At France’s top racing centre, Chantilly, the horses run through dreamy, serene beechwood forests. Just outside Paris, the town otherwise known for its château and Chantilly cream, is a utopian haven for horses, trainers and racing fans alike.
The first thing any visitor to Chantilly notices is the tranquil air. Situated only forty kilometres northeast of Paris, it is surrounded by beautiful, lush, calm-inducing forests.
The town’s 11,000 inhabitants take pride in the grand castle, Château de Chantilly, and in the famed Chantilly cream, but there’s no denying that this is the Capital of the Horse.
With 110 trainers and nearly 3,000 Thoroughbreds on site every day, the district is France’s largest training centre. In a unique area covering 1,900 hectares, there are 120 km of sand tracks and 120 hectares of grassland, as well as a hundred or so jumps.
Chantilly’s history is a rich mix of aristocracy, art, and, most importantly, great racing. Originally opened in 1834, Chantilly Racecourse hosts prestigious races each year including the Prix du Jockey Club, referred to as the French Derby, and the Prix de Diane Longines, which is open only for fillies and known as the French Oaks.
The course is right-handed and built with interlocking tracks, giving three courses covering distances from 1,400 meters to 2,400 meters.
Importantly, not all trainers in the area are French. For instance, Englishman John Hammond has been based in Chantilly since the late 1980s. His first Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe victory came in 1991 with Suave Dancer, who also won the Prix du Jockey Club and the Irish Champion Stakes. His second Arc victory came in 1999 with his Irish Derby winner Montjeu, who won the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot a year later.
“I came to France originally to work for André Fabre, which I did for two seasons,” says John. “I liked the style of racing here, so I decided at the end of my time with André to have a go on my own. Like much in life, it was down to circumstance and a decision made at a certain moment in time. But it was a decision I have never regretted. I’ve been lucky here.”
Hammond’s yard is based at the heart of Chantilly, opposite the main gallops known as les Aigles, and next to the racecourse. With individual turnout paddocks, an equine spa, and a high-speed treadmill, the idea is to tailor the training process to each horse’s individual demands.
“We have wonderful training facilities and great racetracks here in France,” says John. “It is obvious to all that we have a well-funded racing structure. We also have higher prize money than in the U.K., which counts.”
One of the most remarkable things about Chantilly is the possibility of training in the forest. There are endless corridors of gallops bordered by stately beech wood trees. On windless mornings, trainers can exercise their horses in absolute, wondrous stillness. Unlike some other training centres, there are no roads busy with traffic. The only vehicle seen is the tractor, which maintains the tracks in 10-minute intervals.
“Training in the forest provides shade in the summer and some respite from winter wind,” says John. “Maybe mentally it helps horses too, but who can really tell?”
No matter what, the location is ideal, within an hour of Parisian racecourses Longchamp, Saint Cloud and Maisons-Lafitte. The training areas are situated within a triangle formed by the town itself and the villages of Lamorlaye and Gouvieux.
The Aga Khan, who lives in Aiglemont in Gouvieux, donated €70 million (about $93 million) to the entire Domaine de Chantilly in 2005, and has since managed the racecourse by a mixed public/private foundation.
Furthermore, track’s setting is magnificent, overlooking the Château de Chantilly and the 18th-century Grand Ecuries (the Great Stables), which houses the Living Museum of the Horse.
Legend has it that the stables were built by the eighth Prince of Condé because he believed he would be reincarnated as a horse, and so, he commissioned architect Jean Aubert to build this equine palace.
Also not to be missed while on the premises, the Château de Chantilly houses a museum with one of the oldest collections of historic art in France.
And while in town, why not try the Chantilly cream? Although there is no evidence to prove it, the credit for naming the fluffy, white delicacy is attributed to François Vatel, the maître d’hôtel at Château de Chantilly in the mid-17th century. It is said that whipped cream is called Chantilly cream because the castle and the region was the foremost exponent of the subtle French cuisine.
There’s no arguing that Chantilly is the perfect place for training in France. Some of the most famous names in horse racing are based here, including Criquette Head-Maarek, Freddy Head, Nicolas Clément, Pascal Bary, Alain de Royer-Dupré, and those attached to the stables of His Highness the Aga Khan.
It’s easy to think this peaceful, almost utopian environment would have a certain effect on the horses. Plus, who knows, perhaps this is the reason some of the best racehorses in the world are found in the region of Chantilly.