Racetracks in France

Author: Jana Nemeckova, published: 7th October 2017, updated: 10th January 2018

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France has always been one of the most important thoroughbred venues. Let's remind that the first Epsom Derby was run in 1780; by this time, France already had a hundred years long history of horse-racing in the style of English races, and the very first horse, who competed in the Epsom Derby, was Cantator in 1784. French Société d'Encouragement, a former governing body of French turf, was established in 1833, and the Prix du Jockey Club, the French equivalent of the Epsom Derby, was inaugurated in 1838, followed by the Prix de Diane in 1843. The English Triple crown winner Gladiateur was born in 1862, and only a year later, prestigious Grand Prix de Paris was run for the first time.

Profiting from such a long history, French breeding produced such great horses like Teddy, Ksar, Corrida, Pearl Cap, Tourbillon, Djebel, La Farina, Brantome, Tantieme, Alcantara, Herbager, Tanerko, Sassafras, Blushing Groom, All Along, or Sea-Bird - to name only a few. Now it is - together with Great Britain and Ireland - the most important thoroughbred venue in Europe, and the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe is the traditional highlight of European racing season.

France currently has more than 250 operating racetracks, which makes half of the number of all racetracks within Europe. Featured in this article are, for now, the most famous ones: Chantilly, Longchamp, Deauville, Maisons-Laffitte and Saint-Cloud.

Chantilly

Chantilly racecourse, or Hippodrome de Chantilly, is located about 30 miles north of Paris, on the former land of duc d'Aumale. It is the oldest of French major racetracks - its history dates back to 1834, when the first meeting was held on the 15th May, and the first temporary stands were risen the next year. Duc d'Aumale himself ordered construction of new stands in 1847; they were rebuilt around 1880 by Honoré Daumet, who also renovated Chateau de Chantilly. Another famous place near the racecourse is Grandes Écuries, "Great stables", designed by Jean Aubert and built in 1719 for Louis Henri de Bourbon. In 1886, duc d'Aumale donated the racecourse to Institut de France, and in 1982, Living Museum of the Horse was opened in the historic stables.

The grandstand was completely renovated and opened in 2007, and in 2011, the new all-weather track was laid down, being the only one in the Paris region.

Chantilly is, above all, the home of the French equivalent of the Derby and the Oaks, the Prix du Jockey Club, and the Prix de Diane as they are originally called. Top races include:

Longchamp

Paris had its original racecourse since the end of the 18th century. Racing took place at Champ de Mars, a common field which was annexed by the nearby Military School, and the first race was actually the match between the horses of the school's head squire and Prince of Nassau. However, the field in the centre of Paris, now located right under the Eiffel Tower, which was constructed in 1889, never had its soil suitable for horse-racing - the fact that French racegoers were well aware of. In 1856 the Société d'Encouragement was given a suitable estate by French municipality - about three miles in the west direction from the original Champ de Mars. The place was a part of Bois de Boulogne (Boulogne Forest) and the credit for choosing this place belongs to no-one else than duc de Morny, the creator of the Deauville racetrack.

The first meeting took place one year later, on 27th April 1857, with the emperor Napoleon III's family attending. In 1863, the Grand Prix de Paris was inaugurated - a race for which duc de Morny helped to raise the money, which he obtained from the Paris Municipal Council and local railway companies. The prize of the first run was 100,000 francs, and it was the France's richest and most prestigious race until the World War I; shortly after it, the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe was created and it took some of its prestige away.

The Longchamp racecourse suffered from wars just as badly as Paris itself. During the Franco-Prussian war, the racecourse was bombed during the Siege of Paris; in the World War I, it served as a stockyard and later American field hospital, before being transformed into an airfield. During the World War II, the racecourse was bombed too.

Grandstands were reconstructed between 1962 and 1967. In 2015, the racecourse was closed right after running the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, in order to rebuilt the racecourse again; it is planned to open Longchamp again in the spring 2018.

Longchamp is known and popular for its variety of courses, with no less than 46 starting points on the racetrack. Except the Grand Prix de Paris and the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, which is now the highlight of European racing season, Longchamp is home to many important races, including both classic equivalents of British Guineas, Poule d'Essai des Poulains, and Poule de Essai des Pouliches, and also Prix Royal-Oak, an equivalent of the St. Leger. Longchamp also hosts number of G2 races, including prestigious races like the Prix Niel or the Prix Daniel Wildenstein - formerly the Prix du Rond-Point, or the Prix Vicomtesse Vigier. Longchamp was also home of historical Poule des Produits, traditional series of the Prix du Jockey Clup trial races; while the Prix Daru was discontinued in 1977 and the Prix Lupin in 2004, and the Prix Greffulhe moved to Saint-Cloud, the last one of them, the Prix Hocquart, is still run at Longchamp.

