An American returns from Vincennes

04:29 AM 07 Mar 2014 NZDT
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Vincennes, harness racing
Vincennes on Prix D'Amerique Day 2014
Photo by David Sanders

Today we have a special guest column from Marv Schuldiner, who has returned from Europe.  Marv offers a summary of racing in Europe  where he spent a good amount of time at Hippodrome de Vincennes  and offers his opinion as to what would work and not work in the United States.  Many thanks to Marv for offering this report.

I recently returned from a 2 week trip to Paris, France.  This was my third time to France and my second time visiting Hippodrome de Vincennes.  European trotting is quite different than racing in North America.  Racing in Europe maintains its popularity and trotting races continue to dominate the handle over "galop" (flat thoroughbred) and "obstacle" (steeplechase) racing.  In North America, horse racing has lost its monopoly and popularity and is moving from a co-dependent to a dependent relationship with casinos.  There are some things that could be adapted for racing in North America while some things simply would not fly with an American audience.

By way of background, I've been attending harness and horse racing in the US and Canada since the 1980s.  I've owned, bred and "groomed" harness horses on a spectrum running from stakes caliber horses (Breeder's Crown and other stakes finalists) down to $3,000 claimers in both the US and Canada.

The main differences between European racing involve these items: no pacers (trotters only), monte racing (especially in France), longer distances and larger fields for the races, different start types, no charted races, a racing channel on cable TV with coordinated post times, the breaking rule, few claiming races, few stakes for "younger" horses and different betting options.  I cover each in more detail.

All races on continental Europe are performed on the trot only.  There are no pacers and aids such as trotting hobbles are prohibited.  The premier racetrack in Europe is Hippodrome de Vincennes.  Vincennes sits on the eastern side of the Paris metro area and is a 30 minute train ride (and free bus shuttle) from central Paris.  Many major stakes take place at Vincennes such as the Prix D'Amerique.  While most tracks in Europe are traditional ovals (many have multiple concentric tracks to accommodate trot and galop races), Vincennes has a unique layout.  Vincennes has a chute akin to the one at Santa Anita, although at Vincennes the chute enters at the top of the final turn.  Most races start from the chute which then runs around one of two ovals (the grand course and petite course, though most races are over the 1.25 mile grand course).  Vincennes races counter-clockwise like North America, though many tracks in France and Europe race clockwise.  Purses at Vincennes are Meadowlands level or even better.

On most cards, 5-7 races are held attele (harness with a sulky, just like every betting race in North America) while 2-3 races are conducted monte, with a jockey atop the horse's back.  Just like in attele racing, the horses in a monte race must trot.  Most drivers also participate in monte races as a jockey.  Unlike what is today a boutique series for monte horses in North America, the monte races in France are full pari-mutuel races with large fields.  Monte racing would be a great addition to North American racing, but I'm not overly hopeful that we will have enough horses, jockeys and willing trainers (and regulations) to create competitive betting races on a consistent basis.

99% of races held in North America are conducted at a 1 mile (1600 meters) distance.  The few that are "odd distances" are usually 1-1/16 miles.  In Europe, these would be a rare sprint race.  Most races are from 1900 meters (1-1/4 miles) to 2700 meters (1-5/8 miles).  Most races here max out their fields at a single tier on the starting gate, whereas most races in Europe have 16-18 starters.  The longer distance and larger fields makes the races play out much differently than mile racing.  Post position is far less meaningful and getting out early is also less important.  Because of the large field, the horses race the entire race, meaning many lead changes and three wide or even five wide well before the long stretch drive.  Racing in North America has gotten predictable and stale: horses leave, sort out to the quarter, go single file to the half, create the second row until the 3/4 when some go three wide and take your chances in the stretch.  The larger fields are more safely possible with trotters as their breaks are less violent (they do not get hung up in hobbles) and they travel slower than pacers.

