Europe's horse of the year

A superb race pointed up the fact that France, esthetically and economically, is a horse owner's paradise
October 15, 1961

All last week, while the unpredictable Paris weather varied from balmy sunshine to sudden heavy showers, French racegoers had but one concern: by how much would their 3-year-old champion, Right Royal, beat the Italian invader Molvedo in Sunday's 40th running of the mile-and-a-half Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe?

This, in the minds of Europeans, was the race of the year, and the winner could surely lay claim to being the best horse in the world, notwithstanding the reports of a supposedly wondrous American animal named Kelso that drifted about turf circles (but never got into the press) in London, Paris, Ireland and Rome. Too bad, said the French Jockey Club, that America had not sent over a representative for this truly international classic. And too bad, too, they chuckled with glee, that England had sent over a secondary team of runners. Nor were the Russians on the scene. "When the Russians figure they can win the Arc they'll invite themselves," said one French official.

On paper the race figured to be between Right Royal, winner of the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, and the Italian horse, Molvedo, a son of the famous Ribot (himself twice the winner of the Arc). Molvedo had won the Grand Prix du Centenaire de Deauville and was the fastest-improving horse on the Continent.

The Longchamp course in Paris' beautiful Bois de Boulogne is not a place where a second-rate horse is likely to win from the best 3-year-old (and older) horses in Europe. As the race is run in a clockwise direction, the field must go uphill for the first half mile, downhill for the second half mile and finally along a three-eighths of a mile straight to the finish. Perhaps not so demanding a course as Ascot (where the rise is steeper), Long-champ is nonetheless a tremendous test of pure stamina—and for this reason the winner of the Arc is judged a truly desirable animal for the stud.

When the rains hit the course last week, making the going deep and soft, Right Royal's prospects dimmed, and his owner, Mme. Jean Couturié, knew that victory would not be an easy matter. In Molvedo's camp, on the other hand, there was supreme confidence that Ribot's son could handle any sort of track. On the morning of the race Owner Egidio Verga, Racing Manager Dr. Antonio Arcari and Trainer Arturo Maggi looked over the soft turf and concluded that to win Molvedo must get a good position almost immediately from the break instead of waiting until late in the race to make his move.

Mme. Couturié's strategy was public knowledge. Her other starter, Le Tahitien, was to take the lead, hold it for as long as he could, and then Right Royal, who would be laying not too far back among the 19 starters, would swoosh to the front as the field hit the straight.

Le Tahitien flew away as commanded, but before he had gone a sixteenth of a mile he was overtaken by England's High Hat, owned by Sir Winston Churchill. Up the long hill they ran as some 40,000 fans (including thousands of Italians who dumped more than $200,000 into the machines on Molvedo at the last moment) strained to see what was going on behind the abbreviated forest that blanks out all of the course for a few suspenseful moments. As they emerged High Hat was in the lead, but right behind him was Molvedo under the European Johnny Longden, 50-year-old Enrico Camici. Close up were Match, Misti and Right Royal. These five had the race to themselves.

Down the hill into the right-hand turn (which caused so much concern to Eddie Arcaro when he rode Career Boy in this race five years ago) High Hat still led, and one Frenchman murmured angrily: "He is going to steal it!" But near the bottom of the hill Camici made his move with Molvedo, Rogert Poincelet made his with Right Royal—and the race of the year, for these frenzied fans, was on. Molvedo shot to a lead of two lengths. Behind him, as close as a knee-to-knee international jumping team, were Misti on the inside. Right Royal in the middle and Match on the outside. High Hat was a close fifth. Suddenly Match started bearing in. There was no question that he bothered Right Royal slightly, and possibly Misti, too. Right Royal shook himself loose and went after Molvedo. But the Italian held his ground, and Right Royal never gained an inch in the last sixteenth. Molvedo was a two-length winner, while Right Royal beat Misti by half a length for second place. High Hat was a short neck behind Misti, and Match was another two-and-a-half lengths behind in fifth.

