France is home to some of the most beautiful racecourses in the world, but also stages some of the most important races. Almost all of the latter are concentrated around the Parisien tracks at ParisLongchamp, Chantilly and Saint-Cloud, but Deauville is a notable exception staging top quality racing over the summer months.
Here, Nicholas Godfrey has produced a guide to some of the French racecourses you can enjoy on Sky Sports Racing.
BORDEAUX - LE BOUSCAT
At the heart of French wine country, located just 6km from the centre of the port city on the Garonne. A right-handed track catering, like so many tracks in the French Provinces, for Flat and jumps with a separate inside-oval trotting track, Le Bouscat has an annual total of about 30 meetings with a trio of Listed races the pinnacle. Two of those, the Derby du Midi and the Grand Prix de Bordeaux (replay below) take place towards the end of May (took place on May 23, the latter race being the second leg of this year’s ‘Defi du Galop’, promoting a series of regional grand prix over middle distances). Also often hosts the former Group 3 race, the Prix André Baboin – Grand Prix des Provinces that moves around France’s main regional racecourses (Marseille-Borely in 2020). Circuit is an irregular 2,000-metre (1m2f) oval with a run-in of just over two furlongs.
Founded in 1952 between Nice and Cannes on the French Riviera with the backstretch running parallel to the Mediterranean, Cagnes-Sur-Mer – or the Hippodrome de la Cote d’Azur, to use the official title – sounds impossibly romantic. In truth, the reality is more prosaic, with all-weather racing (on a 1m3f Polytrack oval) and a diet of low-grade handicaps and claimers dominating the programme between December and February, and trotting only in summer for popular evening meetings in July and August. The course nevertheless attracts a cosmopolitan equine clientele over the winter with regular runners from Italy, Germany, Spain and Britain plus various regions of France. The track itself is a left-handed oval overlooked by 6,000-seater stand offers second-largest venue in French provinces; four Listed races in February include Prix Saonois, a Fast Track Qualifier for the Lingfield All-Weather Finals Day. On turf, their Grand Prix event is the first leg of the annual Defi du Galop series.
You can’t talk about Chantilly’s racecourse without starting with its timeless picture-postcard setting, bordered by a fairytale chateau and the imposing ‘Grandes Ecuries’ and surrounded by a forest. Located about 50km from Paris, Chantilly is French racing’s headquarters, its environs home to more than 2,000 horses and the majority of the nation’s most prestigious training establishments, among them the likes of Andre Fabre, Freddy Head, Pascal Bary, Mikel Delzangles, Francis-Henri Graffard plus Alain de Royer-Dupre at the Aga Khan’s Aiglemont estate. While such a remarkable backdrop means every day’s racing at Chantilly is a treat, the venue stages the nations senior Classics for colts and fillies, the Prix du Jockey Club (French Derby) and Prix de Diane (French Oaks). The latter in particular is the day for fashionistas to don their posh frocks and headwear, Royal Ascot-style. Also has a Polytrack course inside the turf track.
Popular track in lovely ornate surroundings on the Normandy coast, especially during summer when quality of racing benefits from proximity of Deauville, which is virtually next door. Right-handed circuit of about 2,000 metres (1m2f) and follows the usual French regional template of hosting both Flat and jumps, with a trotting oval on the inner. Hosted its first Group race with transferred Prix de Palais-Royal, transferred from Longchamp on May 28; three Listed races on the schedule in the summer including Grand Prix de Clairefontaine (won by the Joseph Tuite-trained Surrey Thunder - replay below). With Deauville so close, Clairefontaine offers a convenient outlet for top trainers: both Andre Fabre and Jean-Claude Rouget - who sent future French Derby winner Sottsass to break his maiden here as a juvenile - operate at a high strike-rate, while over jumps visitors from the powerhouse yards of Nicolle and Macaire also need close attention.
