Racecourse guides: essential insight into the French tracks back in business
Betting editor Keith Melrose with track pointers for punters betting in France
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Just like in the height of summer the Flat racers move north to Deauville, in the depths of winter the jumps action tends to centre on Pau. The town is located just 50 or so miles from the Spanish border, at the foot of the Pyrenees and for this reason is a regular stop on the Tour de France. It is also part of the reason that, in a normal year, they would not be racing here almost into June.
Pau is known as a jumps track, but it also hosts Flat racing. This tends to take place on a Polytrack course on the outside of the jumps circuits. This course was renovated in 2019 and is also important for training, Pau being a major training centre in the south-west of France. Flat races on the card tend to be of a lower grade than those jumps.
The course is right-handed and the round course contains two sharp bends on the journey away from the stands, with one continuous sweeping bend into the home straight. While the Flat course is quite galloping in theory, being over 1m3f around, the winning post comes early in the straight. The run-in is officially deemed to be two furlongs but is actually a bit shorter than that, by about 24 yards.
In terms of topography, the course is fairly flat. Runners climb a little on the exit to the back straight, and descend a little on the turn in. Alloyed with the short straight, this makes it important to hold a prominent position.
Chases are run on two figure-of-eight tracks in the centre of the course. The obstacles are a little more regulation than at Auteuil, save for those on a separate cross-country course. Races finish on the hurdles straight.
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The racecourse at Chateaubriant is around 45 miles north of Nantes, close to the border with Brittany. It is tight, right-handed track that hosts Flat, hurdles and trotting races.
The turf course is a few yards more than a mile around and is used for both Flat and hurdles races, the latter employing portable obstacles. The first bend is tight, the second more sweeping but that does mean that the straight is short, approximately 40 yards shorter than two furlongs.
Most of the course is flat, but there is a fairly sharp hill at the end of the back straight that climbs more or less to the crest of the bend, before dropping on the second part of the turn. The vast majority of the descending is done by the time the runners straighten up for home, although a slight drop on an already short straight makes a good position important.
Only three starts are generally used on the Flat. The 5½f furlong and 1m5f starts are both close to the final bend, just as the ground starts to rise. Despite this, there can still be a rush to get into position before the bend. The 1m2f start is at the beginning of the home straight.
Bordeaux Le Bouscat
Although La Teste-De-Buch is sometimes described as a Bordeaux racecourse, Le Bouscat is the one true qualifier as Bordeaux's track. It is based in a suburb of the same name in the north west of the city. Saturday will be one of its main cards of the year, featuring the Listed Grand Prix De Bordeaux.
A right-handed track that hosts Flat, jumps and trotting races, Bordeaux is a track which is 1m2f around on the Flat course. Somewhat unusually for a French course, the chase track is situated on the outside of the hurdles course, although on the final circuit they share a home straight.
The course is somewhat triangular, with two right-angled bends going away from the stands and one long one turning into the home straight. This is fairly tight at its end on the jumps tracks, but a short false straight means it is much more sweeping in Flat races. It also reduces the length of the straight proper, to two furlongs and 20 yards. In jumps races, the run-in is almost exactly two and a half furlongs.
The only real undulation on the course comes towards the end of the back straight. Runners climb about 15ft over the course of the final turn and drop all the way back down on the straight. This makes the home straight fast.
Race distances are seemingly chosen so as to minimise the effect of the draw. The most common starts are at 1m4f (start of home straight) and 1m1½f (pointing up the short first straight), while the mile start cuts the first corner so as to give runners a furlong and a half or so to get organised.
With all racecourses in the Paris region shut down on Tuesday, the role of French racing's de facto headquarters will fall to Deauville, the only track outside of the capital's orbit that hosts Group 1 racing.
The iconic Normandy track is accustomed to this position. It basically runs the show in France every August anyway, with an extended festival that includes all five of the Group 1 prizes held at the track.
Deauville is a year-round track, however, with British trainers often sending runners even in the depths of winter. Originally Fibresand, since the mid-2010s Deauville's all-weather surface has been Polytrack. Such races take place on a 1m2f oval, inside the main turf track, with the only quirk being a spur for races over 1m1½f.
The turf track, used exclusively for Flat racing, is a 1m3f oval with sweeping turns and a run-in of two furlongs and about 60 yards, making it just slightly above average for a French course.
