Monday, October 4, 2010

An Impressionist Visit to Auteuil

I interrupted a recent attempt to eat at every pastry shop in Paris to attend the races at Auteuil. The Hippodrome d’Auteuil, to give it its full name, is on the outskirts of Paris next to the Bois du Boulogne. The course is run by France-Galop, the entity in charge of all horseracing in France. Interestingly, France-Galop does not run the parimutuel system at any track. This is all done by Pari Mutuel Urbain or PMU, both at the tracks, by computer, and in off-site betting parlors like OTB.

I found it very easy to get to by Metro. Easier than going to Aqueduct on the subway. A dozen short stops from the heart of Paris. This is an all-turf course devoted to the jumps, both steeplechase and hedges. The massive course is a rough figure of eight, allowing for multiple starting locations for both race types. As you enter the course from the Metro side, you walk through a long concrete tunnel and then across one of the infields. It was a little disconcerting to note that most of the time this infield is a driving range. Turns out the other one has a little pitch and putt setup.

The Grandstand/Clubhouse are divided into three free-standing “tribunes,” two newer and one older and abandoned. The abandoned tribune is very elegant and reminded me a little of the remains of Hialeah.

I went into the “Centre de Press” and presented my credential. This was all I needed. There was no physical pass or credential to hang around my neck like at other venues. I followed a man into the elevator up to the press box. His very pointy shoes made me think of the guys I had been seeing all week on the ubiquitous Parisian motorcycles. Most of them had pointy shoes too. Nice view from the “press box” (actually an open section of the stands), but it is the least interesting part of any racetrack as far as I am concerned. No human interest and it is very far from the horses. The superior view hardly makes up for the limitations.

The paddock and walking ring are behind the stands and interestingly both have only hard paved surfaces.

Le Premiere Course (Race 1) was the Prix le Gourzy, a 22,000 Euro (roughly $30,000) claimer for three year olds. Boy, do these three year olds have legs. Big, thick, sturdy.

There were a total of eight races on the card with as many as seventeen starters each. The feature was a Group III – Le Prix de Maisons-Lafitte worth 130,000 Euros.

The wagering system was and remains impenetrable to me, not that it made that much difference because I found it impossible, given my time and abilities, to do any handicapping. There are published PPs, but they are so very different from ours as to be of little use. I did find a UK website that listed the leading jockeys, trainers, and owners which might be an angle for some. I could not find a morning line anywhere. The biggest difference is that the current odds are really hard to find. They have TVs at the betting windows and in some odd places around the facility, but there is no infield tote. The infield board announces that the horses have entered the course, that they have started (I actually saw a false start in the first race!), and that the race is over. Then it shows the first seven finishers. No odds and no payoffs displayed.

Later, an announcement about payoffs is made, but the bets are not exactly the same as in the US and my French was too poor to make sense of the announcement. I tried to find payoffs later on the France-Galop website but was stymied. The time of the winner and the beaten lengths of the other six top runners is displayed on a board in the Winner’s Circle. It took me a while to find this, because the Winner’s Circle is the paddock.

The stands were very quiet all day. Very few ordinary patrons. There were some small betting parlors for the lifers, but the bars and public restaurants were quiet. I held myself back from things like the $30 Euro ($41) plate of smoked salmon in the fancy restaurant. I had a beer instead. The regular patrons seemed very subdued. Way more excitement about betting and the race itself on a rainy Monday at Suffolk Downs than on a Saturday at Auteuil.

It was a little different among the owners and their friends. This really seemed like a meet just for them. They pretty much have a tribune to themselves, though it is located up the stretch in the location Americans would associate with the grandstand.

This tribune is located just across from the paddock and folks would stream back and forth all day. This crowd is very BCBG and very “familiale.” This part of the show has a very hunt club feel. Even the jockeys look like they went to the Sorbonne.

One of the grooms made Travers Manley look like Methuselah.

Not that North American patrons would feel totally lost here. I thought it had a kind of Belmont feel, but with some Saratoga echoes. I saw stoopers and quiet old Chinese guys. If they sold Members Only jackets in Paris, some of my fellow punters would surely have been wearing them.

As to the races, I am still a very rank novice. The course looked beautifully maintained; almost as pretty as the horses. There is no starting gate. The horses come on to the course without ponies and simply walk up to the starting line which is a set of cords across that part of the track.  Degas has a well known painting of this, but it is of Longchamps.

These are very long jumps races, as long as 19 furlongs over as many as 19 “obstacles” including combination hedge/water jumps. No surprise that winning times can exceed four minutes. Obstacles mean lots of lost jocks. No significant injuries that day as far as I could tell.

Later I went back up to the press “box” to see how the races played out. Only a couple of guys there. On my way out I saw that most of the French racing press are the same lazy stenographers we have in sports departments here in the US. Almost all of the journalists actually watching the races were the photographers, the rest watched the events on TV from a room that had no view of either the paddock or the racetrack.


  1. This place is amazing.I saw it on my paris hop on off bus tour last week.

  2. Hi Ned
    This was a great article...some fun, insightful musings. Sounds like you had an enjoyable time. The pictures are lovely ..I'll have to make it a 'must stop' for my husband & I if we get back to lovely Paris'. Thanks for sharing !

  3. Wonderfully informative article, Ned. Your descriptive prose and illustrating photos gave me a real flavor for racing in France. Now I have one more "must see" added to my list!