Deauville

The Deauville racetrack, in the full name "Hippodrome Deauville - La Touques" was constructed in 1862, and originally named "Hippodrome de la Touques" after the Touques river, which separates Deauville from the nearby Trouville-sur-Mer. The idea came from Charles Auguste Louis Joseph de Morny, and rumour has it that he built a racetrack earlier than the church. Duc de Morny had a great influence on French horse-racing in its early times: he was the very same man who bought the English Triple Crown winner West Australian and brought him to France in 1861, who chose the Bouis de Boulogne as a suitable place for the new Longchamp racecourse, and who helped to raise the money for the inaugural running of Longchamp's Grand Prix de Paris in 1863.

Deauville is located on the north coast of France, and duc de Morny wanted it to be a respectable rival to Brighton in England or Baden-Baden in Germany - which for the most of the part means spa, casino, and racecourse. On the top of that, duke was a half-brother to the Emperor Napoleon III, which meant the access to the highest aristocracy circles. Together with its location of only about 100 miles from Paris, and an attractive summer meeting featuring top races, Deauville had all the necessities to become a popular summertime venue with great support of nobility.

However, duc de Morny didn't enjoy its success very long - the first meeting was held on 14th and 15th August 1864, and the duke died in the following March; but the newly created Société des Courses de Deauville continued to do a very good work. New imposing grandstands were built in 1919, and two years later, Société d'Encouragement acquired the adjoining land to build stables.

From the modern history, in 1995 La Touques reopened after the off-season with the new track, which was later substituted for a all-weather track, opened on 6 July 2003.

Deauville hosts some of the top summer races, including the Prix Maurice de Gheest, the Prix Jacques le Marois, and also the Prix Morny for two-year-olds, named in the honour of duc de Morny.

Maisons-Laffitte

Maisons-Laffitte is located on the northwest side of Paris, and just about eight miles from the trio of French racetracks Saint-Cloud, Longchamp, and Auteuil. It was founded in 1878 by Joseph Oller - a man who invented the pari-mutuel machine, which was legalized in 1891. 17 years earlier, Oller was sentenced to prison and fined for operating illegal gambling. It didn't stop him from opening Maisons-Laffitte on the land he rented on the bank of the river Seine, although he was no keen turfman like duke de Morny, for example. Oller was very active mostly in the entertainment industry, and among his racetrack he opened also a theatre, a first Parisian music-hall, and also famous Moulin Rouge.

After several changes of its owners, Maisons-Laffitte became controlled by Société Sportive d'Encouragement. It soon decided to make its headquarters there and finally became the owner of the racecourse and its property around 1895. Legalized pari-mutuel betting brought more money to the racetrack, and in 1898, a new railway station opened nearby the course, which further increased the popularity of the course. By this time, the track was already widened from its original size, and new grandstands were built in 1904. Starting stalls were tried in Maisons-Laffitte since 1896, and introduced in 1902.

Maisons-Laffitte hosts no G1 race, but it currently stages a couple of historical G2 races, as well as some prized G3 races. The newest additions to the group races are the Prix Miesque, inaugurated in 2001 to replace the Prix Saint-Roman, which was discontinued; and also the Prix Texanita, inaugurated in 2013 and promoted to G3 level in 2015. Maisons-Laffitte also held the first running of the Prix Bernard de Tarragon, the original Longchamp race, when the racecourse was closed for redevelopment.

Saint-Cloud

Hippodrome de Saint-Cloud, or Val d'Or, is situated on the western edge of Paris, just about a mile from Longchamp racecourse, across the river Seine. The land was originally owned by Napoleon III, who built a farm there; it was burnt down by Prussians in 1871, and the soil was put to public auction in 1898. The highest bid was came from the Saint-Cloud mayor Edmond Blanc, who had his own stud Haras de Jardy only about three miles away. The new and very modern racecourse was opened in 1901, with a 50-meters wide track, starting gates and even the telegraph machine in the office. The agreement was made that the track will be leased by "Society for the encouragement of improvement of French half-bred horses", which was the governing body of French trotting racing; by that time, there was a danger that Society won't be able to use Vicennes racecourse anymore.

However, only a few racetracks probably had such a diverse history of purposes. During the World War I, the No.4 Canadian Stationary Hospital operated on the racecourse; they stayed until 1919. It's worth saying that Edmond Blanc died the very next year. Another curiosity is the usage of the racetrack for polo games during the 1924 Summer Olympics. During the World War II, the track was closed again, in order to plant vegetables for people from nearby villages. But the racetrack returned to its original purpose, and in 1952, the descendants of Edmond Blanc sold the racecourse to another big name of French horse-racing, Marcel Boussac, and in 1974, it was sold to France Galop.

Saint-Cloud is home to a pair of top juvenile races - the Criterium de Saint-Cloud over 7 furlongs and the Criterium International over 1 1/4 miles. Other races include the G1 Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud for older horses over 1 1/2 miles, and also some prestigious G2 races. One of them used to be the Prix Jean de Chaudenay, originally a race for older horses over 1 1/2 miles, until the race was merged with Prix Hubert de Chaudenay and moved to Longchamp in 2004.