The Italians at Longchamp screamed, yelled, hugged one another, scowled at the French, laughed at the English and said to the Americans, "We have the best horse in the world." The results of the Arc seem to establish, without much doubt, that Molvedo is the best horse in Europe. Will he now come to Laurel to meet Kelso in the Washington D.C. International on November 11? Unfortunately, his appearance in the States is doubtful. He is a bad shipper and even has trouble getting into a van, much less an airplane. Too, Signor Verga knows—as do all European owners now—that foreign horses do not fare well at Laurel unless they use American shoes with toes—shoes which are barred in France because they destroy the sacred turf and because European trainers feel that calked or toed shoes tend to cause injury to a horse's leg. The Molvedo camp is reluctant to switch to U.S. shoes.

Decisions about Molvedo, however, may soon rest in other hands. His owner, a pleasant-faced middle-aged man who seems quite unaccustomed to being in the limelight, would be glad to sell Molvedo right now without risking his reputation in another race. And this week in Paris there is at least one agent bidding for him on behalf of Texas Oilman Nelson Bunker Hunt. Best guess on the bid: at least $1 million.

If you ask me, Kelso is still the best horse in the world, but it would be awfully nice to have Molvedo come to Laurel next month to try to prove me wrong.

Don't tell the U.S.

It was a shame that America had no representative in the Arc de Triomphe. It would have made this fine race more truly international in scope, and it would have given more U.S. owners an understanding of French racing—and perhaps a deeper appreciation of its fine qualities. For racing in France is so thoroughly delightful that one American living in Paris—an avid turfiste—said last week over a glass of Dom Perignon at Maisons-Laffitte track outside Paris: "For God's sake, don't tell the Americans what racing is like over here. First thing you know they'll all want to come over, and surer than hell they'd somehow figure out how to louse it up in no time at all."

The truth of the matter is that more and more Americans are going to France to race. But so far, instead of attempting to "louse it up," they have enjoyed the happy experience of discovering that France is the only place in the world where a racing stable has a reasonable chance to break even. One trainer goes so far as to say, "You have to be unlucky not to break even in France."

This economic enchantment is based on a fairly simple equation. Though purses in France are lower than in the U.S., the expense of training a horse is much lower. Whereas the total cost of training horses in the U.S. is almost twice as much as the total purses offered, the cost of training horses in France just about equals the total purses. With average horses and average luck an owner in the U.S. will lose more than $2,000 per horse per year. In France he may even make a few francs.

No wonder then that Americans with an eye to their pocketbooks are looking to France, and the more they see of it the more they like it. Francois de Brignac, racing manager for the once-supreme and still formidable stable of Marcel Boussac, explained this. "I'll tell you what is appealing about racing here in Paris," he said the other afternoon. "If you like to have your lunch at home, drive no more than 20 minutes to the track, watch just seven good races a day and be home by 5:30 for a cup of tea or a whisky, then Paris is the place to go racing. For those of us who love it, it is as simple as that."

M. Brignac is not alone in his point of view. It is shared by Americans like Mrs. P. A. B. Widener and others not so well known in the international racing set.

Some of these people are operating on an increasing scale, with the result that there are more than 100 horses belonging to Americans already in Paris. Mrs. Widener has seven 2-year-olds and two older horses with Trainer Etienne Pollet, and has just turned over to him eight yearlings, five imported from the U.S. and three others bred by her in France. Mrs. Widener, a widow of a first cousin of George D. Widener and a daughter-in-law of the late Joseph E. Widener, who raced so successfully in France before World War II, has had the sort of success that can be compared only to the amazing victories of Sir Victor Sassoon's stable in England. After having raced with no particular distinction in America for years, Mrs. Widener moved to Paris five years ago and since then has seen no fewer than three of her 2-year-olds—Neptune, Dan Cupid and Prudent—win classic races. This Sunday Prudent, a handsome American-bred chestnut colt by My Babu, will be a heavy favorite in the Grand Critérium (a sort of counterpart to our Garden State stakes), and should he win will be able to lay claim to being the best 2-year-old classic winner in Europe.

