If you truly love horse racing then the town of Chantilly must be visited. And your first visit won’t be your last.
Chantilly racecourse can comfortably lay claim to being the prettiest racetrack in the world, boasting postcard quality panoramas just an hour’s drive north of Paris.
Dense forestry, a chateau with landscaped gardens and a 186-metre long building named the Great Stables cuddle the course proper.
The training and racing centre of Chantilly is built around 1,500 hectares of forest. The front entrance to the racecourse hovers under a canopy of trees.
Then there’s the Château de Chantilly and its art gallery, the Musée Condé which is heavily inspired by creations during the renaissance. Its surrounding gardens were designed by André le Nôtre, the architect of the Tuileries in Paris and Versailles.
As for the Great Stables, the cathedral-type structure was built during the 18th century and boasts a large central dome that sits 38 metres high. When operational, the property could house 240 horses and 500 dogs which were used for hunting.
The building is positioned towards the turn out of Chantilly’s back-straight, akin to Flemington’s Chiquita Lodge, but that’s where the comparisons end.
Racing and training
Chantilly racecourse has five tracks — hosting about 50 meetings per season — including a 1200-metre straight track and an all-weather polytrack.
But it’s the surrounding training facilities, spread across four neighbouring towns (Chantilly, Gouvieux, Lamorlaye and Coye-la-Foret) that are second-to-none.
More than 100 trainers call Chantilly home and they have 120 hectares of manicured grass gallops to prepare their horses. The most notable training facility is “Les Aigles” in Gouvieux.
Les Aigles is an oval-shaped stretch of grassland where horses work around the perimeter but also straight up the middle.
Those who work around the perimeter can make use of the large track (2800m circumference). There’s also an inner round track (2000m) or a left-handed track (1600m).
In addition there’s also a 3400-metre sand track around Les Aigles’ circular turf gallops.
And then there’s two straight paths of turf (“The Yearling Grass” and “Rodostos”) over 1400 metres.
Chantilly’s forest also plays a vital role in conditioning horses for raceday. There’s 145km of sand gallops carefully maintained by France Galop, including a 4km straight-line path named “Les Lions”.
Many jumpers are prepared in the town, with 12 kilometres of jumping tracks and 100 obstacles scattered around the training grounds.
Les Aigles features two 1500-metre straight tracks for schooling horses over hurdles and fences but Lamorlaye and Coye-la-Foret are where the bulk of jumpers are educated.
From humble beginnings
The Chantilly region was home to fox hunting through the 16th century. In 1537, Anne de Montmorency, Constable of France, changed the boundaries of Chantilly forest to suit hunters.
In 1720 Louis-Henri de Bourbon Condé ordered the construction of the Great Stables, to stable his hunters.
Horse racing would be introduced to Chantilly in 1833, with an unofficial race.
The first viewing areas were assembled in 1835 with the Prix du Jockey-Club (French Derby) first run a year later, followed by the inaugural Prix de Diane (French Oaks) in 1843.
Both races remain the showpiece of Chantilly’s season, held a fortnight apart during June. The Prix de Diane regularly attracts a near-capacity crowd of 30,000.
The constructions of the viewing areas were arranged in 1847. In 1859, the first train from Paris arrived in Chantilly. Spectators would visit the racetrack in great numbers and as a result the grandstand was rebuilt in 1881. Then Chantilly train station had to be upgraded, in 1897.
In the same year The Duke of Aumale died and left the racecourse and surrounding properties in the care of the Institut de France.
The duke demanded that no artworks were to be sold and no paintings moved more than 10cm.
Over time those conditions, coupled with the amount of money required to maintain Chantilly’s vast grounds, placed tremendous financial pressure on the Institut de France and France Galop. France Galop openly considered closing Chantilly racecourse in 1994.
That prompted a public action group to support the site, creating a plan for “the sustainable development of Chantilly”.
Thanks to enormous financial support from the Aga Khan, the region has been preserved.
During the mid-2000s the racetrack grandstand was completely renovated, enlarged, and a panoramic restaurant installed. Surrounding roads were also re-routed to create a larger mounting yard as well as a new parking area.
Chantilly’s future is secure and it is recognised as France’s racing capital.
Approximately 300,000 tourists visit the Château de Chantilly and Great Stables each year. The Château also hosts private functions and weddings. Brazilian footballer Ronaldo got married in the château in 2005 and his ceremony reportedly cost $1.1 million.
Entry is $27 for a single adult ticket which gives you day access and a free audio guide for those touring the Château.
The Great Stables has been redesigned internally. Part of it has been left unchanged and it houses different breeds of horses, including ponies which are popular with the visiting kids.
The rest of the old stabling block has been refurbished into a 15-room display, promoted as a Museum of the Horse.
Aside from the impressive Great Stables structure, the exhibition includes a set of jockeys scales from 1860, racing-themed glazed porcelain vases designed by Gio Ponti from the 1920s and several trophies won by the Aga Khan including Sinndar’s 2000 English Derby and the 1988 Irish Derby trophy won by Kahyasi.
Dressage demonstrations are also provided by riders in the Great Stables courtyard at specified times of the day.
~ Also published in Winning Post newspaper.