The first European G1 of the year takes place on Sunday, with Arc heroine Treve – officially the joint best horse in the world last year with Black Caviar – due to reappear in the Prix Ganay at Longchamp, scene of her stunning triumph last October. This is the beginning of a pivotal season for France’s most celebrated racetrack, which is beset by controversy over redevelopment plans and massive uncertainty over what lies ahead. Emmanuel Roussel, Paris-based editor-in-chief of Equidia Live, and a racing journalist for more than 20 years, explains why.
The renovation of Longchamp Racecourse has been a huge and controversial issue for many years. Built between 1962 and 1964 on top of the old stands, the big white elephant that now stands between the Seine and the Bois de Boulogne grew old quickly, like much modern construction. The plan at the time was to raise something huge within a year, period. In those days, people in charge were not renowned for long-term thinking - and they were full of betting cash.
The original limestone buildings had stood since 1904, and part of the old stands are still used today, even though they seem derelict in places. These old stands are historically protected and cannot be destroyed or rebuilt.
The property belongs to the city, and a growing majority among elected councilors wouldn’t mind seeing it pulled to the ground. Horseracing is broadly seen in the Mairie de Paris (the office of the Mayor) as an outdated pastime, a capitalist symbol that deprives Parisians of a huge leisure park.
In 2013, Longchamp opened 30 times for racing. For some, such scarce use is still too frequent. Many people cycle around the racecourse every day, and they grow more and more annoyed when racing takes place as they are then forbidden to use the cycle path around the outside of the track. They usually ignore the order - and no authority stops them. Not a year goes by without an accident on a race day. Many influential people cycle around the site, including former President Nicolas Sarkozy, and their growing anger could very well support an unprecedented front against racing at Longchamp.
This is only one of the many powerful reasons why the Longchamp issue is very much to the forefront at the moment. The project was always going to be an issue, but now the time has come to do something about it for three main reasons:
- The money is still there (it hasn’t been earmarked for another urgent project yet).
- France Galop has struck a deal with the Mairie de Paris that allows racing at Longchamp for another 50 years providing a renovation takes place (no timing was agreed though).
- Safety issues are more and more urgent – parts of the structure are in danger of collapsing.
Advocates of rebuilding Longchamp argue that racing could be forbidden there at any time on safety issues. Yet every year an inspector checks out the place before Arc weekend and consents that the meeting may go ahead. Minor works have kept the place acceptable so far.
The previous France Galop boss, Edouard de Rothschild, had seen this situation coming and put €60 million ($82 million) aside to renovate the place while pari-mutuel handle was good and the money was flowing in. His successor, Bertrand Bélinguier, has pushed that same plan as if it was suddenly a matter of life or death.
The plan was agreed by the France Galop board in 2011. It was presented by the architect Dominique Perrault, who had built the National Library.
Then, a few things went wrong. First and foremost, pari-mutuel turnover began to slide, making money scarcer at France Galop. Such an ambitious plan suddenly appeared inappropriate.
The estimated cost has now risen from €60 million to at least €120 million ($165 million) and, to prevent any further overcost, the project has been scaled down. Yet many influential racing folk claim that large chunks of the money spared for it under Rothschild’s watch could be used more efficiently elsewhere (to recruit new owners, to raise prize-money, for digital upgrading of the whole institution and so on). Moreover, Pari Mutuel Urbain (PMU), France’s betting authority, needs €150 million ($207 million) to invest in its PMU 2020 project, a strategic plan to grow income by 2020. Its president, Philippe Germond, claims that, with such an investment, he would be able to guarantee €500 million ($690 million) in revenue for France Galop every year from 2020. Without that investment, he warns, revenues will keep on falling.
This figure of course dwarfs considerably the return that could be generated by the France Galop scheme for Longchamp – basically (and optimistically) an extra €8-9 million ($11-12 million) a year just for filling the place once a year, on Arc day.
In short, France Galop position was faced with either ignoring the warning and building a new racecourse or postponing the redevelopment in order to secure racing’s future as a sustainable activity by helping the PMU plan.
Then, the Qataris joined the fray. Last summer, some of their representatives spread the word that they wanted Longchamp to stay as it was, somehow, but that at the same time they would be ready to pay for renovation. The quiet, somewhat unofficial offer was at first ignored, but the word got out.
The few voices who had expressed concerns about the Perrault Longchamp project became louder and welcomed the Qatari offer: the France Galop money could be kept for really important issues and the racecourse renovated at the same time.
Belinguier was more cautious. No president likes to be pushed around, even by the official Arc sponsors, whose money has been quite handy so far. A round of talks started between Belinguier and the Al Thani family, who invest a lot in France. Indeed, Belinguier was in Doha at the end of February for the Qatar’s annual International Equestrian Sword Festival.
Meanwhile, the 2015 Arc is already booked for Chantilly, and Longchamp could be closed as soon as this year’s Arc is run. All Longchamp’s other races would be relocated to Chantilly Racecourse and other Parisian venues. And the licence to build, issued by the Mairie de Paris, is now being processed, according to a public France Galop board report issued on March 31.
That, of course, is for the Perrault plan. But, if a Qatari project were agreed instead, it would almost certainly mean that the new Longchamp would be put on hold for at least another two years.
The final go-ahead for the Belinguier plan is due to be given sometime next month, and the president could face a more defiant board than before. Most of the yes men are still here, but a few might have changed their minds since last summer. In any case, the odds are that work won’t begin in October as expected anyway. Paperwork and red tape in this, the land of bureaucracy, make it almost impossible to go ahead that early. Belinguier is less adamant than he was just weeks ago. Some already understand that the whole project will be delayed for another year.
That could be a blessing in disguise. Early enough, people pointed out flaws in the project. The main issue was that it had been conceived without checking out what the customer experience would be. No room for the tote windows had been planned. In fact, the mere idea had never been discussed at France Galop until the new marketing director, Jean-Christophe Giletta, was appointed, last July. The idea was rather to please the trainers and the jockeys, the chums, and to make sure the whole place was versatile enough to join the list of the many available conventions centers in and around Paris.
There is also confusion about what kind of racetrack is being planned. The artist’s impressions of the site proposed by Perrault show an all-weather track – but there has been no word at all about that. Indeed, at the moment, environmental issues mean a synthetic surface is forbidden on the site.
Yet a new Longchamp will probably need to stage more race days, which would require a year-round track. Splitting the finishing straight would help accommodate more racing days, and that is another possibility.
France Galop has also launched a study to turn Maisons-Laffitte into a jumps racecourse that would replace Enghien. Flat racing there would then be restricted to the straight course. That would mean fewer races, with possibly some of them transferred to Longchamp. Be it renovated or not…