Racing dates back to 1872 at this dual-purpose venue about 45 miles northeast of Paris (or an hour from the Gare du Nord), the Hippodrome du Patois is located within a forest on the Oise River. Compiegne's jumps programme in 2020 benefits from the Coronavirus shutdown in the capital as various prestigious contests usually run at Auteuil move here. Flat circuit is a sweeping 11-furlong oval with a long 3f-plus run-in, generally suiting long-striding gallopers. Proximity to Chantilly (about halfway to Paris) means top stables are habitually represented, and maidens can be better-than-average as a result. Programme features a trio of Listed races headed by the Grand Prix de Compiegne (usually late June).
Renowned as the summer home of the Paris racing glitterati, which decamps en masse two hours to the chi-chi tourist hotspot on the Atlantic coast for a month of top-class racing and yearling sales – plus, it must be admitted, a bit of socialising. An upmarket Normandy resort since the nineteenth century, Deauville offers racecourse surroundings to match. The only racecourse outside Paris to host Group 1 events with the
The Prix Jacques le Marois – in effect France’s mile championship held on the well-known straight course – provides the highlight of a quality racing programme in a beautiful, unique setting. Not for nothing was Deauville the place to which Paris turned to when the coronavirus shutdown was reinstated but its role has been expanded to include winter racing since 2003 following the installation of the all-weather inner oval (now Polytrack).
Decades of day trippers from Britain have taken the four-hour trip from Newhaven to Dieppe, perhaps the most attractive of the easily accessible Channel ferry ports. Ten minutes from the town centre via taxi is the welcoming Dieppe-Rouxmenil racecourse, which offers a decent level of action on 17 racedays (Flat, jumps, trotting) during the summer months every year. Cross-country jump racing is a big deal here, with an idiosyncratically meandering circuit with an array of obstacles in various shapes and sizes – ditches, hedges, banks, bullfinches, water jumps, a brook more akin to jumping a canal, ‘contre bas’ (sharply dipping gradients) and ‘contre haut’ (ditto but uphill) – inside the more conventional main track. Most important races are the Grand Steeple-Chase Cross Country (July) and Grand Steeplechase de Dieppe (late August).
Mainly Flat-racing venue located about an hour to the southwest of Bordeaux on the Acheron coast. Right-handed 2,000-metre (1m2f) oval with tightish turns at either end,a near-3f run-in plus a straight sprint chute, this leading regional venue hosts four Listed races on an annual basis, notably Prix Millkom and Prix Occitanie (for three-year-old males and females respectively), scheduled for the same card on September 4. Hosts about 18 cards annually between March and September; also a serious training centre with 20 trainers and over 500 horses.
The main racecourse catering to France’s second-largest urban area in the Rhone-Alpes region, the Hippodrome Parilly opened in 1965 in the south-east of the city and now hosts Flat, jumps and trotting with a cross-country course on the infield. About 160 Flat races (50 jumps) a year are staged on a left-handed track with a circumference of 1,800 metres (1m1f) and a 500-metre straight. Gets a rare taste of Group-race action in June with Classic trials transferred amid the Paris shutdown; four Listed races usually represent the summit of Lyon-Parilly’s programme, the highlight being the Grand Prix de Lyon at the end of June. Champion jockey Maxime Guyon has a fine strike-rate here and Pierre-Charles Boudot generally does well, while Franck Blondel always gets his share, albeit from more rides than anyone else. Lyon’s less prestigious second racecourse is La Soir (Carré de Soir), hosting all-weather racing and trotting opposite the shopping centre on the Jonage Canal.
Dating back to 1869 with an attractive seaside location adjacent to the Mediterranean in the grounds of the Chateau Borely (sits on the back straight), racing at the Hippodrome Borely takes place on a classic left-hand oval, quite tight at a one-mile circumference so be careful with the draw at certain distances. All three codes – Flat, jumps and trotting – are catered for. Three Listed races appear on the venue’s annual fixture list, notably the Grand Prix de Marseille in November. They are joined this year by the Grand Prix de Provinces on October 26. Franck Blondel and Frederic Rossi can be relied upon to figure towards the top end of the jockeys’ and trainers’ lists, while the Jerome Reynier/Guillaume Millet partnership are in rich form of late. Marseille’s second track is Pont-de-Vivaux’s all-weather offering towards the east of the city.
