September 20 2011
There has always been a chic and fashionable aura to thoroughbred flat racing, especially when it’s at a top French racecourse such as Longchamp or Deauville. It’s not just about the beauty of the horses and the romance of the setting – the oldest and most famous racing colours are themselves objects of enduring glamour, and there are few more stylish silks in European racing than those of the Wertheimer brothers, Gerard and Alain, who also own the House of Chanel.
The Wertheimer colours – cobalt blue with white seams, white sleeves and a white cap – were first registered by Gerard and Alain’s grandfather, Pierre, in 1910, and he enjoyed his first winner the following summer. The best of his early runners was a colt called Epinard, who became a household name in France in the early 1920s. Over the following years, Pierre and his son, Jacques, continued to own and breed some of the finest bloodstock in the world.
It was in 1924 that Pierre Wertheimer, a member by marriage of the Lazard banking family, and his brother, Paul, became Coco Chanel’s business partners. Initially, they financed the manufacture and distribution of Parfums Chanel, owning 70 per cent of the business – an investment that helped build an empire that became the envy of the fashion world.
Pierre Wertheimer was said by contemporaries to be a shy man who did not like to see his picture in the press. But there’s a fascinating photograph of the young Pierre in The Rae Johnstone Story, the 1958 memoir of the great Australian jockey who came over to ride in Europe in 1932 and then returned for a further sojourn after the second world war. The debonair Wertheimer, sporting a Panama hat and correspondent shoes, is seen perched on a shooting stick in the paddock at Deauville.
The businessman with a passion for horses met Johnstone at Longchamp before the 1932 Grand Prix de Paris and suggested they watch the race over a glass of champagne in his box. Later, Wertheimer invited Johnstone to work for him. Their many successes culminated in the victory of Lavandin, trained by Alec Head, in the Derby at Epsom in 1956. When Johnstone retired the following year, Pierre Wertheimer organised a party in his honour at the fabulous Le Pré Catelan restaurant in the Bois de Boulogne. The jockey’s good friend and ghost writer Sir Peter O’Sullevan was there and remembers a “delicious candlelit dinner accompanied by Pouilly-Fuissé, Château Beychevelle 1953, Pol Roger 1949 and a rather exceptional Calvados”.
Alec Head, who was another guest that evening, went on to become one of the sport’s true greats, winning many top races, including the 1976 and 1981 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. His daughter, Criquette, and son, Freddie, have also trained for the Wertheimers, and those blue-and-white silks remain, 100 years after their inception, as durable a symbol of quality as a little black cocktail dress or a bottle of Chanel No 5.
The Wertheimers’ standard-bearer of late has been the superlative filly Goldikova, the first lady of French racing, successful three years running at the Breeders’ Cup meeting in the US. Her half-sister, Galikova, also trained by Freddie Head, is being aimed at the Arc at Longchamp on October 2 and looks a good each-way price at 12-1 with Victor Chandler.