Veni, Vidi, Vichy
Jocelyn Targett in the city of the losing bet
Optimism. You can’t own a racehorse without it. And we owners show our hand with the names we give them. This last season alone, seven horses were called something-or-other Champion, without any of them being anything like one; 11 had ‘Best’ in their name – if not in their nature; and, of the 29 called ‘First’ this or ‘First’ that, 18 never once were.
This time last year I named a colt I couldn’t get 25-grand for ‘Duc de Morny’ – after the man who built Deauville and to whom Europe’s premier six-furlong challenge for juveniles is dedicated. Talk about optimism: this was pretty much with the sole intention of reminding his trainer to enter him for the race which he was – how could anyone doubt? – sure to bolt up in.
When, towards the end of May, Duc de Morny swooped last to first at the same track where the trainer’s previous Morny winner had also got off the mark, and then, for good measure, went in under a penalty for a perfect two-from-two record, my gargantuan hubris was beginning to look almost like prescience and worthy of some hearty self-congratulation, something – if it doesn’t sound big-headed – I have a special talent for. On evening walks, with only the dogs listening, I rehearsed my post-Prix Morny interviews with the press.
And then Vichy happened.
Chop, sauté, boil and pulverise leeks, onions and potatoes with sundry other bits and bobs, top up with, of all things, cold milk, and stick in the fridge and you end up with the abomination known as Vichyssoise. Try it one day when you really want to spoil lunch. It ought to be the name of a paint colour on the Farrow & Ball chart, perched obnoxiously as it is between Churlish Green and Mizzle. To say it goes down like a cup of cold soup is the most massive understatement of all time.
Anyway, Vichyssoise is the third most famous thing about Vichy, after mineral water and collaboration, the order of which depends on how keen you are on remembering history or, if you’re French, forgetting it. Vichy is a fabulously grand spa town high in the Auvergne, slap bang in the middle of France, with a casino, many cinemas and theatres, and a racecourse, plus innumerable colonnaded bath houses to take the waters in – a kind of Deauville for the old and infirm of the late-1800s, assuming you were rich enough. In the bars and cafés under the dappled shade of tall limes and London planes, it must have been quite the place to cool down in high summer without having to take off too many of those ridiculous late-1800s clothes or eat too much of that milky Vichyssoise.
It was to Vichy, of course, that the French government decamped after signing an armistice with Hitler barely six weeks after the Germans had set their first jackboot on French soil. Actually, to be historically accurate, they decamped to Clerment-Ferrand, 30 miles to the west; then the man in charge, Marshal Pétain, realised they’d have a lot more fun in the abundant pleasure domes just down the way and they upped sticks a few days later for Vichy.
Good old Marshal Pétain, as no one ever said. His first act was to commandeer the Grand Casino for the 649 members of the National Assembly to vote on giving him full and absolute control of the half of France that wasn’t in Hitler’s hands – the zone non-occupé, soon known, with the bitterest irony, as the ‘Zone NoNo’. In the casino, gathered around the baize card tables and roulette wheels, and lit by spectacular chandeliers, originally commissioned by Napoleon III so the inordinately wealthy could see themselves being amusingly parted from some of their inordinate wealth, history was hanging in the air: all but 80 gave their assent to Marshal Pétain’s plan. What a place to make the most colossal losing bet.
Another Pétain priority was keeping the racecourse open, which might seem odd as he seemed so prone to backing the wrong horse
When it came, the fall of Pétain and his Vichy was momentous enough to take out the Grand Prix of 1944
Over the next four dreadful years, with the Assembly duly disbanded and the Grand Casino back in business, Pétain heaped disgrace on ignominy. Holed up in Vichy’s many fancy hotels, he and his cabal of staunch conservative Catholics took every conceivable revenge on the debauchery of pre-War jazz age Paris, the France that everyone else loved. As an early state of intention, they ditched Robespierre’s all-time great slogan ‘Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité’, replacing it with the dowdy ‘Travail, Famille, Patrie’ – Work, Family, Fatherland. But which fatherland? Jews were rooted out and rounded up with a wretched zeal which, it is said, impressed even the Führer: 74 convoys carried 73,853 French Jews to German death camps.
Another Pétain priority was keeping the racecourse open, which might seem odd as he seemed so prone to backing the wrong horse. Here, for a week in late July, Vichy had long since performed a passable impression of Deauville, racing most days and whipping up a sociable hubbub in town. Even a world war wasn’t going to get in the way of a good knees-up. The numerous English trainers in Chantilly of the 1930s were among the hundreds of thousands deemed undesirable enough to be interned in France’s 52 ‘centres d’hébergement’ – concentration camps with a fancy name. Meanwhile, many of the great Normandy stud farms were ransacked for their best stock (including, on Pétain’s particular instruction, the Haras du Meautry of Baron Edouard de Rothschild, and with it the 1938 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe winner Eclair au Chocolat, who had also won the Grand Prix de Vichy that year). But, at Vichy, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose: in 1941, the collaborators cheered home Tambourin, a three-year-old by Biribi – another of the Arc-winning stallions stolen by the Nazis, helping him to French Champion sire status, not that many cared. And even the Germans didn’t want Tambourin. He eventually fetched up in Ireland covering draught mares.
