the starter, apparently fallen ill, failed to call a “false start.” At least a dozen en¬raged bettors charged onto the track to block the finish. With some difficulty, the remaining 7 horses managed to cross the line. The proletarian rebellion could have been penalized with charges of trespassing. At first the results were made official. But then the track officials reversed their decision and ordered all wagers re¬funded.

I happened to be standing precisely where the rebellion had begun. The sociological thrill made up for the fact that I was holding a winning ticket that was valid now only for a refund.

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, free literature on wagering rules is available at any PMU (off-track betting) café. Unlike lotteries, roulette and all fixed-percentage games, there is a very slight long-term possibility of winning at the races if, and only if, you can interpret past performance info more creatively than the public, since it is the wagering public that determines the odds. Any type of random betting at the races is doomed to fail.

Should you still choose to bet 10F, the Paris-Turf past performances section is required reading. If you have no time for in¬tense study, it will be more exciting to watch others bet than to bet yourself. Such a sociological approach begins with morning coffee at your nearby PMU. On Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays, observe tierce madness, with heavy action coming down lottery-style racing bets that have outpaced the various lotter¬ies as money-makers for the French government.

The Tracks: Admission is generally 20F (35F Sundays). Most sites have a special pelouse infield section which you can enter for only 5F. A different race course operates each and every day, with free calendars available at virtually all press outlets (wherever Paris-Turf is sold).

Longchamp: The most famous of French tracks, it is notable for its manicured gardens, old windmill and numerous children’s facilities, including child¬care center, pony rides, train ride and playground, all free. Longchamp is also home 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 ferry across the Channel and fill the grandstand. English becomes an official language. The race is simulcast in the U.S. Bois de Boulogne, free bus from Mº Porte d’Auteuil.

Auteuil: This track houses the jumpers (steeplechase and hurdles). This site was Hemingway’s “demanding friend,” as he called racing. Demanding because it required an exorbitant amount of study in order to be profitable.

In spite of its symbolic 5F admission price, Auteuil’s infield permits the nearest view (sometimes only a few meters away) of thundering thoroughbred herds jumping gracefully over high hedges and water traps. For the pure spectacle, Auteuil is unsurpassed. Mº Porte d’Auteuil.

Saint-Cloud: For pure imagery, 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 outing 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. While most racing establishments pro¬vide free childcare, 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 forests 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 racing 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, the trotters and the jumpers. SNCF, Gare du Nord, 5 stops.

Chantilly and Evry: Farther out from Paris (by SNCF), but worth the trip, these two tracks feature the thoroughbreds. At Chantilly the horses gallop by an extraordinary castle.

The Paris-area racetracks offer a sensorial feast with an expanded sense of space and a profusion of color. No wonder this was the setting for some of the greatest paintings of Degas and Dufy.

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