As the curtain falls on Deauville’s August meeting, France Galop, the governing body of French racing, announced this week that the development of the ‘new’ Longchamp had been given the go-ahead, writes Nigel Howard.
At a cost of 131 million euros, demolition of the existing stands will start soon after this year’s Arc meeting. The project has been in the pipeline for four years and the decision is undoubtedly a welcome shot in the arm for French racing.
Located on a 55-hectare site in the Bois de Boulogne, the racecourse was built in 1857 and has undergone several phases of development and expansion over the years. The result is a variety of buildings from very different architectural periods, some of which remain closed all year round.
The ‘new’ Longchamp, designed by Dominique Perrault, architect of the famous Bibliotheque Francois Mitterrand, is expected to take two years to complete. Bertrand Bélinguier, president of France Galop explains, "Today, there are two enormous grandstands that are only ever filled for the Qatar Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. The idea is to build one large modular platform that will provide much more flexibility for the future”.
There is little doubt that French racing needs a modern venue from which to showcase its premier event. Ascot took the plunge 11 years ago to great effect and it’s quite clearly time for Longchamp to follow suit. The new plans include the option of a flood-lit all-weather track which would rival the major trotting venue on the other side of Paris at Vincennes where evening meetings have been staged with success for many years.
However, all these heady plans come at a cost. As part of the ‘deal,’ one of Paris’s other racing venues has to shut. A working committee is in place to decide which racecourse will eventually close with the spotlight firmly on either Maison-Laffitte, a town twinned with Newmarket and a major racehorse training centre or Saint-Cloud, situated just up the road from Longchamp and home to the Group 1 Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud won famously this year by the mighty Trêve.
Losing either course would be a huge blow with each venue steeped in racing history and both of huge importance to their respective towns. As a result, there is likely to be strong opposition to either closure. Previous rumours sparked major protests by racing employees and professionals alike at Maison-Laffitte last year with the result that whole meetings were lost. Further unrest is expected when the committee eventually announces where the axe will fall.
With Longchamp closed for the 2016 season, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe is to be moved to Chantilly, a racecourse that itself was under review a few years ago but which was revitalised with a huge investment from the Aga Khan whose French training establishment is just a stone’s throw away at Gouvieux. It now boasts a new grandstand and all-weather track and is home to the Prix du Jockey Club and Prix de Diane. Although the Prix de Diane attracts some 30,000 spectators, it will be interesting to see how the venue will be adapted to accommodate crowds of 60,000 plus for Europe’s premier race.
One track that is under no threat of closure is Deauville, where the thriving August-long racing festival draws to a close on Sunday with the feature race being the aptly named Grand Prix de Deauville, an event run over 2500 metres (1m5f). It is loosely considered an Arc trial and one which has produced some serious contenders in the past, most recently when the Andre Fabre trained Cherry Mix prevailed in 2004, who then ran second to Bago in the Arc of that year.
Seven go to post for this year’s renewal including last year’s winner COCKTAIL QUEEN. A daughter of Motivator and trained by Myriam Bollack-Badel, the mare carries the same the colours as shock Juddmonte International winner, Arabian Queen. She ran with some credit when second in the Group 2 Prix de Pomone at this track recently. With her favoured soft ground assured, she is fancied to run a big race. Three year old’s have a good record in the race and indeed of great interest is the participation of St Leger and Arc entry, SUMBAL. Owned by Qatar Racing Limited and trained by François Henri Graffard, this son of Danehill Dancer was last seen running fifth in the Prix de Jockey Club back in June. He has already shown he can handle the conditions when taking a Group 3 event at Saint-Cloud earlier in the year. Retained jockey Andrea Atzeni rides and a strong showing from him tomorrow could bring him into reckoning for the Arc.
With the festival ending tomorrow, it is surely time to reflect on what was once again a hugely successful meeting. Five group one events have passed and much to the annoyance of the French, four went to English trained horses. Only the mare Esoterique, trained by Andre Fabre, flew the French flag when striding to victory in the main event, the Prix Jacque Le Marois. She has thrived this summer and must be a strong fancy for the Prix de Moulin de Longchamp run on Arc Trials weekend.
Other highlights would include an assured victory for Prix de Jockey Club winner New Bay, who, above all else, proved that he can handle soft ground when winning the group 2 Prix Guillaume d'Ornano. His Arc participation would now seem assured whereas others, such as Golden Horn, may well be forced to side-step the race in the event of soft ground. One for the notebook would be the Wildenstein Stable-owned three year old, Ming Dynasty. A son of King’s Best, he kept his unbeaten record intact when running on strongly to defeat the highly regarded Migwar, trained by Freddie Head in the Listed Grand Prix de Clairefontaine recently. When interviewed after the race, Mikel Delzangle, his trainer, could hardly contain his delight at the performance and declared the Group 2 Prix Niel run at Longchamp as his next target before a possible crack at the Arc.