For well over a century the Grand Prix de Paris was recognised as one of the most important races in Europe and for much of that time it was emphatically the most important race in France. It was founded in 1863, 27 years after the first running of the Prix du Jockey-Club, but it instantly eclipsed the French counterpart of our Derby by virtue of the facts that it offered more prize-money and encouraged international competition.
The very first running was won by an English-trained colt, The Ranger, and plenty of others were to follow suit in the next quarter-century, including the Triple Crown hero Gladiateur, other Derby winners in Cremorne and Kisber, and such other notable horses as Robert The Devil, Foxhall, Paradox and Minting. The race was a prime target for the best three-year-olds on each side of the Channel and nobody thought it was odd to stage a contest for the Classic generation over 15 furlongs in midsummer. After all, horses were supposed to be able to run equally well over a variety of distances.
The Prix du Jockey-Club could never match the prestige of Epsom’s Derby and, although it was regularly won by a good colt, that was not the place where reputations were earned. It was really not much more than a trial for the Grand Prix, which was the day when Parisians flocked to Longchamp in their thousands to witness the coronation of a true champion. Success in the Jockey-Club was all well and fine, but if its winner did not then go on to triumph additionally in the Grand Prix, he was not going to be feted as a real star.
If you should think I am spouting ancient history, just 19th century stuff, think again; the Grand Prix de Paris retained its status well into the last quarter of the 20th century. Yes, I am aware that the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe has been going since 1920, but it did not arrive on the scene as a fabulously valuable event. In its inaugural year it was won by the Newmarket-trained Comrade, who had also won the Grand Prix. His Arc victory was worth little more than half what he had earned from his earlier Longchamp success.
It was not until 1949 that the Arc’s purse was boosted above the level of that for the Grand Prix and it was a few years after that before it was widely perceived as the season’s climactic championship decider. Of course, it had been in the Grand Prix de Paris that Nearco had confirmed his brilliance on the international stage, a victory that prompted his purchase for stud in England, where he proved to be the most significant horse imported to this country since the Godolphin Arabian.
The Prix du Jockey-Club was not much more than a trial for the Grand Prix; only real stars won that
The Grand Prix was still going strong when I came into the game and although it had recently become less valuable than the Prix du Jockey-Club, there was not much in it when Rheffic became the last to win both races in their original formats in 1971. He netted Fr1,203,050 from his Chantilly victory and Fr1,063,600 from his follow-up win at Longchamp.
It could hardly be said that the Grand Prix was deteriorating when it was won by the likes of Sagaro in 1974, Exceller two years later and Glint Of Gold in 1981, but the Jockey-Club finally became international in 1982 when Assert became its first winner trained outside France, and Caerleon scored in the same Sangster colours in the following year. We had arrived in a new era, with the tail of the breeding industry wagging the dog of the sport of horseracing, and a 15-furlong event for three-year-olds in midsummer suddenly seemed to have become irrelevant.
Whether it actually made much more sense to reduce the distance to ten furlongs, while still staging it three weeks after the Prix du Jockey-Club, was a moot point, but that was the situation we were presented with in 1987 and that is how things stood until 2005. Saumarez won the Grand Prix en route to an Arc victory in 1990 and the outstanding Peintre Celebre notched the splendid treble of Jockey-Club, Grand Prix and Arc in 1997. Bago was another to progress from a Grand Prix win to success in the Arc de Triomphe in 2004.
No sooner had Bago won his Arc than we learned of the French proposal to reduce the distance of the Prix du Jockey-Club to ten and a half furlongs in 2005. The idea was roundly condemned by many French professionals, with 70% of trainers and 80% of bloodstock agents opposing it. Among breeders, the Wertheimers, the Niarchos family and the Aga Khan all voiced their disapproval, and their protests were echoed by many outside France, including yours truly, who warned that the plan would have a serious impact on such races as the Eclipse and the King George VI And Queen Elizabeth Stakes, discouraging summer competition between three-year-olds and their elders – a fear that has, of course, been duly realised.
There could hardly be a more appropriate date than Bastille Day
All the protests were to no avail. The European Pattern Committee caved in and approved the plan, so, like it or not, as from 2005, the Prix du Jockey-Club was no longer what it had been for the previous 169 years, namely, France’s counterpart to our Derby. In Europe a Derby was always defined, in part, by its distance of a mile and a half, and this break with tradition deprived the Prix du Jockey-Club of its status as a Derby.
However, in tandem with the reduction in distance of the Chantilly event, there came more changes to the Grand Prix de Paris. Having lasted well over a century as a 15-furlong contest, its second incarnation at ten furlongs became history after just 18 renewals. In future it was to be run over a mile and a half, and instead of its traditional slot on the last Sunday in June, it would switch to July 14 and become the feature event on a Longchamp evening card.
Here was a move in the right direction. The French could have a Derby after all, just one with a different name – the name identified with the race that for so long carried the most prestige of any in France and was recognised internationally as exemplifying competition at the very highest level. Moreover, the new date was one that could be exploited in more ways than one.
There could hardly be a more appropriate date in the calendar than Bastille Day, the national holiday commemorating the most historic event in the establishment of the republic, to resurrect the Grand Prix de Paris and return it to the level of popularity it had enjoyed when it attracted huge crowds and ranked as the richest race in Europe.
Could do better
No less important, the new date should be appreciated by horsemen at home and abroad. The Grand Prix was now scheduled at a time that would suit colts who had contested the Prix du Jockey-Club, the Derby and the Irish Derby, and that was why I argued that, if they went about it the right way, the French could not only have a Derby again, they could have the definitive European Derby, the one which established the pecking order among the continent’s leading three-year-old colts.
Needless to say, they have not got it right yet. But they still might. The field for this year’s Grand Prix included the first and second from the Prix du Jockey-Club and the first two from the Irish Derby, one of whom had been second at Epsom. They were there because mid-July suited their schedules and the distance of the race was right – and despite the fact that the prize-money was not what it should
What a race the Grand Prix might be if the French promoted it as the definitive European Derby and rewarded its winner appropriately. The Prix du Jockey-Club should now be what it always was, a trial for the Grand Prix, and the purses should be distributed accordingly.
If those simple readjustments were to be made, Longchamp on Bastille Day might even attract a crowd of Arc day proportions.