August 1864. It was the best of times in France: Napoleon III's Second Empire was at the height of its glory, enabling prosperous ladies and gentlemen to escape the heat of Paris and head north for the delights of Deauville, the Duc de Morny's new racecourse on the Normandy coast just a few hundred yards from the sunny beaches that were bringing new meaning to the idea of summer vacation.
But it was the worst of times in America: the Civil War had riven the nation in two, leaving the fate of the Union in doubt, and yet, somehow, John Morrissey had found the resources to open a new racetrack in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., for which thousands of New Yorkers left the city and all thought of the war for a few days of not-so-guilty pleasure.
The two cities, Deauville and Saratoga, have run August race meetings in synch with each other almost ever since, Deauville falling out of step only from 1914 to 1918 and again in 1940 for its own worst of times, World Wars I and II.
The similarities between the two towns are uncanny. They both serve as midsummer getaways from their respective nation's racing capitols, Paris and New York. They both stage their country's first major races for 2-year-olds. They are both the sites of major yearling sales. Jump racing spices up the daily fare of flat racing in both places. If the tourists get bored with racing, they can repair to the polo matches: at Deauville the polo field is actually on the racecourse infield. And both are bona fide spa towns. Mineral water is what first attracted people to Saratoga, hence its nickname, the Spa, while the beaches of Trouville-les-Bains, immediately east of the Duc de Morny's new town, were in 1864 already being immortalized by Impressionist masters Eugene Boudin and Claude Monet.
In reality, racing in both locations was first held a year earlier in 1863. At Saratoga, the Irish-born Morrissey, ex-heavyweight boxing champ and future U.S. Congressman, had organized four days of racing (Aug. 3-6) across the street from the current track on grounds now known as Horse Haven. And on Aug. 8 of that year, Charles, Duc de Morny, himself an illegitimate half-brother to the Emperor Napoleon, conducted a three-race card – two steeplechases and one flat race – on the beach at Trouville.
But the 1864 races were the first in both towns to be run at their current sites. On Aug. 2 the first race run in front of the new Saratoga grandstand was the inaugural Travers Stakes, the winner the aptly named Kentucky. Twelve days later Deauville kicked off with the Prix du Chemin de Fer (Railway Stakes), which was won by the filly Dame Blanche.
Today, the grandstands at both Saratoga and Deauville are national monuments, protected by law from the indignities that are currently transforming Longchamp into an upscale shopping and dining mall. But time – and increasingly large crowds – do take their toll. Until 25 years ago, or so, the public could mingle pre-race with trainers and owners in the Deauville paddock. At about the same time Saratoga did away with its “open-air,” under-the-trees walking rings and moved the saddling enclosure into an enlarged paddock.
Fans can still mix with horsemen for a closer look at the horses in the paddock at Clairefontaine, Deauville's sister track less than a mile up the street. Clairefontaine really is a trip back in time. Founded in 1928 to complement Deauville, it conducts both flat and jump racing in stunningly beautiful surroundings, the timbered grandstand interior providing a distinctive medieval touch. Attached to the stands is a flower bedecked outdoor restaurant, La Terrasse, offering racegoers arguably the loveliest dining experience in the world of racing.
Dining well is an age-old custom in Saratoga. On Aug. 24, 1853, at Moon's Lake House, an irate diner, supposedly Cornelius Vanderbilt, sent his potatoes back to the kitchen, complaining that they were too thick. Chef George Crum sliced them thinner but the gourmet remained dissatisfied and sent them back a second and third time. Taking umbrage, Crum unsheathed his sharpest blade and sliced the spuds paper thin. Vanderbilt, or whoever the diner was, was delighted, and thus was born the potato chip. Or so legend has it.
The potatoes Crum and Vanderbilt were wrangling over were French fries, or frites as they are known in their birthplace. Frites and other French delicacies like Chateaubriand, coq au vin and lamb kidneys can be found in plentiful supply at restaurants up and down the Boulevard Fernand Moureaux, Trouville's restaurant row that runs parallel to La Touques, the river that separates Deauville and Trouville.
But the main reason so many people have always flocked to Saratoga and Deauville is gambling, and not just the racetrack variety. The early denizens of both towns were wealthy, frequently rather elderly, citizens seeking a water cure. It was only natural that racetracks would soon spring up to help relieve them of their excess cash. Casinos offered an even quicker way of bilking the old geezers.
