Thursday, May 30, 2013

Guest Post: The Race Track as a Clearing in the Forest: Unbeaten Paths to Historic Horse Races

--Mark Cramer

It is French Derby and French Oaks season. These exciting horse races take place in a setting of great beauty that is best appreciated in a primeval way.  

Our well-known year of 1776 also refers to the first public horse race at Fontainebleau race course, in a sprawling, boulder-strewn forest about 37 miles south of Paris. Seventeen years before he was beheaded, Louis XIV was in attendance on that memorable day in the history of the sport of kings. Today, Fontainebleau is one of France’s 251 race courses, and horse racing has become a spectacle for the proletariat, with low admission fare (sometimes free) and a pari-mutuel system (invented in France) that has spread to the most remote regions of the country.

Today’s Fontainebleau race course, also known as Hippodrome de la Solle, dates back to its re-inauguration in 1862, when Emperor Napoléon II was in attendance along with 30,000 spectators. One of the great traditions that began with Fontainebleau is the integration of race tracks within forests, usually not far from a great castle (click here for photos).

Just a few of the other tracks that have followed in this tradition are Longchamp (Boulogne Forest), Compiègne, set within a forest of the same name, and Chantilly, whose forest contains hiking trails that crisscross with miles of cushiony dirt paths where Thoroughbreds enjoy their morning gallops. 
Chantilly race course and training center, a bit more than 30 miles north of Paris, is in today’s racing news, hosting the French Derby (Prix du Jockey Club, June 2) and the French Oaks (Prix de Diane, June 16).

Horses run past Les Grandes Ecuries at Chantilly
Racing Post Photo
An article in Sports Illustrated (June 8, 1964) named Chantilly “the most beautiful racetrack in the world”:

Our mirror… reflects Chantilly, an hour's drive from Paris—Chantilly, with its verdant turf, its winding gallops through the birches, lindens and oaks of the ancient forest, its Renaissance château. Chantilly has been the seat of classical French racing since 1830, a place which every summer attracts those people who love beauty and good racing. Chantilly, we feel, is the fairest of them all. With the château as backdrop, restive horses and jockeys await the start, a horse takes a long lead into the woods…

The racetrack at Compiègne, near the Oise River north of Paris, dating back to 1875, is so integrated with its forest that its recent private sale is being legally contested partly because the forestry department was not allowed a say in the transaction. Its surrounding structures, in half-timbered style, add some old English flavor to the landscape architecture.

The Finish Line at Compiegne
The quality of the landscape architecture of most French tracks is enhanced by the fact that people get there by walking from the train station. With only minimal parking areas needed, you don’t find rows of cars breaking up the bucolic view.

The landscape architecture of Longchamp, in the Boulogne Forest east of Paris, is punctuated by the presence of a legendary windmill on the far turn, as well as an 1860’s man-made waterfall across from the backstretch.  

Part of the fun of going racing in these tracks-in-the-woods is coming out of the footpaths and seeing the forest suddenly open its curtains before you into a race track. For Fontainebleau, my racing partner Alan Kennedy and I took the train from Paris (Gare de Lyon station) and got off 35 minutes later at the elegant town of Bois le Roi, already within the forest. Using the contour map published by the Institut Géographique National (map 2417 OT).

We left the town going west on a residential street until making a left on the Routes des Ventes Bouchard walking path. At the first fork in the wooded path, we took the second right (south) on Route de la Butte Saint-Louis, which ended at Departmental Route D606. We turned left on the roadside for a few meters. To avoid the cars on D606, we turned right toward the backstretch (still invisible behind the forest) on Route de Luxembourg. As soon as we came out into a clearing, the track spread magnificently before us and we turned left. But it still took awhile to get from the backstretch to the grandstand. All in all, round trip to and from the train station was only 7 ½ miles.

For Chantilly, take the train from Gare du Nord until the Orry-la-Ville stop (or you can cheat and continue directly to Chantilly). From Orry la Ville, get out of the station on the left side of the tracks, walk through the parking lot in the same direction as the train, go under the train bridge and cross a road into the forest. Follow the path along the train tracks until your second right. Essentially, you are simply going a little deeper into the forest to get away from the trains but still walking parallel to the tracks. The halfway point is a descent to a pretty lake, where you come upon a medieval tower (Château de la Reine Blanche) that houses an outdoor café. Alan and I did this trip once on our bikes and a second time on foot.

Château de la Reine Blanche
Following the lake, which is set in a hole in the ground, re-ascend on the other side and continue in the same direction as the train tracks. Any number of paths will lead you in the direction of Chantilly.

You know you’re near when you cross hoof-printed training tracks, and then it will be only a few minutes to the paddock and the track.

It’s 7 ½ miles from Orry to the track, passing through the contiguous forests of Coye and Chantilly. You can avoid a return walk by taking the train back to Paris from the Chantilly station. On the map, the black line refers to the train tracks. Always keep to the right of the train tracks and you will not miss the track.

With the exercise and clean, fresh air, the handicapping mind will be ready to operate at maximum capacity.

The castle at Chantilly can be seen directly from the grandstand. On the other hand, the castle at Fontainebleau requires an additional hike south from the track: or take a taxi for a few minutes over a much more direct route.

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