The Normandy race track Evreux-Navarre is a pleasant hour train ride from the Paris Saint-Lazare station. They’ve been racing at Evreux since 1905 and if you go there today, not much seems to have changed.
Evreux represents hippodrome number 22 in my quest to visit all 250 French race tracks. I had heard that the ambiance at Evreux was truly special and I set out to discover for myself. I took my bicycle with me in the train in order to get to the track from the Evreux station, but also to take in the context by cycling through the emerald green pastures of the Eure region of Haute Normandie, up the rolling hills over country roads that follow the contour of the land, maybe passing one of the many horse farms, medieval abbeys and Renaissance castles.
None of the horses intended for the Arc de Triomphe would be racing on this splendid Sunday afternoon but the maidens and claimers were all beautifully groomed and looked like champions to me.
Rather than rant about how much I love country tracks, let’s just take a look.
The race track is a family outing instead of a casino, with pony rides and other children’s activities.
The first turn around the mile oval gives you a picture of the rough forested hills of the region.
Railbirds clutch their programs, which contain sparse information about the runners, mainly listing their recent finish positions, with no indication of surface, distance, class level, or anything else that handicappers need to know.
But in the walking ring before each race, medieval oral culture kicks in and the track announcer narrates past performances like an old troubadour, chanting more specific information about the recent races as the horses parade in the walking ring.
I was able to scribble out my own past performances by going on line the night before, entering the free Geny Courses database, and clicking on the names of the entries, riders and trainers.
Thanks to this information, I had two choices in the first race, for gentleman riders and cavalières (“gentlewomen”). The number 5 Charmeuse had by far the best earnings per race and was to be ridden by the leading gentleman rider, Florent Guy (31% wins and 54% in the money). But Charmeuse was the favorite, and his earnings had come with a string of seconds and thirds in maiden races. He looked like a professional maiden.
Meanwhile, the only other rider with high impact stats was Madmoiselle Catherine Rieb-Menard (15% wins, 26% in the money) and her horse, Iconic, was going off at around 11/1. I played Iconic. When Madmoiselle Rieb-Menard felt the pace too slow in the 1 9/16 event, she swept Iconic by the field, took the lead, and never surrendered it. Iconic paid 23.60. Naturally, I was pleased to listen to the extended interview of Miss Rieb-Menard, who had become my new heroine.
Notice the rear of the grandstand in the background of this picture. This is the typical half-timbered style (exposed wood frames) that came from the Middle Ages and then became fashionable once again in Normandy in the 1800s. This grandstand was built 110 years ago and looks and feels as if it hasn’t undergone any changes since.
Looking from the grandstand across the backstretch, a railroad track is carved into the side of the hill, hidden in the brush, with Intercities trains gliding between Paris and Deauville.
In the background of the far turn, you can take a glimpse at a typical Normandy church spire in the nearby town of Navarre.
The region is replete with architectural treasures and I have chosen a rare one to finish this visit, an old copper foundry I passed between the race course and the train station in the town of Navarre, called the Usines de Navarre.
With a theatrical track announcer, convivial country atmosphere and authentic homespun architecture, racing at Evreux manages a perfect balance between serenity and exhilaration. Too bad they only get four racing dates per year. But somehow, racing managers have found a way to preserve France’s 250 race courses without resorting to casinos and hype, by realizing that so often less is better and small is beautiful.