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Monday, October 03, 2011

Jour Aux Courses

First and foremost, the Head Chef and myself would like to thank Gina Rarick and her husband Tim for graciously hosting us at their annual Arc festivities at Longchamps. If you're not familiar, Gina writes the Gallop France blog, and periodically contributes to the NY Times' The Rail blog and the International Herald Tribune. (And she's a fellow member of the brand new Turf!) Whatsmore, I have it on impeccable authority that she's the best thoroughbred trainer in France! I wrote her a few months ago when we made our plans, and she immediately invited us to join her group, in the Right Royal restaurant in the owners/trainers-only area, just off the paddock.

We had to get dressed up.

Those pictures were taken really early in the day, so it only looks like a Thursday afternoon at Belmont. My baseball cap was given out to all who attended, no doubt courtesy of the sponsoring country of Qatar, which had its name attached to every race on the card. Besides the ample publicity, they got a race for Arabian horses run right after the Arc, and their own little village too.

I'd printed out detailed instructions that Gina emailed me on how to hook up since I wouldn't have a working cellphone; she'd written that she'd leave word with "the thugs in suits" who guard the entrance to the exclusive area. Since however we ended getting there before her, I was met with blank stares when I told them Gina Rarick had left word to let us in. Got a little nervous when I handed one guy the paper and then realized what it said about the thugs, but he took it in stride (or didn't understand what it meant). All worked out in the end, thanks to the nice folks in the information booth who let me twice use the phone. Besides the hospitality, excellent food and unlimited wine, I learned from Gina some really interesting things about French racing which I'm sure will come up in some future posts over the next few weeks.

I've written in the past about how, when you boil them down to their essence, all racetracks are basically the same, with similar characteristics no matter where they are. And that's true about Longchamps to a certain extent. But there were some distinct differences here to be sure.

The main one to me was, as discussed in the prior post, the vast difference in the amount of information available in the past performances as compared to what we get in the U.S. I thought that the UK's Racing Post would at least have past performance lines like the ones we see for foreign races in the Racing Form. No internal fractions nor workout information (in fact, I learned that Europeans never time their horses' works), nor trainer stats; and those speed ratings that none of us really know what they mean. But at least they're in a format that we are accustomed to. But it turned out that the Racing Post pp's aren't much different from what I pictured in the last post...and, in fact, I actually found the French-language Paris Turf to be more useful in some ways. Any of you who were able to get US-style past performance lines back home were a lot better off than I.

It's not that people over here don't bet. But I don't know that they take it quite as seriously, and surely not as scientifically, as us. Didn't seem to be the same kind of intensity from the punters during the stretch runs. I didn't notice anybody whipping their legs with their papers, snapping their fingers at the screens, or yelling profanities after the finish (not that I would have understood them anyway).

There were other differences that made it difficult for me to acclimate. There were no tote boards, and the odds (which were not odds as we see in the U.S., but rather representing payoffs inclusive of the 2 Euros bet), were only available on a select number of TV screens. All of the horses wore red saddle cloths, and at no point were the numbers of the leaders flashed anywhere. Combine that with the race calls in French (delivered by two alternating announcers), and the races were extremely difficult to follow. And at no time after any race did I ever see the winning mutuels posted, anywhere at the track.

Got shut out (fortuitously) on the first two races before I figured out that the horses went virtually straight from the walking ring to the post. The only formal post parade I noticed was for the Arc. We tried to make it out to the grandstand apron after the horses for the second race left the paddock, and didn't even make it halfway before the dramatic music that immediately precedes the start of each race came on the P.A.

Also had a problem with the language barrier. Wasn't really expecting that, because it hasn't really been a problem otherwise in Paris either this year or last, as most of the people we've encountered have had at least a rudimentary knowledge of English. Especially considering all the folks that come over every year from the UK, I figured I wouldn't have a problem at the windows. (No betting machines were in sight.) I did see a couple of dedicated betting windows for English and Japanese in the grandstand when we first came in...but that didn't seem to be the case where we spent the day. Had to have tickets canceled and re-printed each time I bet. They have a bet called 2/4 in which you have to pick two horses that both finish in the top four (I think), but the one time I tried to make that wager, I had to abandon it altogether; ultimately just didn't get how it works at all. I dunno, don't want to be presumptuous, but you might think that I wouldn't have a problem saying that I wanted to bet the '3' horse. Fortunately, I know enough French to say 'trois!'

And I tried to make the bet on So You Think for Dirty Shirt in advance to make sure I got it in. I had heard on a few occasions people at the windows saying early in the day that they wanted to bet 'the Arc.' I repeated that three times, got the ticket, and put it away for safekeeping. Was very happy to have done so. Yet, when I got back to the hotel and looked at the ticket, I saw that it was instead for the race that was coming up at the time. Sorry Dirty, I really tried! :-( Hopefully, I can make up for it by sending you my own losing ticket (more than 2 euros) on the horse!

Despite the crowd (and yes, it got far, far more crowded than what you see in those early photos of the Head Chef and I) and heat (a way unseasonable 80 degrees without a cloud in the sky, no weather for a suit and tie), I of course battled my way up to the apron for the Arc. And what a scene it was. As I mentioned, this time, the horses were introduced in a post parade with much pomp and circumstance (and in a few different languages).