Deauville's defining feature is its straight mile course, which is only available for turf races. The straight course crosses a bridge over the river Morte – a tributary of La Touques, from which the course takes its official name – before joining the main track.
Like the whole track, the straight mile features only minor coastal undulations. Be aware that some races over short of a mile –specifically 7f and 7½f – start on the round course and that even in summer most races over 6½f take place on the round all-weather track rather than the straight course and distance of the Prix Maurice De Gheest.
Just inland from the Arachon Bay, west of Bordeaux, La Teste-De-Buch is a wide, sweeping track with no trotting track on its inside. It is used mostly for Flat racing, but its hurdles races are staged over seven permanent obstacles, on a course on the Flat track's inside. The chase course, which involves obstacles in the centre of the track, is rarely used.
La Teste-De-Buch is right-handed and is about 1m2f around. The bends are quite tight, with a radius of just 125 yards on the Flat course, but both straights are extended back so that in practice runners tend to take fewer turns than at most tracks. There is a straight five-furlong track and the back straight's spur means that races at up to and including 1m2f involve just one turn. Races over six furlongs are taken closest to the bend, but runners still have ample time to organise.
Undulations are gentle, although over the full length of the five-furlong course the rise is a bit over 10ft, which is enough to be significant. It is not a wide course, so most races over this course and distance can be expected to play out on the stands rail.
A literal hop over the road from the Mediterranean Sea, Marseille-Borely is the main course in the city. It is a mixed track hosting Flat, jumps and trotting, but does not have a chase track. All hurdles are temporary and the inside of the turf track, normally given over to chases, has a use that will be familiar to British racing fans. It is a golf course.
The left-handed track is fairly tight, being just a mile around. The finish line is situated so as to give runners the full length of the straight, however, giving a run-in of exactly two furlongs. The line comes up on runners quickly on television pictures, so in-running punters beware.
As can be imagined, the mile start puts the emphasis on a good draw for those looking to take a good early position. Other major starts, over six furlongs and a mile and a quarter, start near the beginning of the respective straights.
As can probably be inferred from its coastal location, Borely is a pretty flat course. Runners actually start the home straight below sea level and the rise to the line is negligible. The main external consideration is the coastal winds, including the famous mistral. A check of the likely wind conditions is always a good idea wherever you intend to bet, but would be particularly well advised at Borely.
Auteuil is situated in the heart of Paris's sporting district, with Stade Roland-Garros and the Parc Des Princes within half a mile to the south Longchamp less than a mile to the west, all of them sitting on the fringes of the Bois de Boulogne public park.
Referring to Auteuil as the Cheltenham of French jumps racing would be underplaying it. You would have to throw in Aintree, too, and maybe even one of Newbury and Ascot. All nine Grade 1 jumps races in France take place there, along with many of the lesser Graded races. The main times of activity are in May/June and in the autumn.
Overall the track is not pancake-flat, but the undulations are gentle. There is a gradual climb up the finishing straight, which comes off a fairly tight final turn. The home straight is wide, with a fairly long run-in just shy of 300 yards. It is not uncommon for horses to finish separated by the width of the track.
The hurdles track, on the outside and roughly a mile and a half in length, is left-handed and fairly conventional. Horses are occasionally taken wide down the back straight, racing alongside the hedge that borders the course in search of better ground.
There are two figure-of-eight chase courses offering racing over 16 different configurations. There are several idiosyncratic obstacles. Chase races on both courses jump the famous Riviere Des Tribunes, a water jump that reportedly requires a jump of 8m (more than 26 feet) to clear. Perhaps the most difficult stretch comes down the back straight on the outer track, where a bank leads on to the fearsome Rail Ditch and then on to another open ditch, the last of which is four out. Most of the novel obstacles demand long, rather than big jumps.
Unlike many French jumps tracks, chase tracks do not finish on the hurdles course. They do finish on a parallel track, with a hedge fence and a hurdle as their last two obstacles. The first comes roughly 120 yards after a fairly tight bend and catches out more than might otherwise be expected.
Although located about 12 miles north in the town of Hoerdt, the racecourse carries the name of Strasbourg. It is a mixed track, hosting trotting, Flat, hurdles, chase and cross-country races.
Strasbourg is right-handed, 1m1f around at the most and flat, with a sweeping final bend and a straight measuring two furlongs and about 70 yards.
