Longchamp has graced Paris since 1857. And Parisians—lovers of racing, elegant ladies, blue bloods and bourgeois—have graced Longchamp for as long. Enhanced by the surrounding Bois de Boulogne with its magnificent lime and acacia trees, its lakes, bridle paths and flower gardens, Longchamp also attracts the finest of Europe's horseflesh and presents a number of the world's most significant races, among them the Prix de I'Arc de Triomphe. It was, therefore, a matter of import to racegoers everywhere when Longchamp recently launched a multimillion-dollar program of renovation, the first changes worth remarking on in 60 years. Would Longchamp become just another cold-looking complex of concrete, steel and glass? Was it possible to retain the charm that made racegoing so pleasurable an experience? Faced with this challenge, Architect Jacques Regnault said, "This is a track for horse admirers, not just for people who 'play the horses.' Here, the horse is king." How well Regnault has fulfilled his difficult assignment may be seen on the opposite and following pages. In providing shelter, comfort and conveniences for additional thousands of spectators, Regnault admittedly sacrificed a few trees and some of the intimacy with the racing activities that Longchamp formerly afforded its patrons. But the blend of old and new must be judged a success and an achievement to be studied by those who—at our own Belmont Park, for example—are even now busy with similar plans.
THE WIZARD OF LONGCHAMP
For the past decade European racing has been dominated by four extraordinarily successful trainers. They are Ireland's Paddy Prendergast and Vincent O'Brien, and France's Etienne Pollet (who developed last year's champion, Sea Bird) and Fran√ßois Mathet.
Of these, Mathet is the most successful—and the most controversial. A 58-year-old ex-cavalry officer and former champion gentleman rider on hurdle and steeplechase courses, Mathet has been a loner all his life. Some of his rivals on the Continental circuit would like to see him chained to a rock on Devil's Island. "I don't speak to him," says one of his fellow Chantilly-based trainers. "I think he's totally ruthless and entirely selfish. Ah, but even though I do not respect him as a person I respect him as a trainer." If there is a hint of jealousy in this statement, which is fairly representative of his colleagues' attitude, Mathet explains it when he says, "Twenty-one years ago, when I came into racing, training methods were outdated. I came as a nonconformist into the most conventional world. Now the others are copying me."
June 5, 1966
It is hardly surprising. Some of his accomplishments include having 200 horses in training for clients like Hotel Owner Fran√ßois Dupré and Karim Aga Khan; taking on Yves Saint-Martin as a stable lad at the age of 14 and making him one of the half dozen best jockeys in the world; and being in the enviable position of rejecting the applications of well-heeled clients with well-bred stock. Mathet even left one established client, the chic Mme. Leon (Suzy) Volterra, when—according to him—she became confused about just who was in charge. Today he is the leading trainer at Long-champ, with 13 wins in 11 days of racing this season. A less enviable goal for a trainer seeking to emulate Mathet would be to get involved in disputes with the racing authorities. One such controversy, involving Mathet and allegations of doping, has yet to come up for final disposition.
Well before Mathet goes to court to help settle that case, which originated in 1962, he will have added some new chapters to the French record books. Back in 1957 Mathet broke the alltime record by topping the trainers' list with 97 winners. In purse money he trailed only Alec Head, who at that time was directing a racing empire for the late Aga and Aly Khan. Every year since then Mathet has headed the list in number of winners, never falling below 95 and six times going over the 100 mark. Only once during that span, when Pollet beat him in 1959, did he fail to win the purse championship as well. In 1964, with 124 winners and 162 second-place finishes, Mathet rewrote all his own records as his horses won $1,030,800. It was the first time that a trainer had gone over the million-dollar mark in France. The year 1965 was even more dazzling: 135 winners and $1,250,000 won. With 492 starters—"I have three or four runners every day of the season"—Mathet had achieved a fantastic winning average of .274.
In Mathet's 21-year career, his horses have accounted for 1,561 victories, including 94 over National Hunt courses. His first outstanding horse, Dupré's Tantiéme, who won the Prix de I'Arc de Triomphe in 1950 and 1951, is his own choice as the best he has ever trained or seen. "He was, after all," says Mathet, "champion of his age at 2, 3 and 4 and won 12 of 15 races." But there have been many others. He won the Epsom Derby with Phil Drake and also with Relko, the Epsom Oaks with Sicarelle and Bella Paola, the Coronation Cup with Tantiéme and Dicta Drake. In addition to these, Mathet trained Northern Light, Midnight Sun and, more recently, Reliance, whose only defeat in his career was to Sea Bird in the 1965 Arc.
