Posts Tagged ‘hippodrome’

Longchamp (not the handbag)

To continue our horse-centric French rendezvous we made a day of going to the horse races at the Hippodrome de Longchamp.

Longchamp 4

I have a love/hate relationship with horse racing. I love the stories of horses like Seabiscuit and see them at the track in person, but I’ve been close enough to the sport to know that racehorses are to most of their owners and handlers (I know there are exceptions) not much different from cattle. Once they are done, for whatever reason, they are gotten rid of in the quickest and most lucrative fashion. I’ve seen my fair share of legs broken on the racetrack and my dad ran a stockyards when it was legal to sell horses to the killers in the US. Quite a lot of the horses on those trailers were from the track. However, there is a spirit in many thoroughbreds that nothing can fulfil other than racing. It is powerful to watch such majestic creatures run their hearts out because it is what they were bred to do. It was with that spirit that I found myself at Longchamp.

It was easy to tell the moment we laid eyes on the horses in the paddock that they were extremely well kept. Their coats glistened, their hooves were shiny and, to our surprise, most all of their manes were braided. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a racehorse (in person) in the US with it’s mane braided. Their tails were also thick and banged (cut bluntly). I definitely have not seen many American racehorses with a nice tail! The paddock itself was lovely. Lots of green grass and beautiful flower beds.

The paddock at Longchamp

The paddock at Longchamp

One of the differences between French and American horse racing that first struck me was the lack of pony horses. At all tracks in the U.S. racehorses are led onto the track, while on the track and often when leaving the track on pony horses. Meaning that someone riding another horse leads the racehorse. Pony horses are usually calm and put up with a lot of racehorse shenanigans. There was not a pony horse in sight at the French racecourse. The first race we watched were three-year-olds and they walked, pretty calmly I might add, from the paddock to the racetrack all by themselves. Most had a human handler or groom walking alongside, but they were pretty much on their own.

Headed to the track

Headed to the track

The other difference was that the track at Longchamp is turf (grass). All of the Triple Crown races in the U.S. are run on dirt tracks. Most American tracks have a turf track, but more often run on the dirt. I thought it was a curious difference. The Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe race is run at Longchamp and is the second richest race in the world. The turf does make for a much lovelier view than does dirt. At first it made me a bit nervous because grass can be very slippery. In none of the races we watched did any of the horses have issues with the footing, thankfully.

Running on the turf around the bend to the homestretch

Running on the turf around the bend to the homestretch

We stayed for six of the eight or nine races being run the day we attended. We were there on a Monday afternoon so the stands were rather empty. We noticed a few other tourists, but most of the spectators were men and were betting. We had hoped to have a lovely picnic on the grass in the infield, but we couldn’t figure how to get to the infield so we settled in stands and enjoyed getting to watch the horses and general racetrack activity.

A small crowd made for great views, up close and personal.

A small crowd made for great views, up close and personal.

My favourite part of each race was how calmly and orderly the horses left the track. The jockeys would ride them about 1/8 further down the track than the finish line, then turn their horses around and canter back to the same gate from which they rode onto the field. None of the horses jigged or pranced as they left the track in a single file line back to the paddock. I’m not sure that my 7-year-old thoroughbred (whom has never run a race in his life) would have done it so calmly.

Calmly leaving the track after running a good race.

Calmly leaving the track after running a good race.

All in all it was an enlightening and enjoyable experience. The horses were gorgeous, the racing was good and the weather was absolutely perfect. The Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe was to be run a few weeks after our trip. It would be fun to see one of the fancy races in Europe, but I’ll hold out for Ascot one of these trips.

Chantilly lace had a pretty face…..

I recently had the amazing fortune to spend 10 days with a delightful friend in France and England. It was the horsiest non-riding vacation imaginable and it was heaven! Not to be rude, but I generally have little or no interest in looking at other people’s vacation photos. So, rather than inundate the world with annoying photos I’m going to blog about a few of my favourite parts of the trip, include a few photos and keep the rest for myself to enjoy the memories that go with the photos.

Our first full day of the trip was spent visiting the Domaine de Chantilly with priority given to the Grandes Ecuries (aka Grand Stables). This trip was ALL about HORSES. Anything we could possibly do that involved horses, without actually riding one, we pursued. And let me tell you. These stables are GRAND.

View of the Grand Stables and Hippodrome (or race track in English).

View of the Grand Stables and Hippodrome (or race track in English).

I can’t even comprehend what went into building a stable like Chantilly. The focus and energy that went into horse care during a time when the horse was the hot rod is difficult to wrap one’s head around 100 years after the automobile has taken over as the choice of transportation. Horses today are just something that little girls (and some big girls) obsess about and are a luxurious hobby. These stables were the difference between Jay Leno’s garage to store priceless Maseratis and street parking an old Honda Accord in a bad neighbourhood today.

Imagine warming up your horse in this setting in preparation for a morning stag hunt (I should be wary of imagining such things considering women at the time the stables were built were assuredly NOT going on stag hunts).

From the description of the Grand Stables, this may have been where the hounds were let out just prior to hunts, but is now a lovely riding area.

From the description of the Grand Stables, this may have been where the hounds were let out just prior to hunts, but is now a lovely riding area.

We toured the stables and clucked at all the horses, however they were onto the clucking thing and were having nothing to do with the tourists. Most of the horses in the stables were Spanish types, which we found odd but they are likely more suited to living in a stall and doing public shows than the average Selle Francais. We also toured, and loved, the Musee du cheval (Museum of the horse). It was without a doubt one of the best presented horse exhibits I’ve ever seen.

To finish off our Chantilly horse fix we attended the Equestrian Spectacle. The show was lovely, not the most amazing horsemanship in the world, but they do the show most every day and the horses and riders are actually lovely. Definitely a flight of steps higher than Medieval Times in the US. They did all the announcements before the show in French and (evidently) a select few in English at the end. One of the ones they didn’t say in English was no photography, so I got yelled at by the cute French boy charged with chastising audience members for photography. BUT not before I got at least a couple of good shots. We think this location was probably where the horses were shown off during the heyday of the Grand Stables.

Breathtaking architecture and a beautiful horse.

Breathtaking architecture and a beautiful horse.

As a relative newby to the sport of fox hunting I really enjoyed the French take on the sport. The Chateau at Chantilly is full of art and homages to the sport of hunting. The French did/do a lot of stag hunting as well and it is depicted in their art. At the entry to the Chateau grounds there are stags on either side of the entry and then further at the actual structure are hounds. I would LOVE to have a larger than life bronze of my hounds at my front gate. Someday.

The stags. Kind of hard to see, but they are on either side of the entry way.

The stags. Kind of hard to see, but they are on either side of the entry way.

If you are going to France and you are horse crazy, I highly advise going to Chantilly. It is a short (and lovely) train ride from Paris and is an unforgettable experience.