The outer track is dedicated to Flat and hurdles races, with all obstacles in the latter being portable.
The chase track is on the inside of the Flat course and outside of the trotting track. Even so, it contains as many as ten obstacles per circuit depending on which configuration is used. Only one fence is jumped in the final straight before runners switch to the hurdles course.
Runners in cross-country races start on the chase course before crossing, over the trotting track, to the inside of the course. They take 29 obstacles in all, including an inverted bank known as the wolf's hole, before finishing on the hurdles track.
Lyon bosts two tracks on its east side, with Parilly in the south east of the city being the only one that hosts turf racing. It is a left-handed course of a mile and a furlong, with a finishing straight for all Flat, turf and regulation steeplechases of approximately two and a half furlongs.
The bends on the Flat course are fairly sweeping in nature, but races over a mile start in a spur and soon join the first bend at its crest, making the draw crucial for those looking to obtain a prominent early position.
In all other Flat races, runners have ample time to prepare for their first bend. That includes races over five furlongs, which take place on a dedicated straight course. The straight rises only a little along its whole length and it would be fair to term Lyon Parilly as a flat track.
Typically for French racecourses, the chase course is on the inside of the main track, which is itself used for both hurdles and Flat races (with the exception of a parallel run down the back straight which hosts four permanent hurdles).
The real idiosyncrasy at Parilly is its dedicated cross-country course, which is situated for the most part inside the trotting track. Runners will leave the tight, bank-heavy figure-of-eight course and disappear from view in the trees along the back straight, emerging at a brook on a sharp downhill run. This is no Compiegne-style chase-with-sidings.
Not to be confused with Le Lion D'Angers, which is a quirkier track situated in a town of that name about 15 miles north, Angers is a mixed-use course hosting Flat, jumps and trotting. It is a right-handed circuit of roughly a mile and a furlong, with a two-furlong finishing straight. Visually, it is somewhat reminiscent of Ludlow, just a little sharper.
In terms of topography, the course is fairly flat. Runners go downhill shortly after passing the finishing post, then climb on the turn out of the back straight, but the total change in elevation is little more than 10ft and the home straight is more or less completely flat.
The chase course is situated on the inside of the Flat and hurdles track and contains eight or nine obstacles per circuit, depending on the route runners take down the back straight. All hurdles are portable, with one situated just after the winning post which is removed in time for the horses completing their final circuit.
On the Flat, the main consideration in terms of draw comes over a mile. The stalls are situated on a minor bend, with another turn following soon afterwards. Those whose jockeys wish to lead from a wide stall have a lot of work on.
While Chantilly hosts the Prix du Jockey-Club and Prix de Diane, the historical French equivalents of the Derby and Oaks respectively, it is probably most famous for its setting.
It is in the grounds of a Renaissance-style chateau, with runners on the round course passing the Great Stables, which must be one of the grandest horse training facilities in the world. On non-racedays, Chantilly is still France's biggest training centre.
Although the right-handed course hosts only Flat gallop racing it is far from a straightforward track. The main circuit is a little less than 1m4f in length, but the starts over 1m2½f (used for the Jockey-Club and Diane) and 1m4f are located on the 6f straight course, joining the main track by means of a chute that more or less bisects the back straight.
From the apex of the final bend to the line, the course climbs more than 30ft, making for a stiff finish up the finishing straight, which is more than three furlongs in length. Jockeys are generally wary of the rise, the weighing-room folklore being never to go for home before a small chapel that is hidden in the trees slightly more than two furlongs out, so in practice slow-motion finishes are rare.
Races of 7f and a mile are on the conventional round course, but sprints take place up the straight. As a result, they use a different finishing line, situated more than a furlong and a half further along than the conventional winning post. Runners over 6f will climb around 20ft over the course of their journey and races tend to play out on the stands' side, where the lowest numbered stalls are situated.
Chantilly underwent significant renovations in the early years of the century, including the laying of a Polytrack course on the inside of the turf track. Used primarily in the winter months, it is roughly 1m2f around on its outer configuration, with a chute which allows races over 1m1½f to take place with just one major bend. The run-in on the Polytrack is more or less three furlongs.
The sweeping nature of the course means that there is no obvious draw bias, with races over 7f being the only ones that start near a bend and even then there is a two-furlong run. Note that races over 1m4f take their first slight bend left-handed, but in practice those drawn low still tend to get the 'inside' rail.
