Friday, April 27, 2007

Kurt in Paris (Part 3): The Horses

PARIS Part 3


A splendid day!

But it could have been a transport nightmare. Travelling round a large city is all very well when you know your way but, although I have started learning I have about ten years to go before I can be a connoisseur of the Paris train and metro system.
Originally I was to meet Jack at the Gare du Nord, but I pleaded instead for the nearby (to here) Gare Montparnasse. Just as well I did. Chris led me to the right place at Montparnasse (the one I had reconnoitred was in fact that wrong one … that would have been jolly!) and although we missed the arrival of Jack’s train from Laval, we soon met up.
From Montparnasse to the Gare du Nord is not a train trip, but a Metro trip, so we now changed stations from one of the three (!) train ones to one of the two alternatives amongst the underground ones. We decided to go by the slower, no-change line and duly started to walk. I would never have found my way. Hundreds and hundreds of metres of tunnels, a moving staircase, a moving pavement, more tunnels .. and finally we are at Montparnasse-Bienvenüe. Bienvenue indeed!
Ine number four to the Garde du Nord, and from there, a suburban train and just half a dozen stations to ‘Champ de courses’ plus a 60 second walk from the station to the racetrack…

We were a little early. Jack’s horse and Jack’s trainer had not yet arrived, so we had a wee wander around the very attractive course and buildings, and … well, here’s an article I wrote on my return which is probably too long for Mike to put in Harness Racing Weekly, but it can be my diary instead or as well

Meets another New Zealander in Paris

Kurt Gänzl here. Sometime of Sefton, these days on a ‘twenty years around the world’ voyage which this month has brought me to Paris.
Why Paris? Well, apart from ‘Paris in springtime’ and all that -- and it feels more like very high summer this week--, apart from the fact that I’ve got the odd book-writing colleague here and a date for some bookish interviews at the Institut Français, it’s to meet up with another far-from-home Kiwi and get a fix of the harness racing which already, less than two months into my open-ended tour, I am missing pretty horribly.

Jack Dowie is the president of TrotBritain, the most important harness racing body in England. He is also a New Zealander, with a brother, Fred, in Christchurch who races horses in familiar (to us) places. Jack, like other ‘Brit’s with any real ambition, races his horses in France.

Jack and I came together thanks to this magazine. When, umpteen years ago, in the days of Davey Crockett, I penned my first article for ‘the mag’, Jack got in touch. We had the same kind of enthusiam, the same attitudes to the game, and very soon we were sharing a horse. We got a couple of wins together, the horse went off to become the mount of 11 year-old Lara Deniz of Leithfield, but Jack and I kept in touch. Otherwise, he did better than I. I got my 28 (so far??) wins, but Jack Dowie bred the magnificent Orlando des Baux, a trotting (for, as you know, France has no pacers, just trotters) entire who has in recent years become both a group race winner and latterly a first season stallion in France.

My arrival in Paris coincided not only with the French Presidential election but, more happily, with the end of the breeding season, and with the return of the decidedly fecund 5 year-old Orlando – distanced from racing very largely for well over a year through injury, apart from his conjugal duties – to the race course. So Jack and I arranged to meet up for what would be my first visit to a French race track for something like 30 years.

Where to start? Getting to Enghien race course is theoretically simple. A quick train from the Gare du Nord. I had to get first to the Gare du Nord from the 14eme arrondissement: via a metro carriage over-populated by skull-drugged Turks loudly discussing the state of their cocaine stash and a violent skirmish between a fat policeman and a thief of some sort on a station platform. But it was worth the effort.
Enghien race course is truly delightful, especially on a sunshiny Saturday in April. Grand facilities for the public, green green grass, white fences, and the poshest horse boxes I have ever seen. I hadn’t known that we were going to see the Group One International Prix de l’Atlantique, and I don’t know whether the vast crowd that turned out was there for that or the sun or whether they are always there every week, but wow! What an atmosphere. Even the gogo girls in gold lame, crimped hair and too much make-up who intermittently jiggled their backsides to excruciatingly loud music during the afternoon on the MC’s podium (Deano… don’t!), even the lousy can o’ beer with baguette-n-ham at $15NZ a pop, couldn’t spoil it. Almost nothing could. My first day at the Paris races was a joy and an eye opener.