And then, they were off. Honestly, given the crowd, and the circumstances mentioned above, and despite the giant video boards that we're all used to back home, I had little idea of what was going on. However, when they passed by in the stretch, I was in perfect position to see the three-year old German-bred filly Danedream power away from the rest of them en route to the stunning upset. It was a sight that I'll truly never forget.

Also unforgettable, and something I've never seen, and I'm sure I never will see, in the U.S., was the way that every single horse and jockey received a warm round of applause when they galloped back in front of the stands after the race! Seriously unbelievable.

When I returned to our table, nobody seemed particularly happy at all! I guess that can't be too surprising when a 60-1 shot wins a race. This is a filly that had won two Group 1 races against the boys in her two prior starts! But those races were in Germany, and that country's races are obviously just not taken that seriously here. And with all of the other horses that received major attention, Danedream was just plain overlooked. A woman in the group who breeds mares on a farm in Normandy seemed particularly despondent, telling us that any year in which a filly wins the Arc, particularly a German-bred (and not to mention that fillies ran 1-2-3), is not a good one for her business.

Danedream however is not at all without French or UK roots (or North America for that matter). Her sire Lomitas is a Great Britain-bred (by the US sire Niniski), out of an Irish bred mare by the US-bred Danehill. Her third dam is a French-bred Group 1 winner at Longchamps, and she's from the distaff family of several other French-bred, French group-stakes winners.

Besides the Arc, there were three other absolutely scintillating finishes on the undercard. In the Qatar Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere for 2 yos, Dabirsim staged a desperate late rally from far back on the rail to take his fifth win in as many starts, for jockey Frankie Dettori, scoring the 500th Group stakes winner of his great career. This is a son of the Japanese sire Hat Trick (by Sunday Silence) out of a Royal Academy mare.

In the Prix De La Foret (I'll leave out Qatar....they sponsored all the races as I mentioned!), Goldikova made her final European start. She (and her fan club) are pictured in the paddock before the race below. Stablemate Flash Dance set the pace for her, and I heard some fans snicker knowingly as her jockey eased her out from the rail to conveniently make room for her superstar stablemate. However, as has been the case on two prior occasions this year, Goldikova failed to get it done, as she couldn't quite hold off Dream Ahead in a nonetheless valiant effort. She's still expected however to head for Churchill Downs to make her final career start in an attempt to win an unprecedented 4th BC Mile. No word if the fan club will be there too.

And in the final Group 1 stakes of the day, the Prix De L'Opera, the 3yo filly Nahrain overcame tight quarters on the inside, grabbed the lead late, somehow held on for the headbob victory over Announce, and then survived a claim of foul by the rider of the latter. Not only did that keep Nahrain unbeaten at four-for-four, it got me out for the day. I'd like to explain how I brilliantly handicapped the winner, but it was just a guess. Dettori rode, she was undefeated, and she wasn't the favorite; that's all I can tell you. Nahrain is a Darley-bred by the US sire Selkirk (Sharpen Up) out of stakes-winning mare by Generous.

Thus ended a spectacular day on a thrilling note. Some more photos follow below. And then there were the womens' hats and the food! The Head Chef will have some hilarious photos (she left her wire to download them at home, nice going there), and some culinary commentary when we return home next week. Until then (or until the time I get to another post), Au Revoir!


John said...

Great reporting Alan, I also found the language barrier at the windows to be daunting. Next time I will just hand the teller a piece of paper with my bet type amount and selections.

steve in nc said...

Thanks. Reading that was fun, although I'm sure not as much fun as being there. Wearing a suit to the track seems a bit much, but it sure beats wearing a suit to work, as I'll have to do tomorrow.

I'd love to experience Longchamps, although I imagine it might be easier to get the hang of things on a less crowded Thursday.

But for me, other the game itself, the things that always get me excited when I go to the track are:
The tout sheet guys at the Saratoga entrance,
Workouts in the early morning mist at the Oklahoma,
The beautiful Belmont paddock and walking ring on a spring day,
The aroma of the Rasta smoking section warming a lonely winter day at AQ,
Guys cursing out the jockeys in different languages and dialects also at AQ,
The weirdos talking to themselves and
Regular guys screaming at the TVs at any track.
But I have no nostalgia for Harry M Stevens.

So it might be worth trading the guys yelling at the TVs for great food and unlimited French wine.

Alan Mann said...

John - Never got to try that hot dog, but thanks for the tip anyway. Was way too stuffed from the four course meal that was served. Next time!

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suebroux said...

Alan, I've immensely enjoyed reading your Parisian posts. Merci beaucoup de partager votre aventure merveilleuse!

Figless said...

Thanks, lets just say that my Saturday at Belmont lacked a bit of the pagentry you experienced.

Must say that the front sides of the tracks look remarkably similar however. a racetrack is a racetrack I guess.

I had read about the Euro custom of parading the winner of the big races the lenghth of the grandstand after the race so the fans could express their appreciation and thought it a nice touch that could be adopted for in this country.

Doubt we will ever experience applause for the the also rans however.

jk said...

Great report, thanks.

Anonymous said...

No biggie. Thanks for the effort, regardless. Kinda hard for me to order the winning So You Think photo anyways...