Sunday, May 6, 2007

Kurt at Vincennes


Its 10pm Saturday night. I should be asleep, especially given that I have to elect the President of France tomorrow. And also that I was dead on (or off) my feet at 7pm. But …. Well, I wanted to get today’s happenings down on what passes now for paper while the memories are hot. Hot, hot, hot.

So, surmounting my post-Metro crise of 7pm, I downloaded the day’s pictures, showered, changed, and – having survived the whole day on one rather tough baguette, 2 coffees and a few glasses of champagne -- popped across the road for a quick cous-cous and a bottle of Moroccan gris. You don’t ‘pop’ in Paris on a Saturday night at 8pm. Also, much as the smily Moroccan in the cous-cous place seems to like me, a ‘single’ is, in the restaurant trade, a liability. Nevertheless, he brought me a glorious merguez cous-cous which seemed to me to be the same size as the lads had had for two people yesterday, plus those nice little liqueurs that preface and end a couscous meal, and my only problem was to persuade him that ‘yes!’ I did indeed mean I wanted an entire bottle of wine all for myself. He came back twice to ask again! Honestly, these ‘Frenchmen’…

So. That is why its 10pm and I’m only just back in room 5 Hotel Plaisance, where I’d intended to be an hour ago.
And ready to go.


A day at the races with Kurt and Jack.

I imagine that anyone who has anything at all to do with harness racing, anywhere in the world, has heard of it. Maybe even seen it on television. But as of today I’ve been there, seen it in the flesh, from just about every angle you can imagine, and I’ve had a fascinating and truly exciting time.

Vincennes is not utterly easy to get to. From my pied-a-terre in the 14th arrondissement, it took a 10 minute walk, a healthy tube trip, followed by a shorter suburban train trip, followed again by an even shorter bus trip. Something like an hour, and I wouldn’t like to have done it without a guide! We did it grey and early – for alas the day had dawned damp and cool-breezy -- and got to the course with plenty of time to have a good look around before the action started.
It is impressive. There is no other word. The colossal, modern, tiered stand looms over all, from the open bleachers and vast betting halls at ground level up – in traditional manner -- though the glass-encased private club and dining areas to the champagne-drenched eyries of national and internatonal officialdom high above.
The horse accommodation, which slopes down the side of the track so as to half give the impression of being housed in a vast bunker is as impressive here as it has been on every course I have visited. More than 130 handsome, well-fitted-out boxes, set on courtyards and with direct access to the track.
And the track? Well, that is something else. It is actually two tracks, a smaller one for night racing let into the great, swooping 2000-metre oval, with its famous ‘descente’ and ‘montée’ – not quite as dramatic as the Great Northern Steeplechase, but on the same principal –which serves for days like today. See Vincennes and die, say I to the constructors of all those piteous half-mile saucers which pass for racetracks. I’ve never seen anything to compare with it. And just to add to its drama, it is black. Coal black. And with good reason. The whole surface is of cinder, staunch, muesli-sharp cinder (I dug my hands into it joyfully) of the kind we had in sports grounds in the days before track athletes became pin-cushions.
The visual effect is stunning. The black, black track, the green, green grass, and away in the distance a misty view of the towering roofs of Paris.
And the giant screen. I’ve seen a few of those in my time, too, but nothing like this one. Not only do you see everything that is going on on the track – warm-ups, races, replays – you also get all the betting and racing information prior to the race, the sectionals during the race, and the results after the race (amazingly, they give each placed horse’s time, but not the distances and not the dividends .. they even have their priorities in order!). Perhaps the greatest thrill for an owner is when each horse’s details go up. Owner, trainer, driver ... and your colours in great and glorious full technicolour. But the salient point about this screen is its clarity. In the grey part of the day, it shone out like a beacon, when the sunshine latterly came, it was equally clear to read. Clear? It positively leaped out at you. Every home should have one.

I’ve chatted a lot in my other tales from the French racetrack about what goes on here. The Them and Us thing. This time – the last before I head on to places where, alas, there are no harness races – I’d like to say just a little about the horses. Because today I saw some magnificent horses.

Race one was a three-year-old fillies 2175m monté (stand start), and I glued myself to the rails with my Kodak in hand. Queen Bird, with two fast-finishing wins from two country starts, was the favourite and she shot to the lead. Shot? She ran her first sectional in 1.11 -- faster than the adults and stars would do later in the day – and simply didn’t stop. One by one her would-be competitors, unable to keep up, galloped as their gait went to bits, or simply fell off the lead bunch exhausted. On the last turn, the foremost of the virtual stragglers started just perceptibly to close the gaping hole to the leader, but Queen Bird was just playing as she cruised to victory in a very fast time. A stunning start to the day.

Before Race two, the Marion Hue contingent – Jack’s Porto de Bootz and the Querido des Baux of Mons Plancqueel, the one which had won here last week at 60-1 – arrived from Les Baux de Breteuil, so we ended up watching race two from the owners and trainers bar, sensibly situated among the horseboxes. From there you have a great view of the runners as they dive down the hill after the front straight.