In 1962, after winning the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes with Dupré's Match, Mathet shipped him to Laurel where, in the Washington, D.C., International, Saint-Martin turned in the ride of his life on this son of Tantiéme to win over Kelso and Carry Back as the third U.S. horse, favorite Beau Purple, finished 11th. What did Mathet remember about that great day? "I didn't go over for the race," he says. "I was too busy."
Today Mathet is a solid 165 pounds and a shade under 5 feet 8 inches tall. His dark hair is gradually thinning, but his quick eyes are every bit as alert as they must have been in the early 1930s, when he was galloping over Europe's steeplechase courses as a dashing cavalry lieutenant. Impeccably dressed (usually in dark pinstripes) when he goes to the races, Mathet seems a bit more relaxed at the distinguished manoir he has built on his 62 acres on the outskirts of Chantilly. There, walking through the symmetrically laid-out gardens that he designed himself, he is apt to appear in gray flannels and a conservative sports coat. There, too, he shrugs off his air of perpetual conflict with the world around him. His attractive wife Marguerite and their sons, Melchior Fran√ßois, 4, and Hubert, 3, gather around him in his oak-paneled library, and Mathet plays the role of host so well that he might easily be taken for an embassy chief of protocol. That is, until the talk turns to racing, which it inevitably does.
Recently Mathet was showing a visitor through this majestic house on an afternoon when his presence was not required at the track. He slowly paced the Louis XIV parquet floors and then paused, looking like a latter-day Napoleon, facing a broad picture window overlooking the thick forests of the peaceful Oise Valley. He raised a hand to point in the direction of Paris. "As the crow flies," he said deliberately, "it is exactly 38 kilometers from my hill to the Arc de Triomphe."
There have been times in Mathet's life when the possibility of ever living so close to the Etoile must have seemed remote indeed. "My grandfather was a mining engineer in the east of France," he said, "and as a little boy I remember being with my father in Lunéville, where he was a cavalry officer. Naturally he rode, but he had no interest in racing—no registered colors or anything like that. He was wounded in the war of '14, and then we moved west when he commanded a depot. We were in Versailles in 1915. I was 7, and it was the first time I rode. I loved it from the beginning.
"It was more or less expected of me that I follow in the footsteps of my grandfather and uncle and become an engineer. At school I was a dunce in foreign languages, and it has always been difficult for me to understand English, much less learn to speak it. Finally I decided to take the competition for Saint-Cyr [the French counterpart of West Point], because in your second year, if you do well, you can take up riding. I had always had the luck, or bad luck if you want to call it that, of never failing an exam, but still I took the Saint-Cyr tests without too much enthusiasm. I had a good written but almost failed the oral and got in with a very bad rank, 220th out of 320. I worked very hard that first year and moved up to seventh out of 320, got my good standing in the cavalry and graduated as a 2nd lieutenant. Then I went to the cavalry school at Saumur on the Loire River."
At Saumur, Mathet indulged his passion for horsemanship in the company of fellow officers who grew up believing that it was unsporting to go into battle in a tank if horses were available. But already Lieut. Mathet was having his doubts about the army as a career. "My aim really was to get the benefit of the riding, which I found exciting and easy," he said. "Anyway, I don't think the army suited my character. The horses did."
The best, smallest and most interested officers at Saumur were encouraged to volunteer for country races, and Mathet got his chance in the nearby town of Baugé aboard a mare called Durandel. His only previous race had been a crosscountry affair at Saint-Cyr, which he won with no great difficulty. But at Baugé the race was on a track where loose-hanging rope had been put up in place of an inside rail. "I went to the inside, of course," he said, "but suddenly my foot caught in the rope. It broke, but with one end of it wrapped around my boot I was soon pulling 100 yards of rope behind me while the whole field passed me easily. My instructor was so ashamed of me he would never let me race again while I was at Saumur."
Posted to his first garrison at Provins in 1929, Mathet bought two horses for "just above the butcher's price" and with one of them, Invicta, which he trained himself, won his first official race, a steeplechase, on June 22, 1930. He registered his colors—black, white sleeves and green cap—and for the next few years, while he treated the army as a convenient place to hang his saber, he toured the gentlemen-riders' circuit with remarkable success both on the flat and over jumps. He rode throughout France as well as in England, Germany and Italy. Five times he topped the amateur riders' list, and in one year, 1936, he was credited with 51 victories. Before he gave up competitive riding Mathet rode 208 winners, all but 38 of them over jumps. And when he quit he did it with typical decisiveness. "In the summer of 1944," he said, "my horse was squeezed and fell at a ditch. I lay on the ground, unhurt, but as I watched the other horses go over I thought to myself, 'This isn't amusing to me anymore!' So I gave up race-riding. And when I got deeply into training, I did not train jumpers. Although I liked jumping tremendously, for me the true pleasure was the participation as a rider, not as an observer."
