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Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

A day at the races: pomp, ceremony, tradition and adrenaline

Horse raceEquestrian pursuits have always had a regal air about them, from dressage and show jumping to horse racing. Perhaps it is the association with cavalry and knightly horsemanship, perhaps the sheer cost of maintaining these fine animals and their noble bloodlines, but even the lively distraction of gambling does nothing to diminish the tradition, intensity and sense of occasion that horse racing carries with it.

It is a world of thoroughbreds reared and trained to exacting levels of athleticism, where trainers and their pupils steal the show and stand a chance of immortality. The pupils here are as much the horses as the jockeys, for dedicated and brilliant as the latter need to be to reach the top, the animal is a muscle-bound machine of speed and power that simply needs a brilliant hand to steer and cajole it to victory.

Much like an organic racing car, and not surprisingly horse racing evokes the same sense of excitement and exhilaration among its throngs of spectators, sport-loving purists and fashionable society. An ‘access all areas’ pass is almost as hotly desired as at a Grand Prix, while the hospitality is even better. No top hippodrome is complete without luxurious restaurants, bars and VIP lounges reminiscent of a five-star hotel.

THE CLASSICS

Royal processionOf today’s main forms of competition it is harness racing that is most reminiscent of the chariots that were driven around the classical arenas of Greece, Babylonia, Egypt, Persia and Rome. These days it is the preferred style in the Nordic countries, Central Europe and Russia, whilst also being prominent in North America and Australia. The tightly controlled trot maintained throughout the race is considered unnatural-looking by some, but requires great skill and training. The greatest classic in this genre is the Prix d’Amerique, held at the Vincennes course near Paris.

The latter is one of the society hotbeds of the French capital, where beautifully dressed women step out of limousines and would-be playboys roll up in low-slung sports cars, happy to smile for the paparazzi. Champagne, designer wear and small-talk are fixed ingredients of one of the season’s big events, though one of the biggest of all is the glamorously named Grand Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. Held at the equally glamorous Hippodrome de Longchamp, this grand race first held in 1920 is currently the third richest race in the sport. More importantly, it ranks among the finest classics too.

Situated close to the Seine in the Bois de Boulogne, this spot has been drawing royalty, aristocracy and society since the mid- 19th century, when the likes of Manet and Degas captured the atmosphere on canvas. Described by some as ‘Not a course but a monument’, Longchamp and the Prix it hosts represent the classic of classics on the European continent, big enough to compete with the world-famous classics in Britain, the home of modern horse racing.

POMP AND CEREMONY

MosStylish spectatorst typical of these is the Grand National held at Aintree Racecourse near Liverpool. Its steeplechase format replicates the cross-country style associated with the hunt, and while it can’t compete with the more conventional flat racing format on a commercial level, the Grand National retains an equestrian purity and link to its origins that is unique. The grand flat racing classics include the Epsom Derby, the Cheltenham Gold Cup and Royal Ascot, which traces its roots to 1711. Although also home to National Hunt Racing (steeplechase), it is with the Royal Ascot that this famous course is most closely associated, conjuring images of monarchs arriving by coach en route to the royal enclosure, elegant ladies sporting elaborate head wear and gentlemen standing around in frock coats and top hats swilling champagne and looking dapper.

Tradition, pomp and ceremony still rule supreme at Ascot, and though Newmarket is officially considered the home of British racing – and breeding – it is this stately hippodrome not far from Windsor Castle that captures the world’s attention with its rich pageantry.

Every bit as iconic within the equestrian world is the Kentucky Derby, held every first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. Set right in the heart of America’s horse breeding country, it like Ascot Week is the highpoint of an ongoing festival that in this case runs for up to two weeks. Where Longchamp features slick contemporary architecture and Ascot has undergone an impressive modernisation and expansion of its facilities, part of the magic of the Kentucky Derby is the magnificent classic styling of its Churchill Downs course.

Churchill DownsFirst inaugurated shortly after the Civil War, this is about as olde-worlde as America gets, complete with ladies and gents sipping mint julep and dressed to suit their classic surroundings. At Churchill Downs the two-kilometre track is covered not in mossy grass but in finely kept sand that provides the backdrop for what the Americans call “The most exciting two minutes in sport.” Tradition is once again at the heart of things, with the elegance and chivalry of the Old South briefly coming back to life during the Kentucky Derby, proving that like all events entwined with tradition, horse racing is as much a social event as it is a sport.

This article was published in Villae International Magazine 9, the official magazine of EREN – The European Real Estate Network. You can also read the online version of the printed Villae International Magazine 9.

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