Heralded by the mellow notes of French hunting horns, a gay and wonderful procession will swing out into Paris' traffic-clogged Avenue de Champs-Elysées on Friday of next week; four lumbering horse-drawn mail coaches loaded with top-hatted and tail-coated sprigs of French nobility, making elegant conversation with fashionable young ladies in filmy gowns and vast cartwheel chapeaux. Preceded by four red-coated outriders, they will clip-clop their way past the Arc de Triomphe to Auteuil race track on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne, for the Prix des Drags, a steeplechase which is the flossiest social event in the Paris racing season.
On this day, in the words of one reverent Frenchman, "for men of taste, Auteuil represents Heaven on Earth: champagne, pretty women and good horses."
Drags Day is just one event in what Parisians simply call La Grande Semaine (The Big Week). From Sunday, June 17 until Sunday, June 24, outlying French tracks are closed and all activity centers on Auteuil for jumping and Longchamp for flat racing. After a day at the races, Paris society goes out for a night on the town in a whirl of concerts, receptions and soirees, culminating in a grand ball in the fusty Travellers Club. When the week is finished, everybody who is anybody flees the heat of Paris for a summer's yachting or lolling on the beach at Deauville.
The Big Week begins with the $20,000 Grand Steeple-Chase de Paris, run in the flower-decked Auteuil course which follows the line of the old fortifications of the city. It winds up with the $75,000 Grand Prix de Paris, at Longchamp, where some 70,000 racing fans jam into the cavernous stands and broad infield to sip champagne under the trees, to gawk at models who swish by in the latest summertime creations of the high-fashion houses, and to catch a glimpse of René Coty, President of the French Republic, who will watch the big race from the finish line.
June 17, 1956
As usual this season, French racing is dominated by great owners who do their own breeding: the Aga Khan, Boussac, Wertheimer, Volterra, Rothschild, and a newcomer, Mme. Cino del Duca, wife of an Italian publisher, whose colt Bewitched has won the Grand Prix de Rome and the Prix du Cadran this year. Perfume Tycoon Pierre Wertheimer (Chanel) took the English Derby last week with Lavandin (see page 49), and he's entering the same horse in the Grand Prix de Paris, probably with the same jockey, Willy Rae Johnstone, a seam-faced 51-year-old Australian who has won virtually every classic race in England and France at least once.
Big Businessman Marcel Boussac (textiles) has 140 horses in his stable, queened by Apollonia, the "filly of the century," an exquisitely bred 3-year-old, which has won six races in six starts, including the Prix de Diane, France's equivalent to the English Oaks. Boussac did not enter a horse in the English Derby this year, but hopes to wind up the Grande Semaine by winning the Grand Prix de Paris with Floriados.
He will have tough competition from Mme. Léon Volterra, the chic blonde widow whose Phil Drake won this race in 1955 as well as the Epsom Derby. Always perfectly gowned by the great Paris couturier Balmain, Suzy Volterra is equally perfectionist in her choice of horse flesh. This year she's entering the Grand Prix de Paris with Vattel, a 3-year-old which has been specially bred and trained to win this one race, a tricky course of almost two miles. The distance has frequently taken the heart out of Thoroughbreds trained for the mile-and-a-half classics. On early form, Suzy's horse has a good chance of winning the Grand Prix, but this itself is a handicap. Two times out of three the favorite gets beaten.