Paris:- Sunday, 6. October 1996:- At the end of the morning; on this last nice Sunday of the year - it is the usual rush to get to the Longchamp racetrack, to get there a long time before the first race at 13:30.
Why the rush? It only takes 30 or 40 minutes, door-to-door, or parking-to-parking. Hit the autoroute towards Paris, slide down the Saint Cloud tunnel at 110 kph, keep right and cross the Pont de St. Cloud, turn left up the Seine on the Quai Alphonse Le Gallo and turn right to the track, in the Bois de Boulogne.
Go around clockwise to the infield entry, pay 12 francs and dodge the parking guys on the grass infield by running wide around them - to the place in front that has been saved for us, because we are always late - and it's at least an hour to post time. Why the rush? Its a family tradition, going back a dozen years.
It is really the only horse race during the year we go to - but each year a diverse number of friends, some of them former residents and colleagues, come for this one race meeting: the 'Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe,' which is France's number one horse race. And we have a picnic before the races begin.
Although my memory of the early years is hazy, I think the race is always held on the first Sunday in October - and for as long as I can remember, it is the last Sunday with decent weather. 'BK' - that is, before kids - we were always in Spain in September and the Arc would be right after, and I would groan about spending another long day in the fresh air outside, having to drink champagne during the endless waits between races - and could never understand why we couldn't have the picnic during, instead of before.
Now 'WK' - with kids - we do the vacation in August and do the 'rentrée' in September, but the rush to the Arc is the same. Since this is usually right after my breakfast - I later search for scraps and crusts sometime around 15:00 - but I exaggerate - there is always far too much for the picnic, and even with my late dining, much of it often has to be returned.
On the grass infield, arriving cars get put into ranks by the parking guys I avoided earlier and other punters set up picnics too, and put up chairs and tables, and put ice into the champagne buckets, and stand around smoking cigars and trading tips. There are always a lot of GB plates, some Dutch and a good few Germans too. A Hamburg BMW was in front of mine.
The organizers' renting of hospitality space between the grass infield and the track, started a few years ago, and annually pushes us further back - making us walk around their tents 'by invitation only' - to actually see the horses, but it is still possible to get within three metres of the finish line if you paste yourself there fifteen minutes before a race starts - or for the Arc itself - 40 minutes before. This gives an unobstructed wide-angle view of the grandstands opposite and whatever ceremonies might take place - such as the arrival of the President of the Republique; which did not happen today.
Long before this, during the picnic phase, our very own tipster, Kaz Lissowski, over from London, gives the 'Kaz-line' on all the entrants in all of the days' seven races. While champagne is being swilled, while chicken legs are being devoured, while cigar-smoke is thicker than burning charcoal, Kaz stands, with the appropriate latest edition of 'Paris-Turf,' and reels off the form from memory.
The Arc is his annual flat-race; his usual events are the British jumping races. It means that he has had to do his homework - getting the 'form' for just this one race. He remembers horses from previous years and who bet how much on them and whether they won or lost. Everybody has a program or a paper and they note his selections and comments; except the kids, who knock over uncapped coke bottles.
After giving all his tips today - and especially those for the fourth race, the Arc - he says, 'If Helisso wins, I will buy everybody dinner.' This is sort of a 'tip of tips' because it tells us that Kaz has already bet the horse in London - which means, 'sure thing.' Hey now! Make a little money and get a free dinner!
The bettors go off to place their money on various noses and the first race runs off and everybody comes back - some excited and some not. There is an incredible number of possible combination bets that can be made - none of which I understand - but hear that it is possible, sometimes even desirable to bet 'place' rather than win, and get more winnings from this than by betting 'win.' Big Dave knows all about this and explains it endlessly to anybody who will listen - but I think it is all black magic of some sort.
Before the running of the Arc I cross the track to the tribune side to see what the people with bowlers and very wide-brim hats are up to. At the Arc on the eve - in the late '80's - of the London securities market's 'Big Bang' there was a huge and glossy crowd of punters, who made a big splash and left mountains of empty champagne bottles stacked up like cordwood in the green and pleasant betting area behind the tribune - the very air reeked of imminent prosperity.
Today, there are few bowlers, few wide-brims and no champagne empties. I see a couple of empty soda bottles and a few beer cans. The 'big bang' went poof, as we all know; and a certain modesty is more appropriate these days.
Ignoring this evident destitution, I take a look at the statue of the 1991 Arc winner, Suave Dancer. The statue was inaugurated today, to memorialize the horse that also won the Prix du Jockey Club and the European Championship in 1991. It is very pleasant atmosphere behind the tribune, but it is cut off from a view of the track - one that is always there on the 'pelouse' - the grass infield. I suppose the view of all our clean and dirty, new and old cars, disturbs the view from the tribune's expensive and upper-most glass-enclosed lounges, but we care not while we wonder if we will get a free dinner tonight.
For the fourth race, the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, I do not follow my advice to get to the rail early, but I get close enough. The starters parade past to cheers and after twirling around a bit, enter the starting gates. This is a long way - 2,400 metres away from the finish line - but, by looking over my shoulder I can see the huge TV screens sent up in the infield, and maybe see more because I'm closer to them than spectators across the track in the tribunes.
Drinngggg, and they're off! Looking like a fluid snake, the - about 16 - contestants glide up the straights and sweep through corners and the cheers start in the tribune, which can see the last corner more clearly - and I get ready - I can hear the hooves pounding - heads lunge in front of me - I lean further out - and there they are! To get the leader and as many of the followers as possible, I follow the lead nose to the right side of the viewfinder - and release the shutter. It is slow: had the first horse passed already? If so, this year's only chance is down the drain, raced right out of the frame.
And the winner is, 'Free Dinner for Everybody!'
Helissio took two minutes and 30 seconds to run the 2,400 metres, steered by its 23-year-old jockey, Olivier Peslier, and was followed by Pilsudski, Oscar Schindler and another favorite, Swain.
I overheard somebody joke that Helissio had been disqualified for insufficient effort, for winning effortlessly by five lengths. When I got back to the picnic, there was general glee and a great discussion about which restaurant to go to. This sort of discussion is common in Paris. I think they chose Le Café du Commerce in the 15th, but since I have to write this, I do not know what they finally decided.
As usual - by making a worse wrong turn than usual - I managed to get stuck in the worst traffic jam ever on the way home. It will be soon forgotten, but the last, best Sunday of this year, will not be. Especially not by Kaz' bookie in London, who had given him odds of seven to one.
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