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The horses round the turn in front of the windmill at Longchamp
Horse Racing in France

Date: 10/01/00
By: Terence Dulay

Visiting a different country means experiencing a different language and culture and different ways of doing things, and this also applies when visiting foreign racetracks. The horses and jockeys may look the same as they do back home, but the similarities are definitely outnumbered by the differences when comparing North American to French racing.

The statue of Arc winner Suave Dancer at Longchamp
Longchamp's back yard looks very much like those at major racing facilities across North America. There are admission gates (50 francs, about $7, for general admission on Arc day), grassy fields with shady trees for enjoying a picnic, souvenir stands and information kiosks, food and beverage stands, statues of great horses from the past, and a pretty walking ring/paddock (called the "rond de présentation"). The crowd was reminiscent of the Kentucky Derby, with the women wearing fashionable hats and men in suits and ties. As a special promotion this year, Arc day admission was free to women wearing hats!

The back of the grandstands at Longchamp
The lawns and hedges were beautifully manicured, and the main grandstands were white-painted concrete and glass, reminscent of Arlington. Blue and gold banners with the race logo were hung everywhere. There is a grandstand located past the finish (what we might call a "clubhouse"), a grandstand located before the finish, an older stand at the top of the stretch (apparently this is the only part of the original stands to survive the wars), and right at the finish line is a much smaller stand with a VIP lounge. This stand and lounge is where the dignitaries, officials, and their guests watch the races, and security is heavy around this strategically located building. Between the old stand and the newer grandstand is the horse path that leads from the walking ring to the track.

The stands at Longchamp as seen from the infield.
At strategic locations in the backyard are racks with thick piles of today's racing programs. Unlike at home, the programs are free of charge, and are printed on shiny magazine paper in full color. Past performances are not included; for these you need to purchase Paris Turf, a thin broadsheet newspaper sold at makeshift news-stands just outside the admission gates as well as at news-stands all over Paris. On Arc day these (as well as Britain's Racing Post) were given out free to fans approaching the gates, but usually it costs 7 francs, about $1.00.

Walking through the grandstand building and out onto the asphalt apron, the racecourse is a large grassy expanse, larger than anything back home. In the infield is the main parking lot, hospitality tents, viewing stands, and a children's play area with pony rides; infield admission is free. Since the course is so large, you cannot see the backstretch (part of which is obscured by trees), so the infield has three large video screens to watch the action. At the clubhouse turn is a windmill. The finish line is decorated with a large blue semi-circular structure with the sponsor and race name. A second finish line (a simple white post) is located 1/16 miles past the regular finish and is used for certain distances.

Panoramic view of the Longchamp racecourse.

The infield pixel board.
An interesting observation was the lack of a toteboard and the infield video screens do not show the odds either. There is a pixelboard which only shows the time of day, race number, finishing positions of the top seven horses in the previous race, and a one-line message board which indicates whether the last race result is unofficial ("Provisoire"), or official ("Officiel"). Between races it gives the turf condition not only in words ("Bon" for "Good") but also gives a number which is the penetrometer reading. On Arc day the reading was 3.0. The lower the number, the firmer the course; 1 is hard and readings 5 or larger are heavy. Unlike in North America, the races are run clockwise and exclusively on turf, so after each race the divot stompers come out to repair the damage from the last race. Race distances are in metres and assigned weights are in kilograms -- the Arc is 2400 metres (about 1 1/2 miles) and the older horses in that race carry 59.5 kg (about 131 pounds).

The Irish and Welsh Guards play in front of the statue of Gladiateur on the backyard at Longchamp. The small VIP stand can be seen behind them.
The only place to find the odds for the upcoming race is on certain TV monitors inside the building. Odds are shown in terms of 1 franc payouts; a 5-1 shot would appear as 6.00. The minimum betting unit is 10 francs, about $1.40. If there are multiple horses owned by the same person, they also count as an "entry" like at home, but only in the win pool. In the place and exotic pools they are considered separate betting entities.

The special backdrop for the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe finish line.
Like in North America, all betting is pari-mutuel through the tote system as opposed to through bookmakers as in the UK. Saddlecloth numbers do not correspond with post position but are given in order of weights - highweights get the lower numbers. Bets are called very much like we do here; base bet, bet type, horse numbers. However, on-track you can only bet on the next race; advance betting is not allowed. Most of the bets are similar to what we have at home: "Gagnant" is to win, "Jumelé gagnant" is an exacta, "Trio" is a trifecta. However, "Placé" is not quite the same as our place bet at home. If the field size is 7 horses or less, it pays for first and second. But if the field is 8 or more, it pays off like show does at home - you win the bet if your horse finishes in the top three. They also have an interesting bet called the "Jumelé Placé" which seems like a rather forgiving version of the quinella. You pick two horses and if they finish in any order anywhere in the top three, the bet wins. The race with the largest field, usually a handicap with 15 or more horses, has special "jackpot" bets such as the "Quarté" (a superfecta) and "Quinté" (pick the first 5 horses in order).

