10/05/2011 3:25AM

Postcard from the Bois de Boulogne


BOULOGNE-BILLANCOURT -- Greetings from Paris -- France, not Kentucky -- where I didn’t make it to the Arc on Sunday, but made the double at Auteuil Tuesday.

When last we spoke, Piscesbymoonlight had just won the 11th at Belmont Saturday to complete that whopping pick-6 where I needed singles to get home in the last three races just to get that $486 payoff. (And that’s only 364.5 Euros – sorry, I’ve been mentally converting currency at every turn for the last 48 hours) Plenty of pick-6’s have paid even less (including the $266.50 payoff, WITH a carryover, on Sept. 17 at Belmont), though I can’t remember one paying under $500 that included a $26.40 winner (Giant Ryan in the Vosburgh). When the other five winners pay $3.20, $3.20, $2.90, $4.80 and $3.40, what can you do? The Saturday all-stakes pick-4 –- which handled $670k, well over the $500k guarantee some of you were hoping wouldn’t be reached –- turned out to offer a little more value at $257.50 for the $26.20, $3,20, $2,90 and $4.80 winners.

Anyway, the ambitious plan was to get to Longchamp in time for the Arc Sunday, but by the time my sleepless, French-baby-filled flight actually got to Paris, and by the time my confused cab driver found my remote hotel in Boulogne-Billancourt, (a 60-euro, or $80 ride pre-tip), Arc Day was a lost cause and I pretty much conked out until Monday’s morning’s International Federation of Horseracing Authorities Conference, the actual purpose of my trip here.

This was my second trip to Paris but my first in 31 years since I saw Detroit win the 1980 Arc (I always think of her as Detroit as in Motown and the Tigers but everyone here pronounces it like “deux trois.”) Another 3-year-old filly won it this time, the German longshot Danedream, who won by five lengths in record time of 2:24.49 on a hot day over a sun-baked course. She seems like a special horse, having won Germany’s biggest race a month earlier over a completely different boggy course, but it doesn’t sound like she’s coming to the Breeders’ Cup, even though the BC Turf looks there for the taking by any Euro whose connections can stand running for the front end of a $3 million purse that’s worth only $2.25 million Euros.

The years between Arcs  had eroded my memory of the linguistic and other barriers. Europeans have a different idea of “hotel” from ours, and the square footage you get for 200 Euros ($266) a night had me wistfully humming the Motel 8 jingle. The sleep-deprivation didn’t help, but upon arrival I couldn’t figure out how to operate anything in the room, from the tv (turns out you don’t use the “Power” button to turn it on, only to turn it off) to the thermostat (the markings appear to be written in Vulcan glyphs) to the toilet (you flush it by pressing the thing that looks like a paper-towel dispenser about five feet up the wall). The laptop died after an hour since no one told me about the need for power-outlet converters, and forget about using an iPhone for anything except a camera and an alarm clock.

At least the iAlarm worked, and I made it to the IFHA Conference Monday morning in time to bolt a croissant and two shots of espresso by post time at the offices of France-Galop, the sport’s national governing body here. (They have their own building at 46 Place Abel Gance, a street named for the French filmmaker who made the silent classic “Napoleon” in 1927. The French reverence for old movies, and not just Jerry Lewis ones, remains strong: Next to the door of my hotel room is a poster for the 1941 Humphrey Bogart classic known here as "Le Faucon Maltaise." )

I’ll write more about the conference itself later this week, but it was more interesting than I expected, even (and maybe especially) the parts about racing in Belgium and (who knew?) Mauritius. My speech and panel  discussion with fellow racing journalists from Britain (Howard Wright) and Australia (Steve Moran) seemed to go pretty well. Even the Aga Khan showed up to deliver a keynote speech, and fortunately he and almost everyone else spoke in English, though there were headphones available for simultaneous transalations provided in French, German, Italian, Japanese and Spanish.