My eyes opened up first at the luxurious horse boxes. I felt quite ashamed of New Zealand’s breeze-block affairs in the face of these Ritz Hotel quarters. But there was much more to come When trainer Maryon Hue arrived with Orlando, I got my first glimpse of the cart that the horse was to pull. Cart? You can’t call a thing like that a cart. It looked as if it had been made by Ferrari! Quick hitch, of course, so lacking the long-lined elegance of a ‘real’ cart, but with the sweeping style of a formula one, equipped with body-bars which operate as something like a boring pole but on the body of the horse, and above all ... so wide! These sulkies must be half as wide again as ours. My first though was… merde! What happens to the poor blighter who gets caught three or four wide? He’d be right off the track!

He wouldn’t at Enghien though. Because the track is of thoroughly adult proportions. None of your nasty little half mile dust saucers, this one. A lovely, real race track for real racehorses. And, much to my joy, as a result, a good proportion of the afternoon’s winners came from what in New Zealand would be considered bad draws.

If the carts are bigger, however, what to say of the horses? I mean, I’ve owned some big horses in my life. Davey Crockett was no midget, Lite Gasp must have knocked 17 hands, and my (unraced of course) 2 year-old, Elena de Gerolstein, promises to be a giantess .. but here ? They are all that size, or so it seems. During the afternoon, I slyly checked out French semen for New Zealand, but I’m told that Prebbleton and the mag have got there before me.

The big surprises, however, hadn’t even begun. How about this? Horses warm up for their race .. one and a half hours before the event. Yes. You bring your horse to the course, you gear it up, you take it out on to the track and give it a couple or three medium pace rounds, plus a half lap or so of almost flat out, and then you depart, leaving the race course to the contestants in the next race. You ungear your horse, wash it down, take it back to its box.. and then an hour later you gear it up again, wander forth down the rather too narrow alleys to the sort-of-birdcage, make the same sort of desultory appearance there as we do, and then head for the track. Six minutes – and not a second less before start time, and not until all the warmers-up for three races later have finished doing their thing. Imagine what NZ stable-hands would say to such a ‘double gear-up’!

But it gets much, much better. There are, as chez nous, both mobile starts and sort-of-standing starts.
Personally, I think that mobile starts in NZ stink. The ‘false starts’ provoked accidentally or on purpose have become so numerous as to be rather a bad joke. Don’t try that on here! There is a digital clock ticking, just like in a basketball match. Big red figures, so no excuse for anyone. And it doesn’t stop. If you aren’t there, up behind the arm .. and RIGHT behind the arm, messieurs .. when the clock says zero, then woe betide. And if you mess up the start, with a gallop or an insufficiency of any kind, you can expect a whopping fine or even a suspension. What a civilised country!

Standing starts are not standing. They are ‘walk in’, and the ‘tape’ is often an electronic beam. Break it at your peril. Once again, there is a strict countdown before the horses trot on to the track, turn at the starter’s instruction, and get loosed. I don’t know if French horses are simply better educated than ours, but it worked perfectly in every race today. There were no false starts, and only a few breakers at the beginning of the races.

I must admit, however, that there were a heck of a lot of gallopers during the races, including on several occasions (the big race being one of them) the leader, which simply flew out of its gear at very high speed. Is this just because, here, all the horses are trotters? (They actually call pacing ‘Ambling’ and it counts as a sin!).
Anyway, here again the rules differ from ours. Break or trot unevenly for over fifteen strides at any time in the race, and a loudspeaker booms. Desqualifié numero whatever. And you are out. You have to pull up, or go to the outside. You are, in plain English, disqualified. None of the good old Kiwi ‘how to have a horse gallop for half a furlong on the rails and only lose a nose’ business. You can’t cheat this system. Above all, because the stewards operate from a vehicle which runs right alongside the horses throughout the race. You try anything unorthodox, like a psuh-out, and ‘wallop’.

