December 15 2010
As the northern hemisphere winter settles in, the high rollers of the Turf traditionally decamp to warmer climes. The Caribbean, Florida and Australia are popular destinations, all of them boasting a vibrant racing and gambling culture. But if you like a bit of old-school European glamour with your midwinter sun, the Côte d’Azur is an engaging alternative. Average daytime temperatures of 13°C may not compare with Barbados, but the winter months are dry and sunny, the setting is beautiful and there is the added attraction of a rather good racecourse right on the Mediterranean shore.
The Hippodrome de la Côte d’Azur at Cagnes-sur-Mer – roughly equidistant from Cannes and Nice – is an old favourite of racing connoisseurs. The pretty, dual-purpose track offers a mix of flat racing, jump racing and trotting, and its winter fixture list culminates with its annual feature race, the Grand Prix du Conseil Général des Alpes-Maritimes, on the last Saturday in February. You can get a good lunch in the panoramic restaurant and, if the results go your way, you can play up your winnings in the casino at Monte Carlo, a short drive along the coast. It’s an area blessed with many fabulous hotels, and I’d recommend La Réserve in Beaulieu-sur-Mer, which has welcomed many a racehorse owner and trainer fleeing the grey skies of London and Paris.
This winter, Cagnes-sur-Mer will be staging two French qualifying races – one on December 20 and the other on January 9 – for the Pertemps Hurdle Final at the Cheltenham Festival in March. The new races are a reminder that while French racing is predominantly associated with blue-blooded colts and fillies competing in the great marquee contests on the Parisian flat-racing circuit, cross-Channel chasing and hurdling are also thriving. French-bred jumpers, who are generally more precocious than their Anglo-Saxon counterparts, have always been in demand with the top English and Irish owners, and some of the best jumping stock currently in training are French-breds, including the great Kauto Star, who will be attempting to win Boxing Day’s King George VI Chase at Kempton Park for the fifth year running.
The 1950 King George VI Chase was won by a French-bred horse, Manicou, one of the first runners to carry the colours of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. More recently, the debonair Chantilly-based trainer François Doumen has enjoyed conspicuous success at Kempton’s Christmas fixture, making off with the main prize on five occasions. Monsieur Doumen became something of a heart-throb with English county ladies of a certain age, though English punters never got along with his jockey son, Thierry, whose efforts in the saddle were thought insufficiently robust.
Twelve months ago I advised readers to back Kauto Star to win the King George for a fourth time, expecting him to bring the house down if successful. He duly romped home by 36 lengths, and I would dearly love to see him complete the five-timer. The 10-year-old faces a formidable rival in the shape of the Nicky Henderson-trained Long Run, another French-bred, who is just five years old. A most impressive winner as a novice at Kempton last Christmas, he’s got a big future. But I’m sticking with Kauto to cover the festive expenses and pay for another trip to Cagnes-sur-Mer at 5-4 with Coral.