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Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Spectacle of the Prix D'Amerique

by Marv Schundiler, VFTRG correspondent

Approaching the racetrack.
  Photo Credit for all photos: Mav Schundiler
Many people consider the Prix D'Amerique to be the greatest trotting race in the world.  After attending this year for the first time, I agree.

Here in North America, we have many high profile races.  For harness racing, we have triple crowns on both the trotting and pacing gaits (though arguably, many of those races are nothing special given that several can't find a permanent home), the Breeder's Crown series of races as well as the Meadowlands Pace and North America Cup.  The thoroughbreds have the triple crown races, Breeder's Cup races and a smattering of prestigious stakes at some beautiful tracks (Saratoga, Del Mar, Monmouth).  Over the years, I've been fortunate to have attended most of the above races with the glaring exception of the Preakness and the Gold Cup and Saucer. 
The crowd early in the racing prograam.

For a general primer on French harness racing, see my previous article.  

The Prix D'Amerique was created in 1920 to thank the United States for participation in World War I.  Ironically, given the race's name, very few American horses do well in the race (some notables who have won: Moni Maker, Delmonica Hanover, Muscletone, Walter Dear).  The distance, volte start and much different style of racing pose a challenge for American trotters.

Thus, the theme of the day is "Americana" or at least a European perception of it.  And to me, that is what gives the race and racing day a charm unlike any other.  There are American flags and other "stars and stripes" decorations everywhere.  The day starts with a parade with everything red, white and blue featuring a "marching band" (more like they are walking and playing, but no one does true marching bands like the US).  This was followed by a parade of Harley Davidson motorcycles.  There were men on stilts, men dressed as various animals/aliens, and cheerleaders (or as they were called, pom-pom girls).  There was a performance by the French Republican Guard, which is a band and synchronized equestrian team akin to the RCMP Musical Ride.  The featured food was hamburgers, hotdogs and french fries -- all of which was underwhelming.

The crowd in the spirit of the day.
The Prix D'Amerique is a 1 million Euro single-heat race at 2700 meters (1 and 2/3rds miles) for horses aged 4 to 10 and is held at Hippodrome de Paris-Vincennes, the leading trotting track in Europe located just east of Paris.  The race is held each year on the last Sunday of January.  Geldings are excluded -- only "intact" horses and mares are eligible.  The race uses a volte/walking start ("turn and go") and not our "autostart".  The race is limited to 18 entrants.  Horses can qualify for the Prix D'Amerique by either winning one of two qualifying races (the Prix Tenor de Baune at 2700m or the Prix Criterium Continental at 2100m using autostart) or by earning points in the 4 "B" Prix (Prix de Bretagne, Prix de Bourbonnais, Prix de Bourgogne and the Prix de Belgique) which largely take place in November and December.  Other horses can qualify based on lifetime earnings, which are adjusted for age.  The Prix du Cornulier -- the top monte race in the world -- is held the week prior.   Very few of the top monte horses are as good under harness.  In fact, only two horses have ever won both races.

The post parade for the big race is led by a harnessed horse wearing a huge American flag and a driver wearing colors from the blue and stars portion of the flag.  That made for quite a spectacle.
A horse heading on to the track before the race.
The race itself has been extensively covered elsewhere.  It was an impressive showcase for 5-year-old Bold Eagle.  Timoko put in a nice race as well finishing second.  After the race, the American flag draped lead horse took Bold Eagle on a victory pass in front of the 35,648 people in attendance under drizzly skies.  The crowd clapped enthusiastically for the 9-5 winning favorite.
Getting ready for the post race celebration in the winners circle.
The winner's platform was drawn onto the track near the finish line by a team of 6 horses adorned in -- you guessed it -- American flags.

32.5 million Euros were bet on the 10 race card (1.6 million bet on track).  Compare that to $6.7 million total bet on Hambo Day last summer for 16 races with attendance of 22,000 at the track.  (1 USD equals about 1.1 EUR.)  Incidentally, the Prix D'Amerique was race 6 on the card and race 8 was the Prix de Meadowlands.

What would I compare this experience to in North America?  Not much.  The Hambletonian and Little Brown Jug Days are some of the few that have some level of spectacle, but both have more of a country fair feel.  The KY Derby is a 120,000 person party filled with lots of drinking and debauchery in the infield and high society in the clubhouse. 

What made this event so special?  A number of things.  A large, enthusiastic, knowledgeable crowd akin to the Red Mile in the fall.  More red, white and blue decor and American flags than at a Ted Cruz rally.  Making an event out of the entire day, as opposed to just a celebrated race (or races).  Not loading up the card with every conceivable stakes race -- the Prix D'Amerique didn't have to compete for attention with other major stakes (think the Hambletonian card which features a stake for just about every class).  A well marketed and media covered event (we saw an ad for the race by the Pompidou Centre).  Equidia, the horse racing channel, started coverage at 9 AM on race day for a 4:20 PM race.  Also, a giveaway of free flags (American, French and Prix D'Amerique Opodo flags), buttons supporting each of the horses in the race, and trips to NYC.

It felt like a special event moreso than just another horse race.  It was an experience.  One thing North American racing suffers from -- we do not make many things truly special.  Which makes every race just another race with different purses and horses.

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