Not all Americans are racing in Paris with the same flourish as Mrs. Widener, or the Howell Jacksons, whose Never Too Late has also been a classic winner. Some are building up racing stables of good size (like Eddie Constantine, a Los Angeles-born film producer and actor who has lived in France for 14 years, has been racing for six and who already owns 15 horses and is building a farm near Deauville), but others are going it alone. Donald B. Barrows, who gets to Europe two or three times a year, has just one horse, a jumper for whom he paid $3,000 five years ago and then turned over to Trainer Jack Cunnington, an English-born, third-generation horseman, who has lived and trained at the same yard in Chantilly for 41 years. Cunnington, who trains 40 of his 80 horses for American owners, charges Barrows $5 a day for his jumper and only $2 a day when the horse is not in training. This year the horse, in five starts, has won three times and been second twice and has made about $9,000. He was good enough to go in the $50,000 Grand Steeplechase de Paris, where after running one-two with the winner he finally finished fifth. Owner Barrows said later, "I'm still probably $1,500 ahead, I've had a hell of a lot of fun and I had a good run at $50,000."

Les sociétés

French racing is organized and controlled by a nonprofit federation to which all 400 tracks (yes, 400, but many are in the provinces and may run only one day per year) are subscribers. Three parent organizations run racing within this huge federation: the Société du Cheval Fran√ßais for trotters (last year: 4.600 races), the Société des Steeple-chases de France for jumpers (last year: 1,300 races) and, for the flat runners, the most imposing title of all—the Société d'Encouragement pour l'Amélioration des Races de Chevaux en France (last year: 2,800 races). All tracks for all types of horses are nonprofit, are run solely for the benefit of racing and controlled by the departments of finance and of agriculture.

The Société d'Encouragement is made up of from 32 to 36 members, of which 17 must belong to the Jockey Club, a strictly social group with no power or authority whatsoever over the conduct of the sport. The other members (their number varies from 12 to 16) do not belong to the Jockey Club. The whole outfit is headed by Marcel Boussac as chairman of the board and his right arm, Jean Romanet, as director general.

In short, what they do is everything that our own Jockey Club and individual state racing commissions do. They set the rules of racing and apply them. They name and appoint all racing officials and publish a condition book a year in advance—enabling horsemen to train for a specific race (not just a stakes race) with the assurance that the race will be run even if it is a walkover. Furthermore, they take on the burdensome chore of handling all bookkeeping for every owner, trainer, jockey and individual racing association in France. For example, the Société charges each owner $16 per horse every six months for the privilege of using the training grounds at Chantilly. And, with a view to safeguarding the precious turf at Chantilly, it also bills him $1 every time he gallops his horse on the grass track (which isn't usually more than once per week).

On the whole, the government of France has seen to it that French racing is sensibly organized and managed and that it receives every possible benefit for continuing growth and prosperity. When the government legalized off-track betting in 1931, racing's financial strength was guaranteed. This year two-fifths of a billion dollars will be bet on races in France. Only a third of that will go through the track's pari-mutuel machines. The other two-thirds comes from off-track betting. Half of that is poured in on Sundays and holidays when the French punters storm 1,500 betting centers throughout the country to engage in a sort of forecast wagering system known as the tierce, in which the winners must pick the first three finishers of a specified race (such as last Sunday's Arc) in the exact finishing order. The minimum bet is only 40¢. A good part of the 15½% tax that the government imposes on off-track betting is poured back into the sport.

Lovely Chantilly

The French owner—as well as the French trainer and the French jockey—thinks he has the greatest racing setup in the world, and he may be right. Certainly one of the finest sporting sights to be seen anywhere is at Chantilly, which, along with Maisons-Laffitte, is the headquarters for all training around the Paris area. At Chantilly the famous trainers of France have their yards, and there on 4,000 superbly kept acres, some 1,500 horses are trained. (At Maisons-Laffitte there are 2,500 horses, but less acreage.) The $300,000-per-year operation serves 2,000 Chantilly horsemen and operates with a staff of 120 employees, including eight old women whose only job in life is to wander all day around the training grounds picking stones out of the gallops. For the horseman, Chantilly is the showplace. With its thick forest of oaks and beeches, its miles of shaded gallops and other miles of flat green turf it is breathtakingly beautiful. Where the nobility of France once rode to the hunt from the majestic chateau of Louis Henri de Bourbon, the stag is still the magnificent prey, and as race horses canter leisurely over any of the 70 secondary gallops in this incredible retreat they are neither startled nor upset when a running deer crosses but a few yards away.