The differences between Us and Them don’t end there by a long way. The last race of the day was a ‘monté’. No cart. The ‘jockeys’(all drivers are ‘jockeys’) sit on the horse’s back. And the races are curious, to say the least, by our standards. Sudden moves. Swoops from the back to the front. A horse that races away 5-10 lengths clear. And sitting parked seems – as in all races -- less a disaster than a recipe for a win. Excitement! I loved my first live sight of ‘monté’. Orlando won his Group Race in ‘monté’ so when he is fully fit I hope to see him at it. It is spectacular.

Ah. I should report that, with his mind rather visibly on other, feminine things, and a little hanging which hinted at perhaps an incomplete recovery or preparation, Orlando ran a stout race, finished 6th of 11 and collected .. over $2000NZ for the effort. Well, it was a ‘Course Europeen’, the next best thing to a Group Race. So New Zealand was meritoriously represented. Mostly of course by Jack, but just a little by your servant who got to tag on behind, on to the green steeplechase course which circles the trotting track, up to the very trackside, where trainers and owners are allowed to gather during the warm up to watch and finally lead back their horses… I felt very much part of this scene.

And guess what! In spite of the cost of living here it seems I can race a horse here (if I’m smart) for no more than it costs to race one in New Zealand!

I’m bitten. Just as I got first bitten at the Nelson HRC meeting all those years ago. I’m off to do more racing in other parts of France in the next couple of weeks, before I move on to the next leg of my voyage. I suspect I shall be back quite soon. You should come and try it. Apart from being great fun, it can I believe teach us a very great deal.


After the last race, the monté, we wended our way gently back to the 5.30 train to the Gare du Nord, and there I left Jack to catch his train to London. He has a conference and a dentist’s appointment, and he returns on Thursday when we shall meet up at the now less unfriendly Gare Montparnasse to head off to his home in the Mayenne.

Now I was faced with a choice. Did I take a taxi back to Rue Gergovie, or did I brave the metro, solo for the first time, and save the taxi money for a couple of very big beers at the Chineur. Money and Alcohol overcame Fear and Loathing and I plunged into the gulf of the metro. One euro 9 centimes instead of probably 30 euros. You would have too. The signs to the platform were pretty obvious, a train arrived in one minute, and I managed to squeeze myself into a tiny strapontin seat. There were some elegant young ladies standing but, sorry, the time has come where I don’t do the chivalric thing anymore. Gare du Nord – Montparnasse, happily, is only about a 15 minute journey, but having reached Montparnasse I had to negotiate that kilometre of underground walkways with their frequent ‘left or right’ decisions. After what seemed forever, I made it to the front of the mainline station. From there, I knew my way, and ten minutes later I flopped myself over the bar at Le Chineur, hot, sticky, sunshined-out and extraordinarily weary…
Two pints. Well, they aren’t even pints. And then back to base for a very necessary shower and a review of my clothes. I have travelled now for what? Six, seven weeks? And I have kept my wardrobe in good, usable condition. So what happens the moment I get back near a horse? Filth everywhere. Tomorrow I shall have to go to the cleaners.
I decided to put my feet up and write the above article, after which I would sneak across the road for a quiet cous cous. Surely I would be hungry by 9pm. After all, apart from my little hotel breakfast and the aforesaid bit of baguette and squinny ham, I’d eaten nothing all day. But come 9pm, I postponed till 9.30, and then -- dressed, ready, my hand on the doorknob -- I said to myself ‘do I really WANT this meal?’. Answer? Bed seems better. So bed it was.

And now it is Sunday. Election day. I wonder what that will bring. There was enough shouting and dancing in the Avenue Raymond Losserand (off which Gergovie runs) last night just because the pretty awful Paris football team won. And scored four goals for what must be the first time in a year. What will it all be like on election night? I am glad I have my wax earplugs, I have a feeling I may need them.

Ah well, off to Le Chineur for a strong coffee, the morning Internet and rendezvous (10am), and the day’s planning. I do rather feel like an easy one. I suppose a sampler of the last day of the Festival would be a non-active activity? We shall see…

Until soon

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