Horsing Around in Normandy

Every morning around 9:30am, on a “home” track at the corner of our street, sulky training happens, and that sparked my interest. Gallop races were something my parents took me to see because we had a family friend whose job it was to care for racing horses. It’s been many years but it gave me a behind-the-scenes peek of that world, and how these beautiful animals were treated like …well, probably like the gold they were worth.

After a race, he’d proudly care for his charges, rubbing them down lovingly (tirelessly) and then pouring entire bottles of 4711, the famous cologne from the German city of Cologne, over their bodies. I remember steam rising from the horses’ hides as it cooled them from the exertion, giving the scene in the stables something ethereal in my child’s imagination.

Horse racing was invented by the Ancient Greeks. In Normandy there are records as far back as the 6th Century that mention the sport, though le grand prix in those days involved the hand of a princess. There is debate whether the trot disciplines were invented in England or France, but, regardless, the two nations remain huge in the world of horse racing. In France, it is Louis XVI (18th Century) who is accredited with breathing life into the country’s competitive racing heart, and Napoleon 1 for re-instituting standards of breeding.

In the 17th century there was already some agreement on competitors’ weight. In 1651 a competition took place near Paris and the first ever French international race in 1683 was documented. The sport boomed in the centuries following with racetracks popping up around France.

Judging from the schedule in current times the popularity of the sport hasn’t diminished. The schedule shows France as having the most competitive races, followed by Italy, the UK and US. You’ll have heard about Ascot in England and the Kentucky Derby in the US, no doubt?!

In Lower Normandy, there’s a hippodrome just a hop and a skip away from anywhere. As travel tips go, I can say that there is a lot to do around here, any day of the week, when it comes to tourist locations or local events (ask in a newspaper shop with a maison de la presse sign for a list of local events as they often have pamphlets or posters). If you’ve always wanted to go to the races, it’s likely there’s an event near you. Check the schedule here. On this side of the Atlantic, sports betting is par for the course and if you’re wondering how it works for horse racing (not that I want to encourage you), here’s a good guide.

So off to the races in Graignes we went on a cold and dreary afternoon a few days ago. To our surprise, right next to it was a high school for jockeys! The kids who choose the profession seem to do so at a very young age. From high school they lead a rigorous lifestyle of diet and discipline, and study everything from riding, to care, training, and stress management as well as the business of horses, like investment, etc. Graduating from high school gives them two diplomas: one that every graduate receives, and one specific for drivers or for racehorse training.

Either way they can get straight into the jockey business, although they have to be licensed, with yearly retests. Jockeys also earn a modest salary here in France with contributions from the horses’ owners, so they gain fame and fortune only by winning. For interested youngsters, it’s fantastic there are places to learn the sport as a trade and it shows how deeply ingrained equestrianism is in France.

In Normandy, it’s big business. You can see that simply by the amount of foals darting through pastures in the shadows of their beautiful mothers right now. The horses are not particularly tall, but they are elegant and proud in stature as if they know every corner of their life’s purpose. Certainly the top prizes they score are in the tens of thousands of Euros—or Dollars, take your pick.

Our prize was just going to the races. It’s great people-watching. And horses. And jockeys. And drivers. Yes, that too.


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