The ‘almost unbelievably beautiful’ Chantilly

Chantilly (pronounced shon –tee) is a horse racing town. It lies only 45 km due north of the centre of Paris, surrounded by almost 2,000 hectares of woodland. A network of bridle paths extends throughout the forests, providing the perfect environment to “warm down” thoroughbreds after morning trackwork. The amazing complex of stables, training tracks, fitness facilities and veterinary services caters for about 2,500 horses.

The setting is almost unbelievably beautiful. The track passes by the 186 metre long Grandes Écuries (Great Stables) built in 1719, and the Château de Chantilly, rebuilt from 1885-1891 after the original was destroyed during the revolution. Take a look at the photos:


The course undulates significantly, and the main straight is a stern uphill test. This is a track where the crème rises to the top.

We stayed at the Hotel du Parc, only a couple of hundred metres pleasant walk through the forest to the western end of the track. From there it was a matter of crossing the racing surface twice before entering the main spectator area near the winning post of the clockwise circuit. The racing surface, as expected, was near perfection, and the weather was kind, allowing us sunshine and a Good 3 for the Prix de Diane Longines (French Oaks) meeting.

The pleasure of the stroll to the track shouldn’t be underestimated. We joined the hordes who had walked the short distance from the railway station, and the combination of big race atmosphere, the forest in full spring-summer growth and hundreds of well-dressed fillies created a grand occasion. On the subject of fashion, I’m afraid the young Parisian ladies are a long way in front of the Aussie gals. It’s all about understanding what elegance is.

On entering the course were pleasantly surprised to find that racebooks were not only free, but very well presented. Our tickets allowed us entry to the Balances (weighing room and members’ stand) which I thought would afford a perfect view of the racing. Not so. The building was set back near the mounting yard behind the main grandstand. It was rather like being in the hospitality area at Flemington on Derby day where the only view of the racing is on a TV screen. Although we enjoyed reasonable comfort, I like watching my racing “live”, and, apart for a 50 metre gap between the grandstands near the winning post, it was almost impossible to get a good view. The place was packed, undoubtedly due to the $10.00 general admission (no charge for ladies wearing hats) and all the grandstand and lawn spots had been claimed by the time we arrived.

That disappointment aside, we enjoyed some true “theatre of the horse” including an Arab-only race which was a magnificent advertisement for the breed. I’m glad I bet on-line using one of my Australian accounts because punters aren’t well served on major days at Chantilly. Queues for tote windows (there are no bookies) and food were long in the public areas. At least we could obtain champagne easily in the members.

I know Australians believe that our racecallers are the best in the world, but I derived a lot of pleasure listening to the two French commentators at Chantilly. Yes, two – calling the same race! They seamlessly switch every 400 m, and it’s a refreshing change from the nasally Australian style. I don’t speak French, but I understand quite a bit after many wine-related visits. I learn names and colours quite easily, and from there it was a matter of some French racing vocabulary such as:

Well in front “bien devant”
The outside “de l’extérieur ”
The inside “l’intérieur”
Midfield “au milieu”
Last “dernier”

Our day at Chantilly was very different to anything we’ve experienced in Australian racing. Chantilly is often described as “the most beautiful racecourse in the world” and I have no reason to disagree. However, it was probably a mistake to pay our first visit on a major race day. An Australian equivalent would be attending Moonee Valley for the first time on Cox Plate day. Next time we’ll pick a quieter Sunday afternoon, and absorb the experience to the full.

Lester Jesberg is the editor of Winewise magazine.