Understand the races

A day at the races

The major races generally take place at the weekend, nearly always in the afternoon from around 1pm. At France Galop’s racecourses near Paris, they mainly occur from the months of April to November.

Before racing starts

A race meeting is generally made up of seven to nine races, at 30 minute intervals. In other words, to follow a whole meeting, one needs to plan a visit from 1pm to 5.30pm. However, one can arrive and leave the races at any time. It’s like a nine hold golf game around the Club House, a Rugby 7s match in a stadium, or an afternoon Athletics meeting.

For someone going to the races for the first time, you should try to attend a meeting at the highest level, (Qatar Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, Prix de Dianes Longines, Qatar Prix du Jockey Club, Grand Steeple-Chase de Paris, etc). However, the racecourses can be very crowded, and while the atmosphere is unparalleled, it is perhaps not always the easiest the ideal surroundings to discover a new sport, especially with your family.

The meetings “L'Hippodrome en Famille” (Racecourses with the Family), with free entry and lots of activities for the public could be a good compromise to discover racing. You can see the calendar here: www.hippodromeenfamille.com).

On the racecourse

There are two enclosures at the races: the scales and the weighing room. The former is open to the public. Here there are bars, restaurants, betting outlets and places to take cash out, terraces for watching the races live, and several television screens.
One can also see the horses, jockeys, trainers and owners around the parade ring, before and after each race. The weighing room is reserved for professionals and owners. To enter this area, you need to be a member of France Galop (a licensed owner or breeder for example), or invited by one. Being invited by a friend is in fact the best way to discover racing, as they will be able to share the experience with you.

Rond de présentation
The weighing room and parade ring at Chantilly.

Each meeting runs in an almost identical way. The starting times for every race are on the official programme, which is free and available throughout the racecourse. This also has details all the runners in the races, the conditions etc.
During the “Dimanches au galop”, these programmes are produced to help an audience that do not have much experience at the races and becomes more like a guide, although it’s still free!

From one race to the next

The first race has just been run, and the next race is programmed in around 25 minutes. Once the horses and jockeys have passed the post, the horses that have achieved the best placings return either to the winner’s enclosure, the parade ring, or to another area near the weighing room. The jockeys then get off their horses and take all their equipment to be weighed.

At the same time, they also discuss their thoughts on the race with the horse’s trainer and owner, and sometimes to a journalist on camera nearby. These work for Equidia, the racing channel that show the sport live at France Galop racetracks.
The stable staff then bring their horses back to the stables, which are closed to the public, although the majority of the area can be seen from the racecourse. Throughout the day, horses arrive, sometimes even the day before (if they have travelled from afar), before being walked before the races to relax them and warm up their muscles.

This is something that the horses are used to doing, and an interruption to this is more likely to upset them, as like a lot of animals, they prefer to follow routines.   
After the race, the horses are washed down, dried, looked after, and walked to cool down after such a big effort. They will then leave to go back to their homes a few hours after the race in a horse box with their lads, sometimes on their own, with another, or even six or nine other horses, but always in comfort!

The wash down after a race.

Horses in the second race leave the stables to go to the parade ring. This is the moment to look at them closely. They are being held by their lads, and already have saddles on their backs, put on by their trainers. These will have come to collect the saddle from their jockey in the weighing room after the previous race, always after he has weighed out for the next race in question.
Racing is one of the rare sports where the athletes, in this case the jockeys, must weigh themselves before and after the race. In boxing for example, the competitors are weighed before a match, but not afterwards.
In racing it is different, because the weight that is carried by a horse depends on their past performances. Certain trainers also weigh their horses before and after the race to measure the impact that the race has had on them, but this is not compulsory.

The Parade Ring

The trainers, jockeys and owners gather together in the parade ring for the “orders”. It is at this moment that a jockey receives his final instructions from the horse’s owner or trainer. It is an amusing ritual to observe, because each group goes about it in a different way and has their own superstitions. A lot can also be learnt from looking at the horses and how their attitude changes when their jockey is on board. They are “legged up” (generally by the trainers), and it is interesting to note how the horse walks, how they are dealing with the pressure, or simply how they look and move, as they are all different from one another. In racing, the biggest and the strongest are not always the best – it’s a subtle combination that finally comes down to effort. A horse’s appearance is just one indication…

Jockey Umberto Rispoli
 Trainer Francis-Henri Graffard gives instructions to jockey Umberto Rispoli.

Going out onto the track, and the start

The start is often very exciting to see, and a visit to watch this in close proximity will leave a lasting impression.
Once the horses have been mounted, and after three turns in the parade ring, the horses go out on to the track before cantering to the start to warm up, which can often be quite far away. Before National Hunt (jump) races, they might jump a practice hurdle.
Next, all the horses collect behind the starting stalls if it is a flat race, circling all the while before the “stalls handlers”. These are in charge of helping the horses into the stalls, putting each individual in, one by one. This is sometimes a delicate operation, and some horses do not like going into a narrow space. It can take several minutes while the others are waiting.
In Jumps races, the start is with elastic tapes, with the runners approaching at a walk in a group, before setting off in no particular order as the tapes are pulled back by the starter.

Mise en boîte
Horses being led into the stalls by the handlers at Longchamp.

A ring on the loudspeaker always denotes the start of a race, and between the horses going out onto the track and the start, there is always time to make as many bets as you want. It is at this point that you have all the information in hand. We’ll come back to this in the section “How to make a bet at the races”.

During the race

Until recently, it was invaluable to have a pair of binoculars to follow a race properly from start to finish. This is rarely the case nowadays. Televisions and big screens are positioned throughout the racecourses so that one can see the races from the best possible angle.
If you have bet on a horse, try to note something distinctive about your choice (silks, coloured blinkers, hat) and of course memorise its name so that you can follow it closely through the commentator and the racecourse speaker. If you are in the stands, the finish will be just in front of you. If this isn’t the case, try to find the finishing post in the programme so that you can see where the race ends.

Couleurs du propriétaire
The silks of His Highness The Aga Khan : green, red epaulettes, green cap.

At the Sunday races on France Galop racecourses, a big screen is placed in front of the stands. This is a good way to share the races with the public. After all, everyone is betting on the same race, even if you haven’t bet on the same horses!
If you want to watch the race from a different angle, placing yourself near a jump is also a spectacular way to see the races

After the race

The result is announced by the commentator as soon as it is available. Sometimes they will say that it is a photo finish between Number X and Number Y, meaning that they finished too close to be able to call the result live. A photograph of the finishing line is then examined to determine the result.
During this time, the Stewards re-watch the race several times from different angles to determine if there was any interference from any of the runners which could change the result. If there is a doubt, they then launch an enquiry, which will take place straight away.
After listening to the jockeys involved, the Stewards make their decision, which is subsequently announced to the public. Occasionally a horse is demoted behind its rival as it has been deemed to have stopped it from obtaining the best possible placing.
In the majority of enquiries this does not happen, and when the result is announced, you can collect your winnings at the desks or from the machines. While you are waiting for the next race and for the horses to arrive in the parade ring around 12 minutes before the race, this is the best moment to “study the form” and select your next bets…

Les commissaires
The Stewards watching a race at Saint-Cloud.