Magazine article The Spectator

Parisian Novice

Magazine article The Spectator

Parisian Novice

Article excerpt

The turf

It was the perfect spring morning in Paris. The rabbits on the Porte Maillot roundabout were safely back in their burrows. The sun was shining. Long-aproned waiters were washing down the pavements outside their brasseries, taxi-drivers were warming up their horns, more in habit than in expectation, and, on my day off from French election-reporting, there was the Louvre or racing at Maisons-Laffitte. Simple choice.

Unlike Londoners, racing-minded Parisians have it easy. In close range are Longchamp, Saint Cloud, Auteuil and Vincennes. With a short hop on the Metro, a train from the Gare St Lazare and a taxi from the station I was within 50 minutes sitting at the Pur Sang (Thoroughbred) Restaurant just outside the Maisons-Laffitte Hippodrome gates, sharing a table with a gigot d'agneau and an amiable half-- bottle of Brouilly as the odour of stable drifted on the breeze and early race entries clopped their way across the tarmac from their horse boxes. I have raced in New Zealand, in Hong Kong and even in Mauritius but, to my shame, this was my first day's racing in France.

I had long wanted both to compare the much-vaunted product with what racegoers get in Britain and to see if, handicapped as I was, I could actually find a winner or two. The first handicap was language. My French gets me by in restaurants, but I struggle with the more technical passages in Paris turf. The second handicap was my lack of knowledge of Gallic form, of the less international French trainers and of the quality of many of the jockeys riding.

Inside the course, I was initially impressed. Entry was less than L2.50. There were plenty of families in the small crowd, which confirmed that France can still supply central casting with perma-tanned males with elegant pocket-handkerchiefs and impossibly shined brogues, the sort who used to get the girl in Riviera romantic comedies starring Audrey Hepburn. The atmosphere was informal, the course and paddock beautifully planted with limes, horse chestnuts, maples and even a splendid Cedris Atlantica Glaucia. (I am showing off here - Mrs Oakley once planted one in our garden.) The loos were clean and plentiful, the grandstand was capacious and the Maisons-Laffitte track has an astonishing 1,800-metre straight. There were helpful notices explaining the functions of trainers, jockeys and lads, where and when to see the horses and how to make a bet. As for my wagering, travel clearly clarifies as well as broadens the mind. I finished up with three winners in seven races, and it would have been four in eight if a confused French punter had not spent so long arguing about his bet in front of me that I missed the off for the sixth. It wasn't quite Waterloo but by my standards it wasn't far short of it. …

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