During all this time Mathet had not requested any guidance from experienced trainers, nor had any veterans offered him advice. "You might say," he recalled, "that I learned about horses from my own experience and from my own trials and errors. Looking back on it now, I remember establishing only one clear fact at the beginning. In my second year at Saint-Cyr some of us used to ride out to Maisons-Laffitte. We'd leave our mounts in a field where the present car park is and walk in to watch the races. I remember watching those jockeys and saying to my comrades, 'Riding races certainly is different from cavalry riding, and I think the training must be, too.'
"Success on the tracks increased my difficulties in the army, and in the late '30s I strongly considered leaving the cavalry to give full time to racing." Before Mathet could put his plan into effect the war came. On the 17th of May, 1940 Captain Fran√ßois Mathet, on horseback with the 8th Dragoons and in a futile defense of the northern point of the Maginot Line close to the Belgian border, quickly discovered what modern war was all about. As the German Panzer divisions raced by and around the mounted French troops, Mathet's outfit was hopelessly cut off by tanks and by troop-carrying trucks. "One of my horses finished up eventually at Dunkirk," he said, "but I remembered how in the war of '14 an army was trapped by the sea. So I took my chances by going south, and I escaped through the German lines."
Although Mathet saw brief service after that in Lebanon (where the French found themselves, for a time, in combat against English and Australian troops), he was returned to France and resigned his commission in 1942. It was not unusual for officers of France's battered army to resign if they were lucky enough to avoid deportation to Germany. An armistice had been declared, and general orders to the troops were to stay put and do as they were told. In the intervening years since those days of frustration and confusion, many French soldiers, especially former commissioned officers, have been accused of lack of patriotism for having failed either to escape to the newly formed Free French forces in North Africa and Great Britain or to join the resistance movement. The vast majority of Frenchmen found themselves unable to do either. In Mathet's case favorable circumstances gave him, in 1942, the opportunity to return to his first love, horses. A trainer named Maurice d'Okhuysen took him into his yard at Maisons-Laffitte, and almost before he knew it—when D'Okhuysen was picked up by the Germans for illegal possession of a gun—Mathet inherited the role of full-time trainer.
Although he took out his own license in 1944 and started a public stable consisting of two horses ("which I owned, trained and rode"), it wasn't until Fran√ßois Dupré signed him on for the 1947 season that Mathet really began to demonstrate his skill. The victories, honors and riches have piled up during the years since as he slowly brought the Dupré stable up to the level of the leading owner-breeders of the early '50s—men like the late Aga Khan, Edouard de Rothschild and Marcel Boussac.
Today Mathet trains his 200 horses in four spacious Chantilly yards for four owners: Dupré, Karim Aga Khan, Jorge de Atucha and Mme. Arpad Plesch. In addition, there are one or two belonging to Couturi√®re "Coco" Chanel. Mathet's 125 employees are regimented as though they were Saumur recruits. If he wants a set of horses to leave the yard at 7 a.m. he does not expect to see the first one put its nose through the gate at 7:01. "There is a misconception in America, maybe," he suggests, "about how one man can train so many horses. Over there I believe you are surprised when a trainer has more than 30. The difference is that in America the horses in training are stabled at the racetrack and the owner's other horses will be off at his farm, where they are not expected to be in racing condition. At Chantilly, although all the horses are in one locale, at least half of them are, in effect, just boarding and being prepared. I seldom have more than 50 racing regularly at one time."
Mathet credits much of his success to his full-time presence and full-time work. But he also believes there has been one important change in the field since he joined it. "In the old days," he says, "it seemed that the training was the aim. Now the race is the aim. There is an old saying, 'How many horses won their gallops but lost their races?' I believe the trainer's job is to get the horse in shape in his gallops. If he has the class, he'll win his races. I don't think I'm much different in my approach now from many other trainers. I do believe that half a horse's feed [linseed, oats, barley and bran] should be cooked, because there is more variety in cooked feed, and it is probably more digestible. And, lastly, I think a 2-year-old should only run if he's very good or terribly precocious."
In the distant, anything-goes days of French racing, before chemists' tests were taken seriously (or, in fact, taken at all), there was no way of telling how many horses were doped or how many jockeys paid to pull them. Today racing in France is so prosperous—thanks to the government's participation in off-track betting, a general increase in purse distribution and the modernization of several antiquated tracks—that skulduggery in the conduct of the sport has been vastly reduced. The horsemen's rising economy makes it possible for nearly half of France's 200 trainers to earn a comfortable living by charging their clients anywhere from $5 to $8 per day per horse. (In the U.S. the rate varies from $10 to $18.) The result of this relative prosperity is that few trainers will risk reputation and future livelihood by becoming involved in a doping scandal. (In England where, as one prosperous French trainer puts it, "half the trainers are in the hands of the bookmakers," the situation seems to be reversed.)