Located on 57 hectares of Paris parkland next to the Seine in the Bois de Boulogne, the storied home the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe is a byword for horse racing elegance and excellence. A cross-Channel visit to Europe’s richest race for a Group 1-laden weekend in October is little short of an annual pilgrimage for any number of British racegoers, but high-class fare is a certainty all-season long at France’s premier racecourse, where 17 of the country’s 28 Group 1 races are staged.
Rechristened ParisLongchamp – though still more usually known just as ‘Longchamp’ – after the multi-million-euro redevelopment before the April 2018 reopening, the course remains as stylish and fashionable as ever, a beacon for racing fans around the world.
As home to arguably the most iconic race on the planet, Longchamp has also been the scene for any number of legendary performances – think Sea-Bird, Mill Reef, Dancing Brave or, more recently, Zarkava, Sea The Stars, Treve and Enable – played out on the ‘Grande Piste’ with its famous ‘False Straight’. This is actually one of four different circuits on an intertwined multi-layout allowing for 46 different starting points; one of the other tracks is the notorious five-furlong chute across the middle used for the Prix de l’Abbaye where it is next to impossible to work out what’s happening from the stands.
The France Galop website describes Saint-Cloud as “the professionals’ favourite racecourse”, a reputation largely derived from a racing surface famously able to cope with bad weather, thereby enabling a racing schedule at both extremes of the turf season. Located on a plateau in an affluent Paris suburb over the Seine from ParisLongchamp, the Val d’Or racecourse offers panoramic views across the west of the capital.
The only left-handed track in Paris, Saint-Cloud is a galloping track with an uphill finishing straight nearly three furlongs in length. It is one of only four venues in France to host Group 1 races, namely the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud and a pair end-of-season contests for two-year-olds, the Criterium de Saint-Cloud and the Criterium International. At 2,000 metres (1m2f) and usually run on heavy ground, the former is said to offer the most exacting stamina test on the juvenile calendar in Europe. Hosts a range of options for potential Classic horses in the spring and a popular venue for bluebloods making their debut.
Located in the heart of the largest city in the south-west, the Hippodrome de Toulouse - La Cepiere is one of the nation’s most historic, dating back to 1866. City-centre night racing a popular attraction here on a relatively tight right-handed circuit of about 1,875 metres (1m1½f) with a shortish run-in; can result in a draw bias against high numbers at certain distances.
With 50 racedays every year, avoiding only the high summer months, Toulouse is one of France’s busiest racetracks, and while trotting accounts for a sizeable proportion of the fixture schedule, Toulouse does hit the dizzy heights of Group 3 company every November on Armistice Day bank holiday with the Prix Fille de l’Air for fillies and mares. Don’t knock it: there are hardly any Group races in France outside the Paris tracks and Deauville (two, in fact, in 2020, the other one at Vichy). Moreover, Toulouse also boasts seven Listed races including the Prix Max Sicard in December, the climax of the ‘Defi du Galop’ series for regional racecourses.
Horse racing has taken place at the Hippodrome de-Vichy Bellerive since 1875 on the left bank of the River Allier in central France and remains a popular attraction in the spa resort town from May to September. One of France’s leading regional racecourses, Vichy is a classic right-handed 2,000-metre (1m2f) oval with a long four-furlong home straight. There are about 40 meetings a year (including trotting cards) with the clear highlight being the week-long ‘Festival Européen du Galop’ in mid-July which features the prestigious Grand Prix de Vichy, one of only two French Group races away from Paris and Deauville. There is at least one highly notable name on the Group 3 event’s recent roll of honour, as in 2011 the 1m2f contest was won by Cirrus Des Aigles. Christophe Soumillon likes the race, too: he is the record winning jockey with five successes. Five Listed events also feature during the July festival.