Thursday, July 10, 2014

Guest Post: The Last Resort

--Mark Cramer

   If you can't get reservations for the seaside Deauville meets, as a last resort you can go up the Normandy coast to Dieppe. It's a resort town for the claiming ranks of vacationers--a stony beach, but a magnificent palisade and a castle towering amidst rolling green hills above the beach.
   A half-hour walk inland from the beach is the Dieppe race course, also a last resort, for some horses that have not been able to make it at the Paris tracks or at Deauville. The conditions for the ninth and final race were “for horses that were not among the top-five finishers in their last five races, excepting small tracks that do not offer national pari-mutuel wagering.”  
   I have become a lover of such country tracks. Often big-time stables come slumming, expecting to pick up an easy win, only to be thwarted by the hillbillies of the Thoroughbred world.  
   A few years ago, I bicycled 100 kilometers from outside of Paris to Dieppe, not even knowing there was a race course there. The road leading into town passed along the empty backstretch, and I resolved to return on a racing day, which I did this past Tuesday.
   Also arriving in Dieppe was the Irish filly Cocktail Queen, daughter of Motivator (none other than the sire of Treve, winner of the 2013 Arc de Triomphe). Cocktail Queen had just finished fifth in a field of seven in a Group 3 race at Ascot for a purse of £60,000. She was now racing for a €20,000 purse.

Outdoor café culture at the Dieppe race course.

   She got beat by Storm River (Stormy River {Fr}), a French-bred gelding coming from a claiming race with a €23,000 purse. Dieppe is a place where scores are settled. Winning gentleman rider Florent Guy is often involved in such small track retribution against aristocratic invaders, with 24% wins and 59% in the money, incredible stats considering the large average field size in France.
   I bet on a similar pattern in the third race, for women amateur riders. The favorite had once been in the G1 French Derby and was now slumming for a purse of €15,000. Among the riders, only two had respectable win percentages: the rider of the favorite, with 10% wins, and the rider of the horse I backed, Madmoiselle Barbara Guenet, with 32% winners. Because of this jockey stat, I found myself betting on a claimer against a former stakes contender. My claimer won at 8-1.
   The anti-aristocrat bet does not always win at places like Dieppe and André Fabre broke the pattern in the 6th race by winning with a colt named Fauve (Ire) (Montjeu {Ire}) at 4/1. It was a poet's victory, with "Fabre" and "fauve" forming a near perfect alliteration in French pronunciation.
   The arts were also alive in the walking ring, where a local painter stood in a kiosk before his easel and did a painting of the horses. The winning rider of the seventh race was to be awarded the work of art. Raphael Marchelli won the race, but was later fined by the jockey club for "abusive use of the whip-nine lashes." The fine was €75, but he got to keep the painting. 

Horses coming on to the track. The receiving barn in the background has typical
Normandy spires.

   When I first wheeled past an empty Dieppe race course a few years ago, the French renaissance of small rural tracks had only just begun. Most small tracks offered only local wagering that was not tied into the national French PMU. This afternoon's Dieppe racing was simulcast across the nation.
   The locals showed up in good numbers for the racing, with encouragement from the regional newspaper, Paris Normandie Dieppe Bray, which published a four-page spread on the day's races, including abbreviated past performances.
   There'll be racing on July 14th to celebrate the French national holiday. After the racing, you can stroll down to the beach along a side street with a vibrant display of colorful Normandy brick architecture, then watch the sunset and see the fireworks.
   My plan is to visit all 250 French race tracks. Dieppe was my 23rd.  Each of these smaller rural tracks is different.
   What was distinct about Dieppe? The artist with his easel in the walking ring, the grassy apron, the rolling green hills behind the backstretch, the typical Normandy spires of the receiving barn, and the mile-and-a-half circumference more in the form of a triangle than an oval, with three turns to get around, with the jockeys vying for the outside rail in the stretch drive.

Jockeys vie for the outer rail in the stretch.

   But French rural tracks have one thing in common. There's an intimacy that allows the racing fan to chat with the jockeys and trainers, get a close look at the horses, and even voice opinions directly to the management.

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