05/16/2002 11:00PM

Hauteur is de rigueur at Longchamp's club exclusif


NEW YORK - The benefits of membership are not to be underestimated, especially in the clubby atmosphere that prevails at the heart of the French racing industry.

"Industry" may be a misnomer, for there is nothing industrial about the ambience surrounding the cafe society found on the clubhouse side of French racecourses. Unlike tracks in America, where the line of demarcation between the clubhouse and grandstand is being steadily erased, or even in England, where the difference between the members enclosure and the grandstand resides largely in the greater number of pounds sterling weaned out of the pockets of the members, French racecourses have an all but secret entrance to the part of their grounds where exclusive rights are granted the game's professionals.

Walk up to the main gate, or grille d'honneur, at Longchamp on any given day and you will see advertised a single price of admission. Your five euros ($4.50) will get you admittance to what we would consider the grandstand in America, but anyone wishing to taste the pleasures of the clubhouse is out of luck. Search high and low, you will not be able to find any information about how to get into the rarefied enclosure that is so exclusive it does not even have a name.

Unless, of course, you are an owner, trainer, breeder, bloodstock agent - or a member their families. A season pass to the sanctuaries where the elite of French racing meet to discuss the affairs of the day over lunches of pate de fois gras and smoked salmon is de rigueur. Lacking one, you must get past the secretaire des cartes, or secretary of passes, a personage whose appearance in his office is as infrequent as the passage of a two-euro bettor into the Longchamp paddock.

But once past this forbidding gatekeeper, the delights of the lifestyle on the upscale side of French racing are yours to enjoy.

The Longchamp paddock, arguably the most beautiful in the world, is divided into two parts. On the grandstand side it consists of a terraced amphitheater for daily customers to view the horses as they parade under the shady elms that have been a part of the scene since the days of France's first great racehorse in the 1860's, Gladiateur.

But bettors are not only looking down upon the horses, they are also gazing wistfully across the paddock upon the professionals basking in sunlit dining areas. In truth, the habitues of the grandstand have the better view, even if they do not have access through the narrow passageways that lead to the inner sanctum.

The separation of powers that led to the quietly segregated atmosphere at Parisian tracks may have had its origins in the French Revolution. Horse racing had not yet captured the French imagination in 1789, but by 1860, when what was left of the French aristocracy had retreated to semi-private enclaves in Paris's seventh arrondissement, a taste for the sport had begun to develop. Successive French governments, some of them royalist, some of them, like Napoleon III's mid-19th century Second Empire, were sympathetic to the aristocrats. Racing was soon flourishing, with many of the horses owned by upper class families who had escaped the guillotine.

But the French aristocracy, unlike their British counterparts who co-exist with the commoners, never truly reintegrated into mainstream French society. As racing has always been run by the elites of every country in which it thrives, the lords of the French sport have instituted a subtle system of separation that serves them well.

But the system has its drawbacks. It worked nicely in the heady years between 1880 and 1920 when a growing bourgeoisie flocked to Longchamp, Auteuil, and Saint-Cloud. Admittedly, there were few other leisure distractions at the time, and with the rise of the modern sporting industry, racing in France has lost a large part of its clientele, just as it has in America.

The names of French owners may have changed since the turn of the last century, but they are still members of an extremely exclusive club. The Rothschilds have been joined by the nouveau riche Wertheimers and Wildensteins. More recently, the Aga Khan, Khalid Abdullah, and the Maktoums have gained admittance.

Last Sunday at Longchamp, on a day when France Galop, the organization that conducts French racing, was running three Group 1 races, including two classics - the French 1000 and 2000 Guineas - there were no more than 3,000 paying customers in the unannounced crowd. It was a day of glorious sunshine at one of the world's loveliest racecourses, but Parisians sought their outdoor pleasures elsewhere.

Content with their insular style of running racing as a pastime for professionals, France Galop does almost nothing to promote themselves to the general public. On any given day, those who are paid to go racing in France number almost as many as those who pay their way into the racetrack.

Louis Romanet, the president of France Galop, has plans to build a new grandstand at Longchamp, but what would be the point if no one comes? Racing in France is as pleasurable a sporting experience as any in the world. It is a pity so few show an interest.