Race three was the big one. Yes, race three. Here, the feature of the day is habitually not left until everyone has run out of gas or money.
This big race has had the pundits spilling ink by the gallon. Pages and pages and pages of analyses in the press. But all saying the same thing. The race was a gimme. The ‘best horse in the world’, the filly Pearl Queen was a shoo-in. Out of fifty or so pundits – press and professionals – who paraded their picks in the PARIS-TURF, not one dared disagree. Pearl Queen 50, the rest: none. Even the young trainer Laurence Baudron grimaced ‘we are running for the second place’.
I didn’t necessarily see it that way. But what did I know, apart from what I’d read in Paris-Turf? However, this is a race like the Grand National or the Melbourne Cup when even those of us who ‘never’ bet, have to put a couple of dollars on, so I did. Bypassing Pearl Queen at 1.40 to win, I plonked my 2 euros on the proven best of the colts, Prince d’Espace, who –thanks to her – was showing at 14-1.
All looked straightforward to start with. Pearl Queen dropped into the one-one, behind her eternally helpful stablemate, as an outsider set what looked to me like just a steady pace. But when the star of the occasion finally pulled out to take over the lead it took about two seconds to see that this horse was not going well enough to win. On the turn – in typical French fashion – the well-liked colt Pitt Cade put his shoulder into it and skipped clear. Surely he couldn’t be caught! But champion driver Bazire had finally got Prince d’Espace, out wide, away from the back of the bunch and, as the field thinned he suddenly dived – with a daring I’ve rarely seen -- at an impossible angle for a rails run. Then, as he closed like a whippet on Pitt Cade, drama struck. The leader galloped, and at the same time a flash of white appeared under the outside rails. It was the unconsidered Pirogue Jenilou, a little sit-sprint filly of undoubted value (actually the fourth largest stake-winner in the 16-horse field), trained by the same 21 year-old Baudron who had thought he was running for second. With Pitt Cade, and the huge outsider which finished fourth both being disqualified for not trotting correctly in the final stretch (you don’t even have to break!), Pearl Queen finally finished fifth. The hordes of fans dolled up in their Pearl Queen promo caps were shattered. ’The best horse in the world’ myth was dead forever. Pirogue Jenilou was the heroine of the day, and my 2 euros hadn’t quite turned into 28.

Race four, we watched from the bleachers. A good view, if somewhat chilly. This too was a group race and once again the ‘fans’ were out with their pancartes. The object of their passion, this time, was a good 5 year-old named Opus Viervil whom I’d seen finish nigh on last the other day at Enghien. Opus Viervil, however, is not loved for himself alone. He is loved as the best first-crop son of the once idolised trotting star Jag de Bellouet, and the cardboard signs refer to him as ‘son of Jag’. Well, Opus Viervil sent them away happy as, in a remarkable turn-around of form, he stormed home to victory.

Race six, we watched from above. Way above. Far from the chilly winds, sipping champagne in the official eyrie in the company of Mons Jacques Chartier, chief executive of Le Cheval Français and shortly to visit Christchurch for the World Trotting Conference, and Mons Maurice de Folleville, the doyen of the association. Not to forget a number of the kind of elegant ladies whom I’d been disappointed to see no evidence of down on level one. In fact, level one of the ‘owners and guests’ area seemed to be largely populated by strange little men in shabby black, clasping racecards close and effortfully mateying up to every jockey or trainer who came near. As well as one distinctly crazy member of the species, in a bright red shirt, who spent the entire day shouting insults at the objects of his desire.

Up on level umpteen, however, one was far from such curiosities, and we had a magnificent view of the race won by a horse suffering from the name of Magnificent Rodney, a horse which a few nights earlier had represented France with some success in Finland.

With race eight, we got to personal things. Jack’s Porto de Bootz was number 11, and 18-18 in the betting in a field of 18. Well, yes. First up since December, he was ‘going round’ as part of his preparation, with the tiny hope of breaking into the first seven and thus the money. And he did it! Marion kept him snuggled in amongst the field for the first 2400 metres, and he ran home nicely down the straight, passing one horse after another and sneaking into seventh by a nose. $600NZ in the kitty! And a decidedly promising run.

For race nine we had higher hopes. Querido had, after all, won with great ease on this very track just last week. But today was Criterium day, and the field for the Prix de Dreux was a pretty hot one. ‘Whatever wins this’, I was told, ‘will race thereafter against the very top three year-olds’. For the public, it was a virtual two horse race, with Quaro, who had won with huge ease on my day at Enghien as favourite. Querido was 18-1 in spite of being picked here and there.
There was no fairytale. Quaro went to the front, went for the doctor, and found him. But Querido, kept relaxed back in the field throughout, powered home for third (and $15,000NZ!) when the bird had flown, in most impressive style.

It was a splendid finale to a splendid day, and as we sprinted for Jack’s train (to England) and my tube (to the 14eme arrondissement), I thought – ‘they do this five times a week here in the winter!’. But I suppose every day isn’t Criterium day. If it were, I guess I’d be doing my house hunting somewhere round Vincennes.

In spite of the buttercups.

Sad footnote: It appears that the wonderful black track of Vincennes is condemned. Cinders are apparently these days deemed unhealthy by those who pontificate on such things, and they have to go. In a country where every second person puffs semi-permanently on a cigarette, this seems to me vaguely ridiculous.

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