Because it is only a couple of hours from Paris by train or car and just a flight across the channel from London, Deauville has long been the go-to destination for the high society. Once a small fishing community, it is now a spectacular seaside resort town sporting grand promenades, glamorous hotels, a casino, two racecourses and plenty of classy Thoroughbreds on offer at the yearling sale.
It is an early August morning in Deauville. The sea is as smooth as oil and so pale you can hardly tell it is blue. Half-timbered buildings, of which the most elaborate is the Normandy Barrière Hotel, rise behind the seafront promenade. It is clear-aired and still when suddenly horse hooves appear in the sand. First like a weak pulse, then they grow stronger, and then a row of Thoroughbreds cross right in front of the morning sea. It is an extravagant show, led by this town’s gallopers – full of nobility, class and speed.
“Passionate about horses, he built the first racecourse even before the church”
The sea and the horse have been inseparable since Deauville was established. By no coincidence, the town was built between the beach and the racecourse. Once a fishing hamlet, Deauville owes its prominence to Duke de Morny, a half-brother to Napoleon III. He arrived from Paris in 1860, looked across from already popular Trouville at Deauville’s wide, empty beaches and persuaded three friends to join him in creating an exclusive seaside resort. Passionate about horses, Morny built the first racecourse even before the church. The Deauville-La-Touques racecourse opened in 1864 and was named for the river that separates Deauville from its sister-town, Trouville. The town, it is said, was modelled in classic English style to lure the upper class across the channel.
When the morning gallopers passed, I walked along the promenade of Deauville’s vast white sand beach, bursting with bright colours and sun umbrellas. This town exudes elegance, with two yatch harbours, and the Barrière casino playing host to the American film festival every September. In August, however, most visitors come here for racing and for the yearling sales. Since Morny created the first of the town’s two racecourses, Deauville has been famous for its equine culture. It is an area where the countryside is peppered with “haras” or breeding farms, and the yearling sale, currently operated by Arqana, is famous the world over. Prestigious racing also takes place annually and includes such multiple Group 1 races as the Prix Rothschild, Prix Morny and Prix Jacques le Marois.
Strolling uptown I pass smart fashion boutiques, art galleries, antique shops, and restaurants serving delicious Normandy produce. Coco Chanel opened her first shop here in 1913. At the centre of town Chanel sold hats, jackets and the famous marinière—sailor blouse. In 1924 she united in business with Pierre and Paul Wertheimer, two brothers whom she knew well.
Today, the brothers Alain and Gérard Wertheimer are co-owners of the fashion house Chanel as well as third generation horse owners and breeders in the area. Their Thoroughbred business, Wertheimer et Frère, has enjoyed such stars as international champion Goldikova, the only horse ever to win the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Mile three times, as well as Kotashaan, who was named the American Horse of the Year.
Other locals are billionaire couple Chryss Goulandris and Tony O’Reilly. The former is a major horse breeder and Greek shipping heiress, and the latter an Irish media magnate and shareholder of Water Wedgwood. The couple own a chateau that is reputed to be where William the Conqueror planned the invasion of England.
It’s easy to picture devotees of the past, such as Coco Chanel or Gustave Lyon, whose stepfather created the first auction room “Chéri” in Deauville.
That same afternoon I’m at the yearling sale. The auctions are integral to the identity of this town, and have been held here for more than 120 years. The first sale was held in Deauville in August 1887. Back then, the auction offered 20 horses. Arqana was created in 2006, as the result of the merger between Agence Française de Vente de Pur Sang and Goffs France, on the initiative of several shareholders including His Highness the Aga Khan. Today, Arqana offers sales for both the gallopers and the trotters in Deauville and at Saint-Cloud Racecourse. In total, eighteen sales are held each year, which represents more than 5,000 horses with a turnover of 124 million euros. The August Yearling Sale, which is the most prestigious sale of the year, takes place during Prix Morny weekend in mid-August. Other important sales are: the October Yearling Sale, the Breeze Up Sale (unraced 2-year-olds), The Arc Sale (flat horses in training competing at high level) and the December Breeding Stock Sale (broodmares, fillies, foals, stallions, stallion shares).
During my visit, the late summer sun dazzles the Élie de Brignac sales complex with light. Anna Drion, a Normandy-based breeder who runs the Coulonces Consignment, is just about to enter the sales ring with one of her yearlings. “I’m nervous,” she says. “I hope it’s going to go well.”
The August sale offers the cream of Thoroughbred breeding crop and attracts industry leaders from all over the globe. Deauville has been the stage for future champions who have made racing history, such as Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe winners Hélissio, Subotica, and the great Urban Sea, dam of leading sire Galileo and six-time Group 1 winner Sea the Stars. This auction is one the top three worldwide, next to Keeneland in Lexington and Tattersalls in Newmarket.