Still, incidences of doping pop up in every racing country—including France. And over the years some horses trained by already controversial Fran√ßois Mathet have been the targets of serious charges. "You can be sure," says one of Mathet's contemporaries, "that if Mathet were to dope a horse he'd dope it with something that could not be detected." Says Mathet himself, "There are a lot of horses being put to sleep in France, probably more than we suspect. [Mathet refers to the use of a depressant that would keep a favorite from winning, rather than a stimulant to give a horse added vigor.] But my enemies who want to ruin the name of Mathet should be clever enough to know that when I employ 125 men, how could I possibly dope a horse without one of the 125 knowing about it and reporting it?"
By the rules of racing, it is the trainer who must inevitably face up to a hearing in a doping case. In 1959 when Vamour, whom he trained for Suzy Volterra, lost two important races as the heavy favorite, Mathet ordered tests of his own taken on the horse. When they came back positive he called in the police, who uncovered nothing. Other tests were taken by chemists employed by La Société d'Encouragement pour l'Amélioration des Races de Chevaux en France (the ruling body of French racing), but when those failed to find traces of any drug, Mathet promptly charged that the samples were worthless because they had lain around on somebody's desk for nearly a week before being examined.
A more celebrated case occurred after Dupré's Abaco won a stakes in 1962 and was found positive. The stewards decided that Mathet was responsible but not guilty, and they let him off with a fine instead of a suspension. He would have been suspended if the stewards could have proved his guilt. Mathet, who still gets furious thinking about it, opened a legal action against the Société. He claims, "I have proof of a complete fabrication." In suing to clear his name, Mathet is alleging illegal procedure in that the tests were not taken in the usual way. Recently a spokesman for the Société said, in the careful language of the trained diplomat, "The Société is proud of trainers who bring success to France. Mathet's high qualities as a trainer have never been in doubt. It is only regrettable that he contests the decision of the Société so often. I am sorry Mathet disagrees. His colleagues may be against him; we aren't. As to when the action will be settled, we have no idea. We are the defendants. We will defend well, I assure you."
Not all cases involving Mathet get into the courtrooms. The English stewards summoned Mathet for a friendly little chat after his Relko won the 1963 Epsom Derby, as did the Irish stewards a few weeks later after Relko was scratched at the post from the Irish Derby. Whether Relko was "got at" or not before the Irish Derby even Mathet cannot be sure. He prefers to call it "a strange combination of circumstances." His account of the odd sequence of events follows: "I worked Relko at Chantilly on the Tuesday. And he shipped on Wednesday with the same traveling lad who was always with him. The lad, however, had never been to Ireland before. On Thursday Relko just walked in preparation for two canters I wanted him to have Friday. When he came out on the Curragh for the first time Friday he saw sheep grazing and they frightened him, so he did not canter. On Saturday, the day of the race, in order that he wouldn't be frightened again by the sheep, we vanned him to the track instead of walking him. Now, this horse had not exercised since Tuesday, and what happened to him, I believe, was that he was struck suddenly by what we call 'set fast,' which is a muscular fever with horses who have been idle too long. When Relko came on the track he cantered badly, and halfway around to the start I knew we were in trouble. The vet at the start knew Relko had suffered a dislocated hip as a yearling, and he thought that that was what was the matter with him now. But Saint-Martin called me on the field phone and said, 'The horse is limping badly,' so we scratched him. I still say it was just a bad set of circumstances."
Mathet agrees with many a French horseman that money from bookmakers in Germany, where a heavy volume of business is done on French race results, probably has more to do with puzzling reversals of form than anything else. But he doesn't discount treachery on the home front, either. "In 21 years," he says, "I have discharged many—some in a hot way! A lot of things have stopped around my yards since a few men have been let go. Even now I don't let the vets treat my horses, except if they are really sick. Otherwise I just give them time instead of treatment. If the vet wants to give a pill or a shot I say no. I'd prefer to give them time."
Talking about his protégé, Jockey Saint-Martin, brings a rare smile to Mathet's face. "I have often dreamed," he says slowly, "of being able to communicate with my jockey during a race. With Saint-Martin this isn't necessary, because he's always in the right spot. In fact, since he came to work for me at the age of 14 he's been a most remarkable boy—tr√®s sympathique—and as straight as a string. He has a great feel for a horse, and a nervous one will settle down under him immediately. He is cool, has exceptionally quick reflexes and has grown into a strong finisher. He also enjoys reading, good music—and, best of all, success hasn't turned his head."
Saint-Martin's friends know what he, in turn, thinks of Fran√ßois Mathet. Not long ago, when he was offered more than $60,000 to work for another trainer, he simply said, "I'd rather get a kick in the derri√®re from Mathet than work for anyone else."