C'est magnifique

Every August, a certain resort town becomes a mecca to horse racing fans. You were thinking Saratoga? Del Mar? How about the French alternative: Deauville?

Updated: August 22, 2001, 3:11 PM ET
By Ed McNamara | Special to ESPN.com

DEAUVILLE, France -- Soon after the summer dawn breaks over the English Channel, hoofbeats echo along the coast of Normandy. A line of thoroughbreds moves along the shore and into the chilly sea, a pleasant break from their morning routine. That's what Deauville (say DOE-veal) is all about for people, too.

Deauville, France
The Deauville racing meet will last four weeks.
Every year at the beginning of August, a quiet resort town of 4,500 turns into horse heaven for four glorious weeks, when the population can rise to 75,000. Almost everyone who matters in French racing migrates the 128 miles northwest from Paris to immerse themselves in the scene. There's racing or championship polo each day at one of two exquisitely pretty tracks -- Clairefontaine and La Touques (say TEWKS), better known as Deauville.

It's Saratoga with a beach; Del Mar with a French accent.

"The sun, the sea and the horses," said trainer Criquette Head-Maarek, a Deauville regular since she was a baby. "I'm 53, so I've been coming here for 53 years," she said last week in Deauville's paddock. "It's a special place. We come here and spend a month. For French racing, it's a mixture of vacation and work."

The slogan is "Deauville aime le cheval," which means "Deauville loves the horse," and the passion lasts day and night during a month when the thoroughbred is an essential part of the culture. At noon, men sit at outdoor tables down the street from the track at Le Pur Sang (The Thoroughbred), sipping espresso or beer as they study Paris-Turf, France's version of the Daily Racing Form. At night, the racetrack crowd drinks at Le Broc Café, rehashing the day's races and sharing thoughts on tomorrow's.

"It's like Del Mar," said Olivier Peslier, one of the world's top jockeys and well on his way to winning his fifth French riding title.

"It's a holiday for everybody -- owners, trainers, jockeys. Everybody is happy. It's a long meeting, so you're staying in one place for a month. In Paris, you have to drive an hour to Chantilly for morning gallops, and then drive an hour back. That tires you. Here you're more relaxed."

The striking beauty of the surroundings can charm a cynic and mellow out a fried city dweller. Clairefontaine, which runs mostly cheap races on the flat and over jumps, is a pretty country track located just outside of town. Its big sister, Deauville, is a knockout, one of the loveliest racecourses in the world.

An entrance lined on both sides by ancient oaks leads to a brick clubhouse whose ultramodern interior is an immaculate white. There are only about 3,000 seats, so most of the people gravitate to the back yard, as they do at Saratoga. A rubberized walking ring encircles an elegant paddock filled with oaks and Japanese maples ringed by pink and blue flowers. A weekend crowd of about 10,000 stands three and four deep to watch blue-blooded 2-year-olds owned by the Maktoums of Dubai, Michael Tabor and Khalid Abdullah.

A few yards away stands undoubtedly the snazziest weighing room in the world, a magnificent example of the half-timbered style of Norman architecture. The exterior features vertical, diagonal and crisscrossed beams of wood, and inside brown oak paneling covers the walls and the high, curved ceiling. Equine art and formal hats are sold nearby in white tents, and concession stands offer sandwiches, beer, wine and liquor.

There are three clockwise courses, two curving, one straight, with lush, ankle-deep grass, and they surround a polo ground. The fairly level stretch is about 2 1/2 furlongs, with the fields bunching up until they fan out near the quarter pole to sprint to the wire. Even with a large television screen in the infield and high-powered binoculars, it's hard to identify horses until midstretch. Except for the sight lines, though, few could complain about anything. C'est magnifique.

"It's extremely pretty here, and it's a lovely meeting," said Daniel Lahalle, a racing journalist since 1967. "The atmosphere is a little bit cooler than in Paris, and there's less stress with people on holiday."

That doesn't mean there's no pressure to win, though. Freddy Head, Criquette's brother, has been training for four years since ending a long riding career that included wins aboard the superstar filly Miesque in the 1987 and 1988 Breeders' Cup Miles. "Deauville is fun, and it's a special place for us," Head said. "We came here when we were children. But everybody's on the spot, because we have more owners here than in Paris because everyone is on vacation." Head pleased his client Sheikh Hamdan al Maktoum a few hours earlier when he won the opener on Sunday, Aug. 12 with the 2-year-old Hothaifah, a second-time starter. Just like at Saratoga, baby races bring out the stars of the future at Deauville. "It's nice, because most of the good 2-year-olds come out here for the first time," Criquette Head said. Deauville's first race on Tuesday, Aug. 14 featured a 2-year-old son of Woodman and Balanchine, who routed colts in the 1995 Irish Derby. Thanks to his pedigree and connections, Peslier and the all-conquering trainer Andre Fabre, Gulf News went off at odds-on. Three days before, Peslier and Fabre teamed up in five races and won them all, which was insane. Gulf News temporarily halted their dominance, finishing fifth in a mile race for unraced 2-year-olds. As they do at Saratoga, the rich always get richer, just not all the time.

A half-hour later came the debut of the 2-year-old filly Quad's Melody, the first offspring of 1997 Breeders' Cup Mile winner Spinning World to run in France. Unlike Gulf News, she did it right the first time, blowing away a strung-out field at odds of 8-5.

At this week's Deauville sales, France's best-bred and most expensive yearlings, along with others from throughout Europe, are being sold across the street from the track. Some will be from the nearby Haras de Quesnay, an important stud owned since 1958 by Alec Head, father of Freddy and Criquette. Normandy is a world-class breeding area, and hundreds of big-race winners were auctioned here.

After the sales and the final card on Aug. 28, the horsey set will return to Paris, the epicenter of French racing, for the major autumn races at Longchamp. In fall and winter, Deauville seems deserted, with the winds from the Channel bringing in chilling rain from the north. No horses greet the dawn along the seashore, and horseplayers hang out at off-track betting parlors instead of at the gorgeous tracks.

That's the dark side of a summer place, but there's always next year. That's the way it's been since Deauville opened in August 1864, when Saratoga also happened to run its first meeting on its present site. Racing never had a more promising month.