Races are started in one of two ways: autostart (i.e. the starting gate) or la volte (the "flip").  Autostart usually has 8 positions on the gate and two tiers of horses.  The flip is unique to France and most races are started that way at Vincennes.  The horses are led out from a gathering area aside the track, parallel to the start line.  When all the horses are on the track, they turn and start the race.  A false start is called if a horse turns too fast and breaks a laser beam before the actual start of the race.  This type of start allows for distance handicapping (i.e. some horses start with a 15-30 meter handicap).  In the flip, post positions are not assigned per se.  Horses just get out and go. The downside are races where there are numerous false starts, restarts and re-gatherings.

The races are not charted as in North America.  The past performances are in a DRF-like newspaper, Paris-Turf.  Each horse has its lifetime record and earnings listed and their results in the prior 3 races.  You are told the track, race date, class, race type (attele or monte), purse, etc. along with the horse's finish and recorded finishers with finish time and equivalent kilometer rate.  If a horse is distanced or disqualified (or worse than 10th), the horse is "non-placed" and not given a finish position or time.  There is a sentence or two for each race describing the action of the race, which I do not find overly helpful for handicapping.  The program also contain "musique" for each horse, which is a summary of their last 8 races, with the most recent race on the left.  One looks like this: 8a 0a (13) 8m 3a 4a 2a 3a Da 8a.  The first digit in each group is the horse's finish (0=non-placed and D=dq'd) and the second digit denotes an attele or monte race.  The (13) denotes races in 2013 vs. 2104.  The musique gives a quick glance whether the horse is breaking a lot, distanced or competitive. A listed entry sheet will often include each entrant's musique.

When a horse breaks in a race, the horse is disqualified.  There are very few races for young horses (under 4) and there are also very few claiming races.  Classes are generally set by age (i.e. for 7 to 10 year olds), lifetime earnings and sometimes sex or recent placings.  There are no formal qualifiers (or at least listed as such in the program).  Drivers sit up in the sulky, no driving laid out which has become all too common here.

The betting options in France are somewhat similar to ours: Win betting, Place betting (which is our show betting and there are no place bets like we have), couple (similar to the exacta but with an option of picking 2 of the top 3 finishers), trio (like our trifecta, both in order and not), tierce (trifecta in order) quinte+ (picking the top 5 finishers in order) and various forms of picking 2 of the top 4 finishers (2 sur 4), 4 of 4, 4 of top 5 and 4 of top 6, etc.  Stable entries can be bet on as individual horses or as an entry.

Equidia is a series of horse racing channels, one of which carries live racing from late morning to mid-evening, trotting, galop and obstacle races.  Evening races often come from other countries.  I saw harness races from Belgium, Spain and Germany (and thoroughbreds from Chile).  I missed the races this week from St. Moritz in Switzerland, where they trot on a frozen Alpine lake, replacing the sulky wheels with skids/skis (and I presume the horses wear spiked shoes) the Netherlands and Austria.  The off-times are coordinated as 2 tracks are usually going at the same time.  The PMU controls betting in France and operates betting parlors all over Paris similar to the old NYC OTBs.  There is also centralized control over managing and promoting horse racing in the country.  There seems to be more of an philosophy of a rising tide lifts all ships.

So, what could we apply here in North America?  Larger fields in trotting races -- more betting combinations and higher payouts.  One race I saw had the favorite at 5-1 odds.  Longer and varied distance races -- speed kills and varied distances may keep horses sounder longer.  This probably wouldn't work well on 1/2 mile tracks with short stretches.  One or two races per card without a starting gate plus using distance handicaps.  A racing channel with coordinates post times.  Ice or snow racing (hello Canada and upper Michigan!).  Centralized promotion.  French style entries for wagering.  Some clockwise tracks.

What wouldn't work?  Disqualifying breakers.  Large fields with pacers or on small tracks - potential safety issues.  Uncharted races.  Only 3 races in the past performances.  Racing primarily aged horses -- owners want quick returns on investment.

Will any of this happen?  Probably not.  The changes in North American racing over the last 30 years have been minimal and marginal -- angled starting gate, "eurorail" pylons, open stretch racing, banked turns, the 7/8th mile track and "better" race bikes.  Owners, trainers and drivers all are creatures of habit.  Unfortunately, the current trends in racing do not support long term growth -- the "rising tide lifts all ships" philosophy.  It is time for change and European style racing can help with some of those changes.

by Al Schott, from his blog View From the Racetrack Grandstand

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