A stooper picks up discarded wagering tickets at Longchamp. Some things never change no matter where you go.
The tote machines and tickets at Longchamp are probably Autotote since they look very similar in design to the North American versions. However, unlike here there are no automatic machines such as SAM's or Tiny Tims; all bets are made through the tellers.

Bets can be placed either at the track or at off-track betting parlors called PMU (pari-mutuel urbain). PMU's take bets all morning, until 1:15pm at which time they close. This way (unlike in North America) there is still an incentive to go to the track to watch live racing. Sadly, in France the PMU's will eventually be allowed to take bets during the day and show the racing on screens, removing this last incentive to attend live.

The "rond de présentation" or walking ring at Longchamp.
Now that you know your way around and know how to place a bet, it's time to see the horses in the walking ring. Longchamp's ring is about the size of Belmont Park's and is shaded by several large trees and is surrounded by high concrete terraces for fans to get a good look before betting. There are no saddling stalls; horses are saddled outside, paraded around the ring once by the lads (grooms), then the jockeys climb aboard and the horses are walked around one more time before heading through the gap and out to the track.

The horses bolt off to warm up after leaving the walking ring.
The lads walk the horses (with riders up) out to the track with about 5 minutes to post time, at which time the jockey immediately turns the horse towards the starting position and takes off at a brisk gallop to warm the horse up. Except for major races like the Arc, there is no post parade. The horses circle behind the gate as they are being loaded into the stalls one at a time. It's post time...

The gate opens, the horses break, and the bell goes off, in that order. The track announcer calls the positions for awhile, and then he stops and a different announcer takes over! At Longchamp they have two announcers share the race-calling duties; it appeared that one of them calls the backstretch and the finish while the other calls the far turn (which is very wide and sweeping). Between races, announcements are made by a third announcer (in this case a woman) and her announcements are preceded by an electronic chime similar to that heard at airports.

Winners enclosure at Longchamp
When the race is over, the top seven finishing positions are displayed on the pixelboard and the horses are brought back to the walking ring where the jockeys dismount and the horses are unsaddled. There is no winner's circle in front of the stands; the winning horse is paraded at one end of the walking ring and there is a stage there used for trophy presentations. The exception for this is the Arc which had a very elaborate presentation ceremony. Trophies or other token gifts are given not only to the winning jockey, owner, and trainer, but also the lad, who generally received a very inexpensive gift such as an umbrella or a free dinner at the race sponsor's restaurant.

A young French fan enjoys his country's biggest day of racing.
Near the walking ring is a red pixelboard which gives the finishing positions, the payoff prices, the running time of the race, and the post time of the next race. Fractional times and positions are not published, although in the press box we were able to obtain a "Chronométrage" sheet which gave the race splits. These were not in a form comparable to what we expect at home and are eventually published in Paris Turf a couple of days after the races.

As you can see, many things aren't the same at racetracks outside North America, but some things never change. No matter where you are, it is always exciting to watch your horse make the turn and charge for that finish line. If you are ever in France, or any other country for that matter, I would strongly suggest you pay a visit to the nearest track as you will feel right at home. I had a wonderful weekend at Longchamp for the Arc and hope to return someday.

For more photos from Longchamp including the 2000 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe and the 4 other Group 1 races held that day, check here.

Helpful Glossary Terms for French Racing

alezan - chestnut
aubère - roan
bai - bay
chevaux entiers - horses (ungelded)
cote - odds
couleurs - jockey silks
    casaque - the body of the jockey silks
    manche - sleeves of the jockey silks
    toque - jockey's cap
critérium - races for 2 year olds only
entraîneur - trainer
gagnant - winner
gris - gray
haras - breeding farm
hippodrome - racetrack
hongre - gelding
jument - mare
oeillares - blinkers
piste - course
poulain - colt
pouliche - filly
4 ans et au-dessus - 4 years old and up
rond de présentation - walking ring or paddock
stalles de départ - starting gate

If you would like a more complete list of French racing terms, try visiting the Paris Turf Lexicon.

For more information about racing in France, you may want to check my special section of links for French Horse Racing or our guide to France for Visitors.

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Photos by Terence Dulay and Cindy Pierson.

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