I Love Paris .....
As Cole Porter wrote, “I love Paris in the springtime,” if, however you are a racing fan the second line of the perennial favourite song is more apposite, “I love Paris in the fall.”
Or, perhaps, to be more precise “I love Paris on the first Sunday in October.”
If you happen to be reading this on another planet, the first Sunday in October sees Paris host the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, one of the greatest flat races in the world.
Longchamp racecourse resides in the bottom corner of the Bois de Boulogne.
For those of you unfamiliar with Paris the Bois de Boulogne is, by day, a beautiful park in western Paris and, by night, home to prostitutes and transvestites (sometimes one and the same).
The course lay on special, free, shuttle buses from nearby Metro stations making it easy to arrive by public transport and certainly one heck of a lot easier than driving.
If you come to Arc day expecting a French ambiance you may well be disappointed, the predominant language amongst the racegoers is English and although an international crowd the Brits predominate.
Indeed my trip was just a day trips and both the outbound and return flights were full with the vast majority being racegoers and the same is true on most other flights and train crossings. It has to be said the majority of Brits make a weekend of the event.
Longchamp is a grand course in every sense of the word. Massive grandstands, manicured lawns and of course its famous parade ring, which now looks sadly dated after Ascot took the concept of its arena design and improved upon it.
It is sad the other meetings held at this magnificent course only attract a few hundred spectators.
But on Arc day we are talking tens of thousands and the place is heaving which invariably means queues, queues for food, queues for drink and, of course, queues for the toilets. Although, as always the queues for the ladies seemed a hell of a lot longer.
The most important thing to do is find a place on the grandstand steps and mark it as being your territory – viewing space is at a premium. If there is a group of you then saving a space is easy. If, like me, your are on your own ingratiate yourself with your neighbours so they will keep your space when you have to move off occasionally.
In my case it was a group from a pub in Warwickshire.
The days racing begins with a handicap, a sort of gentle introduction to what is coming later.
Race two is the Prix de l’Abbaye, a five furlong sprint. Now the five furlong, or as they say in France 1,000 metre, course is situated somewhere over the far side of the racecourse. If you can imagine the spring course at Sandown then move it half a mile further away you will have a feel for how impractical it is.
OK I exaggerate slightly when I say it is half a mile away nut it may as well be. Located in the centre of the course the considerate course management then construct a tented village between the stands and the track. As a result from most of the stands you cannot see any of the track and from where I was only the last 50 yards, including the finishing line was visible.
After Equiano was virtually carried into the stalls by the handlers the race was off – or it wasn’t – or it was half off.
Something didn’t look right – some of the runners were going hell for leather, some seemed to be slowing down. Then there was a quick shot of a horse in orange stuck in the stalls, momentarily it looked as though it was the favourite Marchand D’Or but one soon realised the jockey with the bemused look was Ryan Moore.
Confusion abounded, nobody around me had any idea what was going on. Then I saw the red “false start” lights.
I then had a text from the UK – “What happened?”
How the hell do I know – I’m only on course. The female course announcer had lovely sexy French voice but the “there has been a problem with the second race,” was frankly unhelpful.
In the end the only was to find out what was going on was for me to phone back to the UK and pass the information back to the racegoers around me – it was nice to be a public information service.
Eventually it was ascertained the race would be re-run at the end of proceedings but didn’t placate many racegoers who had to get away sharpish to catch coaches, flights trains etc. Perhaps it wasn’t the beast time to tell them Eurostar were having problems and they may not be getting home anyway!!!
Anyway racing continued, impromptu parties were taking place on the stands. The next party but one were getting more and more lively with the “ladies” bursting into songs from Mamma Mia.
One of my new found friends from the pub in Warwick confided in me that the “ringleader” of that group was on her fourth bottle of Champagne.
As the afternoon progressed the volume was pumped up - every time Frankie Dettori rode past the stands her was cheered – win or lose. Every time a losing Ballydoyle runner rode back after a race they were resoundingly booed.
Then came the big race and what a race it was Zarkava showed what a great filly she was. Those around me who had kept faith with the filly were dancing dances of joy and, to their credit those who did not fancy her (myself included) recognised what a great performance she had shown and cheered her back.
The stands also remained packed for the Arc presentation, a magnificent affair where a huge stage is drawn down the course by four great shire horses.
Then the winning connections are driven from the parade ring to the presentation dais in a landau. After the presentation the national anthem of the winning nation is played and with France winning it was a home win. It also showed just how few French spectators there were as they were easy to spot – they were the only ones singing along.
The crowds started to thin out after the big race but there were still two contests remaining, plus the l’Abbaye re-run.
The Arab race, which followed the Arc produced a spectacular finish – a three way photo, very much “on the nod.”
By now the Mama Mia chorus had departed but my Warwick friends were still going strong, none more so than the pub landlady.
I was watching the runners going down for the final handicap and she started engaging me in conversation.
“Where do you live?”
I told her. “That’s posh and expensive isn’t it?”
“Not really. I replied”
“I bet you pay a lot of council tax,” she retorted.
“It’s not too bad,” I said intently staring at the runners milling behind the stalls, hoping she would take a hint.
“I bet drink is expensive,” she carried on, not taking the hint, “how much is a drink there.”
“I don’t know,” I replied, “I don’t drink.” Wishing at the same time she didn’t either.
“That’s good,” said my drunken landlady, then a pause.
“So what do you drink?” she carried on, as the runners were going in the stalls.
“I told you I don’t drink,” was my snapped reply.
“I know that but how much do you pay for a soft drink?”
“I DO NOT GO IN PUBS, I ONLY DRINK AT HOME.” Hello, message received I was thinking.
They’re off, I turn to her and say, “I’m very sorry but I need to watch this race.”
“That’s alright,” she says.
Then my worse nightmare, her right had hovering somewhere around the level of my crotch she says “Put it there.”
I almost drop my binoculars, I look down and thank goodness she is just holding out her hand for me to shake it – I just wish she wasn’t holding her hand so low.
Anyway a handshake later and I was left in peace.
Well seven and a bit races down just the re-run to go. It was getting late. I was, luckily, booked on a later flight so I wasn’t quite panicking about the time.
The l’Abbaye went off at 6:50 in very poor light. I’m glad I stayed as Marchand D’Or turned out to be my only winner of the afternoon.
After the race it was a quick dash to the big tree by the entrance to meet my travelling companion for the day. I travelled to and from the course with one of the representatives of a leading bookmaker. It was her first Arc – her reaction – “I can’t wait to come back next year, what a fantastic day.”
And it was. The journey back was very efficient, plenty of shuttle buses. Although advertised as a service every ten minutes, the busses were lined up and as soon as one filled up it set off and the next one was there.
What we feared may have been a tight trip back to the airport was comfortable, although a major disappointment as we were both hungry, was there was no hot food to be obtained in terminal 2B.
As on the trip out the flight was full of racegoers, most of them very tired racegoers.