Just a hop over the river Seine from Longchamp, Saint-Cloud is one of just three other racecourses in France to host Group 1 Flat racing: the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud, traditionally in late-June, as well as two late-season juvenile events, the Grand Criterium and the Criterium de Saint-Cloud.
The last-named of those is reputed to be the greatest stamina test a Group 1-class two-year-old will face and the course topography plays a part in that. The straight is relatively long, providing a run-in two and three-quarters furlongs in length. There is also a 4½f straight course, which starts in a chute. The straight climbs steadily all the way, making Saint-Cloud galloping in nature.
The left-handed course is roughly triangular, with the turn into the home straight the most sweeping. Races over 1m4f, the distance of the Grand Prix, start in a spur that cuts across the course and joins the main track halfway down the straight that runs away from the stands.
The lesser of the two tracks in Marseille, Pont-de-Vivaux is an all-weather and trotting track a few miles inland from the city's coastline, which is where the main track at Bolery is situated.
The Polytrack surface for gallop racing is the outer circuit but it is still sharp, being a little less than six furlongs around. The final bend is the tighter of the two, while the straight is very slightly downhill, placing further emphasis on runners who are able to race up with the speed.
Starts are generally situated in short chutes at the beginning of the home and back straights, which at least gives the runners some time to organise before taking one of the turns.
Even if you are not a follower of French racing, Longchamp (or ParisLongchamp, to give it its official title) will be familiar. It has been the venue for some of the most iconic moments in European racing history, the vast majority of them in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe.
There are essentially four tracks at Longchamp. By far the most famous is the grande piste – which translates rather prosaically as 'big track' – on which the Arc is run. It has the widest arc of the three round courses and provides sweeping bends, as well as a longer 'false straight', which can delay the final act of many races from playing out.
The course rises steadily on the run to the bend, then downhill into the straight where it is essentially flat. The new course, in effect a seven-furlong spur that joins the grande piste on the apex of the bend, is duly quite fast.
Overall, it provides a fair test. There is a small advantage towards those drawn low, but with the nature of the track and the way races in France are generally run it is not a bias that needs to be at the forefront of punters' thinking.
Similar comments apply, albeit naturally to a lesser degree, in the case of the moyenne (medium) and petite (small) pistes.
There is also a five-furlong (1000m) straight track at Longchamp, most familiar to British audiences as the one used for the Prix de l'Abbaye.
On this course, there tends to be a significant bias to the rail and as such low-drawn runners are favoured to a considerable degree. It would not be a huge exaggeration to put this bias in the same bracket as some of the more well-known examples in Britain.
Situated around 50 miles north east from Paris, Compiegne is a dual-purpose track on which the chases are run on a figure-of-eight circuit. Flat races and hurdle races take place outside this track and are left-handed. Races over seven furlongs start just before the far bend, in most other cases runners have ample time to prepare for their first turn.
Compienge also has a cross-country track. Unlike at Cheltenham, where the cross-country course is to all intents and purposes a separate entity, cross-country races at Compiegne follow a similar path to the steeplechases, with a series of offshoots, cut-throughs and spurs that contain the more peculiar obstacles which differentiate these types of races from regulation chases.
In general, the main point to note about Compiegne is its relatively galloping nature. The outermost, Flat circuit is 1m3f around and the straight is over three furlongs long. That only tells part of the story, however, as it also rises steadily, by a total of more than 25 feet. This puts the emphasis on stamina to a greater degree than at many French tracks.
Toulouse racecourse is a right-handed Flat, jumps and trotting track in the Cepiere area of Toulouse, the largest city in France's south-west.
The track is situated fairly close to the city centre and races there are set to a clearly urban backdrop. Perhaps not surprisingly, it is a tight course. One circuit of the outermost Flat track is less than 1m1½f with a run-in of little more than two furlongs.
Also unsurprisingly, given Toulouse's situation on the Garonne river, the course is more or less flat throughout, which combined with its tight nature makes for a speed test. In addition, races over a mile start right on a bend, forcing those drawn high to go wide.
The track's tightness is felt particularly sharply on the chase course, which is situated between the Flat and trotting tracks. Hurdle races take place on the Flat track, with three permanent obstacles in a line parallel to the back straight and the rest being portable.
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