07/06/2007 12:00AM

Grand Prix returns to its festive roots

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NEW YORK - On Saturday the French racing community will celebrate the 218th anniversary of the French Revolution with the 142nd running of the Grand Prix de Paris at Longchamp. Formerly run on the fourth Sunday in June, the Grand Prix was France's premier sporting event from its inception in 1863 until World War II. Huge numbers of the populace who may or may not have known what was going on, but felt the need to be there anyway, annually turned Longchamp into a La Belle Epoque carnival.

Run then at what now seems the quaint, old-fashioned distance of 1 7/8 miles, the Grand Prix was designed as a post-French Derby test of stamina. Twenty-three horses have pulled off the famous double, among them legendary French names like Perth, Admiral Drake, Mieuxce, Pharis, Rheffic and Peintre Celebre. It was Gladiateur, however, who put the Grand Prix on the map with his victory in 1865, just a few weeks after he had shocked the racing world by becoming the first French-bred horse to win the Epsom Derby. His statue graces the entrance to Longchamp, framed by the grille d'honneur, or main gate, through which the Grand Prix throngs squeezed their way into the track.

And throng they did. Once the Paris metro, or subway, reached nearby Porte d'Auteuil in the early 20th century, crowds boomed, reaching a peak in 1926 when 166,635 saw Take My Tip prevail in what was then a record 22-horse field.

Early runnings were dominated by Edmond Blanc. The founder of Saint-Cloud Racecourse, Blanc won seven Grands Prix between 1879 and 1904, executing a glorious coup de course in 1903 when the first three finishers - Quo Vadis, Caius, and Vinicius - came, saw, and conquered in his colors.

By that time, the Grand Prix had long been known as the race to which tout de Paris, or all of Parisian high society, flocked. The sporting and societal enthusiasm it generated attracted horsemen from around the world. In 1908, William K. Vanderbilt scored the first American victory with Northeast, a son of Perth who was trained at Vanderbilt's Haras du Quesnay, then the most up-to-date training and breeding facility in France.

Wheatley Stable owner Ogden Mills won with Cri de Coeur in 1928. The great Italian breeder Federico Tesio landed the 1938 edition with his foundation sire Nearco, but it wasn't all champagne and roses for the Grand Prix. Social reality made an appearance in 1936 when a group of feminists invaded the course shortly before the start, demanding that Frenchwomen be given the right to vote, something they were not granted until the late date of 1945.

Perhaps the suffragettes frightened more refined sensibilities away that year as Grand Prix attendance plummeted from 101,132 in 1936 to 84,363 a year later. Or maybe larger political realities were intruding on the good life. The Nazis overran France in 1940 and the Longchamp infield was turned into a German anti-aircraft base. The track was bombed by American planes during racing on April 4, 1943. Seven infield racegoers were killed.

Peace returned in 1945 but France had been changed forever. Grand Prix attendance slipped below 60,000 in the late 40s, while attendance at the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, instituted in 1920, surged to 81,407 in 1949. Even the 1960 visit of Charles de Gaulle failed to revive Grand Prix fortunes. While good horses like Vieux Manoir, Phil Drake, Altipan, and Charlottesville were still winning the Grand Prix, the 1 1/2-mile Arc had captured the public imagination.

The 70s saw a revival of Grand Prix fortunes with victories by Sagaro, subsequent three-time winner of the Ascot Gold Cup, and Exceller, the future Jockey Club Gold Cup conqueror of Seattle Slew. But the once-great race hit its nadir in 1986 when Nelson Bunker Hunt's maiden Swink beat the handicapper War Hero. There was just no longer any point in running a 1 7/8-mile Group 1 race for 3-year-olds in June.

In 1987 the Grand Prix was reborn at the more sensible distance of 1 1/4 miles and proved an almost immediate success. Saumarez won it in 1990 for Bruce McNall, going on to land the Grand Prix-Arc double three months later. Subotica turned the same trick in 1991, as did Peintre Celebre in 1997 and Bago in 2004. The Grand Prix had reclaimed its proper place on the French racing calendar.

Why then did France-Galop increase the Grand Prix distance to 1 1/2 miles in 2005? Part of the reason lies in the concurrent reduction of the Prix du Jockey-Club, or French Derby, from 1 1/2 miles to 1 5/16 miles. These radical changes have reinstated the original balance between the Derby and the Grand Prix. Formerly a step up from 1 1/2 to 1 7/8 miles, they now constitute a more modern increase from 1 5/16 to 1 1/2 miles.

And while the first two runnings of the new Grand Prix have failed to attract a French Derby laureate, they have produced two very good winners. Scorpion won it in 2005, setting a track record of 2:24.30. Last year's race went to Rail Link, who would win the Arc two starts later.

But moving the Grand Prix from late June to France's national holiday, Bastille Day, on July 14, was a stroke of genius. In what the French call a semi-nocturne meeting with first post at 4:40 p.m., Grand Prix Day now attracts a larger, younger crowd with free admission, music, and dancing in the traditional, pre-war French chanson style, a giant barbecue, a late-night disco party, and a front-row seat for the fireworks display at the Eiffel Tower, which is visible from the Longchamp grandstand.

"The public enclosure grew livelier than ever as open-air luncheon parties were organized in the interval before the Grand Prix. There was much eating and even more drinking all over the place. Cold meat was spread out everywhere. Corks popped out of their bottles with a fizzing sound. Jokes were exchanged and the sound of breaking glasses added a note of discord to the nervous gaiety of the scene."

So wrote Emile Zola in chapter 11 of "Nana," his fictional evocation of an 1860s Grand Prix de Paris Day. It will be very much like that this Saturday on Grand Prix Day at Longchamp, where France-Galop is making a day at the races fun again.