Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Arc

It was that time of the year again... the first weekend of October, well the first Sunday of October, the traditional time for the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. I try as often as I can to be in Paris for this weekend and for me Paris is always a city at the beginning off autumn, usually with some warm sunshine, the leaves on the horse chestnuts changing colours and the flowers in the flower beds still colourful but slightly past their best.

The race would usaully attract the best middle distance horses in Europe, mostly France, Great Britain and Ireland, with maybe a horse from Germany or Italy and, exceptionally, a horse from Argentina, Brazil or Japan. This year, the exotic horse of the race would be Deep Impact, the champion racehorse of Japan, who had only been beaten once in nine outings. He was bred in Japan from a mare with close connections to a family of The Queen's horses, namely Highclere, Burghclere and Wind In Her Hair. There would be lots of Japanese and many of them would think of their horse as unbeatable. As it happened, they literally poured their money onto their horse, waiting in long queues to be relieved of their money to such an extent that they totally disturbed teh betting market, making every other horse in the eight horse race an excellent betting proposition. Last year's winner was 3-1 in the UK and 12-1 in France, for example.

The British had just one runner, Sixties Icon, who had just won the St Leger three weeks earlier, but at least he was ridden by the people's favourite jockey, Frankie Dettori. 'My' horse, Dragon Dancer who finished second in The Derby (at 66-1) and has still to win a race was, disappointingly, withdrawn a couple of days before the race.

I did not have too much of an idea which horse would win the race, having missed last year's race and being not so interested in the French horses and as it happened, it was a three year old French horse, Rail Link who won at French odds of 25-1 (excellent when there are only eight horses running), beating a six year old mare, Pride, and the Japanese Deep Impact. A bit of an anti-climax really, but he won fair and square. The owner's previous winner was in 1986 when Dancing Brave won what was probably the best Arc in the 85 years of its existence. Quite a contrast.

The afternoon was warm and sunny and Longchamp was thronging with people, swelled by the numbers of Japanese, in addition to the large contingent of English, who could be seen all weekend sitting outside the cafes of Paris with half-full tankards of beer in front of them.

Having been to the Arc many times and having hundreds of photos of parts of horses, whose bames have long been forgotten, I decided not to concentrate too much on taking yet more photos of horses, but to look at the human menagerie which had assembled. Lots and lots of women in stunning hats, for example, smart and less smart men, the Japanese, the people populating the champagne bars. Time was too short and the memory cards too small to capture them all, but I am very happy with the results.

The time of the race has been put back later and later by the authorities, starting now at 17.35, when my programme from 1988 has the race starting at 16.30. (Here I can read the names of such equine legends as Triptych, Kahyasi (great grandfather of Rail Link), Unfuwain (related to Deep Impact), Mtoto, Diminuendo and the Italian winner Tony Bin, ridden by jockeys sich as Willie Crason, Greville Starkey, Freddie Head, Pat Eddery , Michael Robert and even Frankie Dettori! The point now is that with the race starting so late, there is not enough time to cross over paris afterwards, to Gare du Nord to ctach the last Thalys train back to Amsterdam, as it leaves at 18.55. A deliberate ploy to keep visitors in Paris a day/night longer, I wonder?

Anyway, this year, without a job and paying just € 30 a night for a hotel (a shower was € 3 extra, after one had received the key and a towel from Madame La Concierge), it made sense to spend the extra night in Paris and return home the next day, savouring the atmosphere of the post-race celebrations and prize giving.

A day like Arc day in England would cost at least € 60 - € 80 for spectators. In Paris, it cost just € 8 and thyere were free buses to and from the course from Port Maillot and Porte d'Auteil. In France there is a governemnet monopoly on betting and a lot of money goes back into racing. In England, it is bookmakers who take most of the betting money and line their own pockets. We Anglo Saxons like to decry the French model, but it must be said that it is not all that bad!


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