06/05/2009 11:00PM

Chantilly home to racing artistry


NEW YORK - Derbies come fast and furious in Europe during the month of June. Hardly will the horses have crossed the line in the granddaddy of them all at Epsom on Saturday when they will be lining up on Sunday for the French edition at Chantilly.

The Prix du Jockey-Club is the elegant name the French have for their Derby. Fittingly, it is run in the most elegant surroundings imaginable, at a Chantilly Racecourse that provides a backdrop of not one, but two palaces. Spanning much of the backstretch is the Museum of the Living Horse, the rather prosaic name for a barn built on a palatial scale in 1712 by the eccentric Prince de Conde, who had convinced himself that he would be reincarnated as a Thoroughbred. Crazy? Well, the great ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky had the same idea, and who's to say he didn't live again to see his fantastic dream come true?

As beautiful as the museum is, it takes the runner-up spot to the palace beyond Chantilly's far turn, the Chateau de Conde. A glorious 16th-century castle destroyed during the French Revolution and rebuilt in the 1870s after further devastation during the Franco-Prussian War, the chateau is also a museum, but one containing painterly artworks, as opposed to examples of French equine accomplishments.

For Chantilly is a town devoted to the art of the Thoroughbred, being the home to the most beautiful training centers on the planet. About 2,500 horses are trained there by leading figures Andre Fabre, Alain de Royer-Dupre, Criquette Head-Maarek, Freddy Head, and Pascal Bary at Les Aigles, Coye-le-Foret, Avilly-Saint-Leonard and the Piste des Lions, which runs silently under the forest trees between the chateau and nearby Lamorlaye.

At least 70 percent of the horses who run on the prestigious Parisian circuit (Longchamp, Saint-Cloud, Maisons-Laffitte, Chantilly and Deauville) are trained at Chantilly, where such immortal females as San San, Allez France, Three Troikas, Detroit, Gold River, Akiyda, All Along, Urban Sea, and Zarkava prepared for their victories in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. Miesque herself, the two-time Breeders' Cup Mile winner and possibly the best miler of all time, was trained there by Francois Boutin.

Fillies play an integral role in French racing, their influence contributing mightily to the legacies created by powerful breeding operations like those of past masters Edmond Blanc, Marcel Boussac and Jean-Luc Lagardere, whose exploits have been carried into contemporary times by the Aga Khan and the Head, Moussac, Niarchos, Wertheimer, and Wildenstein families.

Next Sunday French fillies of both the equine and human variety will take center stage at Chantilly for what surely rates as the single most beautiful day of racing in the world. The occasion will be the 160th running of the Prix de Diane, or French Oaks. It is a day when the sun always seems to shine a little more brightly than on other days, bringing out the intrinsic beauty of superbly turned-out fillies like Zarkava, Divine Proportions, East of the Moon and Jolypha, all Prix de Diane winners. From a fashion point of view, the French Oaks also serves as France's one-day version of Royal Ascot, a day for the smartest women in the republic to strut their considerably refined stuff.

A quite refined filly named Stacelita will start as the warm Prix de Diane favorite. With her perfect credentials, she will slip into the Chantilly ambience like a sleek feminine arm into a black velvet glove.

Trained by Jean-Claude Rouget, Stacelita is an undefeated French-bred daughter of the outstanding German source of stamina Monsun. She won her maiden at first asking going 1 1/8 miles at provincial Salon-de-Provence Oct. 20. Put away for the winter, she returned Feb. 11 to take a 1 1/4-mile allowance at Toulouse. Five weeks later she stepped up to Saint-Cloud to win the listed Prix Rose de Mai at the Diane distance of 1 5/16 miles. On May 17 she looked better than ever winning the 1 1/4-mile, Group 1 Prix Saint-Alary at Longchamp by six lengths. Her four victories have been by a combined 14 lengths and there appears to be further improvement to come. Next Sunday, she may be ready to take her place among the elite French fillies of recent years.