A large array of buyers come to Deauville, notably from Qatar, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Australia, Japan and the United States, but also from all over Europe.
Inside the venue’s amphitheatre, the auctioneers start taking bids. Anna and her husband, Etienne, have a young company, but their chestnut filly is a daughter of the popular sire Dubawi and is a half-sister to Group winners Royal Bench and Memphis Tennessee. James Harron, an Irish bloodstock agent based in Australia, soon finds himself in the bidding limelight with Nicolas de Watrigant, a bloodstock agent for Mandore International Agency, which works for Sheikh Joaan Al Thani. The docket for Drion’s lot is eventually signed by Harron for 1.5 million euros, which turns out to be the top lot of the 2013 sale.
“The August yearling sale posted very positive results last year, says Eric Hoyeau, president of Arqana. “The sale was reduced by one day to make it more selective, which resulted in a strong increase of all market segments.”
Regardless of whether they are involved with a top lot or not, after a long day at the sale, vendors and buyers gather outside the complex to drink beer and champagne. As the yellow afternoon light fades into a blue August evening, they cheer for yet another successful sale.
Six months later I come back to Deauville. It is spring and the off-season. A mild rain falls over the sea, and the beach is empty. Deauville has, in fact, two faces: one the buoyant and wealthy resort of late July through September, the other a peaceful Deauville of October through June. This time of the year visitors can sit down in a restaurant without making a reservation, buy an ice cream without queuing, or they can simply do as I intend to—travel inland.
The surrounding countryside of Deauville is full of life. The foaling season starts here in January and reaches its highpoint during the spring. Normandy is a fine place to raise horses. Over 50 per cent of France’s Thoroughbreds are born at stud farms in this region. There are more than 75 studs situated around town, including those of Guy de Rothschild, the Aga Khan and the Wertheimers. The Wertheimers’ stud, Haras de Saint Leonard, is located only a few miles from Deauville and is next door to the renowned stud Haras du Quesnay. Owned by the Head family, this stud has long been home to prominent sires who have produced stars like Goldikova and Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe winner Treve. Treve is currently trained by Criquette Head-Maarek, daughter of the house and regarded as one of the most successful female trainers in the world.
My first stop is at Ecurie des Monceaux. This farm is romantic, half-timbered and surrounded by low trees to protect the horses from wind and rain. Established in 1925 by American industrialist Ralph Beaver Strassburger, the stud is currently owned by Lucien Urano, who also breeds and races French trotters. Ecurie des Monceax has earned great success with 3 Group 1 winners, including Chiquita (Classic winner of the Irish Oaks), Ectot and Most Improved. For two consecutive years, the stud has been the top vendor of the August yearling sale.
“We are happy with the development of the farm and our results,” says Henri Bozo, who manages the stud. “Our yearlings stand in an isolated barn here, which allows peace, and they are being handled every day. In August 2014, we will sell yearlings by top European sire Galileo as well as Invincible Spirit, Sea The Stars and Monsun.”
A few minutes drive from Ecurie des Monceaux, I reach Aga Khan Studs. It covers over 300 hectares (741 acres) of finest Normandy pasture, approximately 130 of which belong to the Haras de Bonneval, which is where the stallion station is located and non-Aga Khan mares are boarded. By principal, His Highness the Aga Khan does not sell any of his yearlings, but he still has an interest in the yearling sale in Deauville since he is one of the major shareholders in the Arqana group.
“When the Aga Khan reactivated his breeding activity in France in 2000, one of his intentions was to get involved with the sales company, as he was already involved with Goffs in Ireland,” says Georges Rimaud, manager at the Aga Khan Studs. “The August yearling sale is associated with the history of the area, being held in Deauville for numerous years.”
Indeed there is history in this area. Normandy has been a breeding region for centuries, with lush green everywhere. The Aga Khan office is built on top of a hill overlooking the stud. It has rained all afternoon. First a light rain, followed by a different rain: a pounding, three-minute shower. And when it is over, the clouds dissolve to haze. At the bottom of the hill, mares and foals graze peacefully under the brilliant blown sky.
“The climate here is ideal,” says Georges. “We don’t need to be envious of Ireland at this time of the year—we have got enough water and grass. There is a good concentration of stallions in Normandy, and there are more to come. There is foreign interest, from the Qataries in particular, but also from other countries. I met an Australian couple the other day who recently bought a farm here.
“The soil, ‘le terroir,’ as we French call it is excellent for raising racehorses. Indeed Normandy’s soil is rich. The climate makes it one of the best regions in Europe for breeding horses. Here, horses have been an abiding passion for centuries. With yearling sales that are famous the world over and a prestigious race program, Deauville is an international showcase for the racing world.”