I spent a day in Chantilly that I will never forget. The drive of 25 miles from Paris was made along the Route Nationale with Albert Neuhut, better known in France and elsewhere as Godolphin Darley, a 49-year-old writer, handicapper, breeding theorist, sales agent and general promoter. After passing the stables of the Aga Khan, Mrs. Ralph Beaver Strassburger (widow of one of the most successful postwar American owners in France) and others, we stopped at Jack Cunnington's yard where Jack and his son, between them, have about 180 horses in training. These include yearlings being broken, for in France there are no individual training tracks at stud farms. Each fall yearlings are sent to the stable trainer to be broken and join older horses in training.

The Cunningtons, father and son, send their horses out in sets of about 50 at a time, and soon we were in the middle of the forest, meeting with other trainers, as the horses came galloping along the Route des Lions, a two-and-a-half-mile straightaway of natural sand. Inasmuch as my previous impression of French racing was that all the competition, as well as the training, was done on grass, it came as somewhat of a surprise to learn that at Chantilly (as well as at Maisons-Laffitte), horses train five days a week on the sand and but once a week on turf.

"It is done this way mainly to protect the turf," explained Jean de Chevigny, the director of the training center.

"Ah, it may be to protect the turf," added Cunnington Sr., "but in France we like our horses to have variety in their training the same way that our tracks offer variety in their programs. Horses here get a variety every day: a different gallop every morning to keep them sharp and alert."

Later in the morning other trainers gathered with different sets, and one old-timer, looking at me as though I personally were to blame, growled, "I've been to America once or twice to see how things are done there, and I've decided that most American horses live in a concentration camp. They are out of their box stalls for barely one hour a day, they race around the same track day after day against the clock, then they enter competition far too often, and, as a result, they break down far too often."

Another veteran interrupted. "The training may beat the American horses into premature retirement, but what beats the English horses is the continual shipping. In Paris racing our tracks are close together, and the shipping is inconsequential. But, my God, in England, over those roads it's terrible. A 2-year-old spends his summer shipping from Chester to York to Sandown to Goodwood, and he isn't in shape to beat me by October! Figure that when an English horse wins a race it's the equal to running in four of them."

Godolphin Darley, as proud as any Frenchman that the French runners have taken the play away from the English in many recent European classics, noted that the French are doing better and better going abroad, while English failures on the Continent have resulted in their coming over less and less. "Race for race," he says emphatically, "I think our horses are four pounds better than the English."

Be that as it may, there is obviously much to be said for racing everywhere, whether it be at Melbourne, Buenos Aires, Caracas, Longchamp, Ascot, Toronto or Aqueduct. If Americans think they have the best and fastest horses, let them be reminded that one of the reasons is that we have sucked the best blood out of Europe for many years—and for preposterous prices. Our reciprocal contributions are so far not noted for their blazing success. In France, Whirlaway was a failure at stud, and Coaltown hasn't been a world-beater. Iron Liege is now standing at Boussac's stud, but his first crop is still in the yearling stage.

Come on over

It seems reasonable to assume that in time there will be even more Thoroughbred traffic to France from the U.S. Hopefully, some of it will go in the Arcs of future years, and some will strengthen French bloodlines further with successful American strains. The director general of the Société d'Encouragement, speaking for Chairman Boussac, covered it all when he remarked at the end of the long and hectic week, "Of course we are interested in having American owners come over to race in our Arc. But we are more interested in American owners who come over and want to stay."

The Société d'Encouragement is going to get its wish. Soon, too.


Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)