Louis Romanet, the president of France-Galop, rewarded us all for eight hours of conferencing by hosting a dinner that night at Fouquet’s on the Champs-Elysees that quickly melted all my Ugly American travel grouchiness into a Chablis-infused blur of joie de vivre at being in the City of Lights. I wouldn’t remember precisely what we ate if they hadn’t provided a souvenir menu, so I can report that I dined on Dos de saumon fume avec  salad Tzatziki et blinis tiede; Pave de bar de ligne, risotto facon paella, ecume de parmesan; and Chocolat des Cesar, glace a la feve de tonka. Not to mention the Chablis Saint-Martin and Chateau La Licorne de Puplessis and the champagne. Translation: lox, mac and cheese, chocolate cake, lots of wine, but it sounds (and tasted) so much better in French, n’est-ce pas?

I had given myself Tuesday to do some sighseeing before coming home. I was resigned to travelling so far without seeing a racetrack but then was delighted to learn on the France-Galope website that while Longchamp wouldn’t be running , there was Tuesday racing at Auteuil, the all-steeplechase track just a few miles away in the Bois de Boulogne.

 Mrs. Blog called from back home to say that she was pretty sure Hemingway had written about going to Auteuil and right she was:

 “My wife,” Hemingway wrote in A Moveable Feast, “had a horse one time at Auteuil named Chevre d’Or that was a hundred and twenty to one and leading by twenty lengths when he fell at the last jump with enough savings on him to keep us six months. We tried never to think of that.”

Auteuil has been around since 1873 and hosted the equestrian events at the 1924 Olympics, but for a place that opens up on Tuesdays, I was expecting something akin to Finger Lakes. It was a long walk into the Bois de Boulogne from the metro station to find it, but once I did I found something that looked a lot more like Belmont Park: A huge, five-story plant with multiple courses and chutes. The stands have a classical exterior with iron railings everywhere and the inside is a sparkling, modern plant with plenty of live and self-service mutuel tellers, restaurants with panoramic views of the track, and walls covered with huge posters detailing the history of the course and French racing. Alas, all in French only, but I could recognize the large tributes to the inventors of the parimutuel machine (Joseph Oller) and the tierce wager (Andre Carrus).

It was a cool and cloudy day and most of the Tuesday-afternoon players stayed inside between races then spilled onto the apron at post time. As the races were being run, there was no posting of a running order on the tote board (can you call it a tote board when odds are never posted either?) and the course  is so big – 2400 meters around, with the races run at 3,000 to 5,800 meters – that no one seemed able to see anything until the horses came into the final straight. But when they did, the more animated horseplayers ran to the rail and started shouting “Allez! Allez!” until the horses crossed the wire.

I stayed for four races, lost 20 Euros ($26.66), and thoroughly enjoyed it, then spent the rest of the afternoon playing tourist. I took a taxi to the Eiffel Tower and marveled at it for a while, passing on the estimated three-hour wait to ride to the top. It looked like the only way to beat the line was to dine at the Jules Verne Restaurant, but a look at the menu scotched that idea. I swear I’m not making this up: Entrees started at 71 Euros ($94.67) and that was for pigeon or rabbit.

Instead, I walked down to the water and for a bargain 18 Euros ($24.00) took a one-hour “snack cruise” up and down the Seine (it’s 12 Euros without the snack, but the extra E6/$9 for the “snack” gets you a glass of wine and a Croque Monsieur, a hot ham-and-cheese sandwich without a trace of pigeon in it.)  In 58 minutes flat, we cruised past the Assemble Nationale, the Academie Francaise, Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Obelisque de la Concorde and a whole bunch of pretty bridges and palaces. It was pretty swell and I’d love to come back someday and have a more leisurely look, so if anyone needs a speech made in Paris, just ask.

But now it’s time to change those Euros to greenbacks, get back to hearth and hounds, and start fretting about whether Oncle Meaux can get 2000 metres at the Hippodromo de Churchill Downs next month.