When it came, the fall of Pétain and his Vichy was momentous enough to take out the Grand Prix of 1944. But it was soon back. Carvin, sire of the great Pawneese, won it. So did Authi, who ended up at stud – quite legitimately in his case – in Germany; he crops up in Monsun’s pedigree and is that novelty, a Prix du Cadran horse bred at Tally-Ho. £34,000 of Cirrus des Aigles’s earnings of £6,179,490 came when he dotted up in the 2011 running, on his way to that Champion Stakes when Christophe Soumillon was fined £50,000 for using his whip six times. And 1947 hero, Coaraze – who became the leading sire in Brazil – had, funnily enough, also won the Prix Morny in his youth, which reminds me to get to the point.
But not quite yet. Laundering the misappropriated profits from the French colonies in North Africa gave Vichy and its casino a new lease of life in the Fifties and Sixties, but nowadays, as opportunities for ostentatious sordidness have headed elsewhere, so have Vichy’s fortunes. Its palaces and preposterously ornate villas, boulevards and bandstands, parks and riverside promenades, gilded arcades, mansion blocks and marbled foyers – they all echo with emptiness, even in the season. The French racing set, such as bothers to turn up, plumps for the white modern spa complexes down on the banks of the Allier, as big and ugly as cruise liners, their ill-crafted name plates missing giant letters to complete a slightly desolate impression.
Yet, on its biggest day of the year, the racecourse has still got a certain je ne sais quoi. The Grand Prix is the centrepiece of an evening fixture, eight races pushing on past 11pm and to a firework display so long-winded and elaborately episodic you might be in a novel by Proust. We arrived as darkness fell and expectation rose, Duc de Morny hot favourite to stay unbeaten in Vichy’s Listed race for two-year-olds, the Prix des Jouvenceaux et des Jouvencelles Bernard Ferrand. It might not have been the biggest race on the card, but it was right up there as the biggest mouthful.
I’m a great believer in getting the celebrating in early, just in case there’s no chance later – 20 years of racehorse ownership will do that to you: optimism has its limits. But the maître d’ of the panoramic restaurant insists on payment in advance before she’ll pop any corks. That’s the kind of place Vichy has become: anyone ordering Champagne is almost certainly a crook.
So we paid and drank, and paid some more and drank some more, and waited, as you do at the races, picking people and horses to help us lose more time and a little money. The racecourse filled with amiable gatherings of other people drinking and watching and waiting, losing money and occasionally shouting. Down behind the grandstand, a small herd of miniature Falabellas, as finely made as deer, were given to a small herd of five- and six-year-olds, who lead them around through the throng, children and ponies standing impassively even when the crowds rose in voice and the bigger horses ran by.
The Duc’s race came and went, with my heart beating so hard I half expected my friends to ask what the noise was. On the screens, we saw him break slowly and take up an unpromising position at the back and on the wide outside, and a disinterested observer would not have noticed a great deal changing over the ensuing minute or so. A moonless summer night descended and a black void enveloped Vichy. Or maybe that was just me.
Duc de Morny’s date with the race he was named for was off – optimism and destiny clouted over the head by the form book. But the evening’s main event was still ahead of us. And what a treat the Grand Prix de Vichy promised to be, featuring – improbably! – a horse who had won even more prize money than Cirrus des Aigles: Emblem Road, the Saudi-trained colt who’d won the $20m world’s richest race out in Riyadh at the end of February at odds of 50-1. Here he was, journeying to the middle of France to have his first race on turf, in preparation for an assault on the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. You have to admire the boldness. Well, out in the desert he’d vanquished European aces Sealiway and Mishriff, and all-comers from America, Japan and Dubai – what could possibly go wrong?
That, of course, is not a polite question to ask in racing circles. Emblem Road, doing a passable impression of Duc de Morny, never got into it, and – just as his rivals from the major racing nations had failed on the deep Al Janadriya sand – he had to give best to Riocorvo, a German-bred who’d been plying his trade barely a year before in, of all places, northern Spain. German-bred, you say? Yes, descended from 1974 Grand Prix winner Authi in the sixth generation, and, in the ninth, Eclair de Chocolat’s sire Bubbles – led away from the Haras de Meautry along with his son back in 1940, on the express orders of Marshal Pétain. The Jew-hating stain of Vichy France, indelible even down the decades, there on our pedigree tables if only we care to look.