“Saratoga is the wickedest spot in the United States,” wrote the crusading Nellie Bly in an August 1894 edition of the New York World. At hotels and casinos “gamblers, horse owners, jockeys, millionaires and actors mingle together promiscuously,” she complained. “A man will leave his wife on the veranda and go in and talk with an actress or a woman of questionable character.” This was Nellie's effort to frighten God-fearing Americans away from Sin City-on-the-Hudson, but it had exactly the opposite effect. Saratoga's bookies and croupiers could not have asked for a better advertisement for their services.
Casino gambling in Saratoga dates back to the 1820's. Canfield Casino was built in 1825 and soon became the elite center of a Saratoga gambling empire that included less fashionable hideaways like the one down a back alley behind Broadway's chic United States Hotel. Casino gambling co-existed legally with racing until 1907 when the same puritanical forces that would initiate Prohibition 12 years later shut the gaming halls down.
Not so in more open-minded France. The casino in Deauville has been in operation since the 1860s, although the current elegant building on the beachfront dates from 1912, while Trouville Casino was built in 1847. Both are open 365 days a year and are excellent places in which to fritter away your hard earned racecourse earnings. In Saratoga, casino gaming in the form of slots is limited these days to the rather tacky racino connected with the trotting track at Saratoga Raceway.
Among the more notorious gamers in both Saratoga and Deauville were the infamous Dolly Sisters, the Hungarian-American showgirl twins recently depicted as the despoilers of the hapless Mr. Selfridge in the ITV/PBS series of the same name. Introduced to the pleasures of the gaming tables and the pari-mutuel windows by Diamond Jim Brady in post-World War I Saratoga, Rosie and Jenny Dolly soon took their show on the road to Paris. The ultimate golddiggers, they reputedly hit up the track and the casino for $850,000 at one Deauville season without risking a penny of their own money.
A further example of Saratoga and Deauville's synchronicity is revealed in the Aug. 22, 1927. edition of the Schenectady Gazette, which ran a story on the victory of Kantar in the Prix Morny, then as now Deauville's premiere juvenile event. Kantar was owned by J. Ogden Mills, the grandfather of Jockey Club scion Ogden Phipps and the great-grandfather of the recently deceased Ogden Mills Phipps. Immediately beneath that item was an ad proclaiming “SARATOGA RACES: Six Races Every Week Day Beginning at 3 P.M. Today's Great Attractions: The Cooperstown Chase & The Dandelion Handicap.”
American involvement in French racing in the early 20th Century was prolific. Chief among the Francophiles was transplanted American W.K. Vanderbilt, the grandson of the fussy Saratoga potato eater. A grand horseman, Vanderbilt founded Haras du Quesnay four miles south of Deauville in 1907. There he produced four Prix du Jockey-Club (French Derby) winners, plus three winners of the Prix Morny: Prestige, Messidor and Manfred.
Upon his death in 1920, Haras du Quesnay was purchased by the American Arthur Kingsley Macomber. The stud was abandoned at the start of World War II but was revived in 1958 by Alec Head, father of trainer Criquette, the winner of three Prix de l'Arc de Triomphes, and jockey/trainer Freddy, the rider of Miesque and trainer of Goldikova, two fillies who combined to win five Breeders' Cup Miles.
American involvement in Deauville waned during the postwar era but has never disappeared entirely. Texas silver king Nelson Bunker Hunt landed France's premier weight-for-age mile, the Prix Jacques le Marois, with Gris Vitesse in 1969. Aviaton executive Allen Paulson, himself a casino operator, took the Morny with Tersa in 1988 and again in 1991 with Arazi, who two months later would astonish the world with his five-length rout of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. More recently, Pennsylvanian George Strawbridge, who races most of his best horses in France, won Deauville's Prix Maurice de Gheest three times with the Freddy Head-trained Moonlight Cloud, who capped her career with a win in the 2013 Jacques le Marois.
This summer's Saratoga opens Friday for a 40-day meeting concluding Sept. 5. Deauville races 43 days year-round nowadays but its core August meeting consists of 18 days from July 30 to Aug. 31 with nearby Clairefontaine running 10 meetings during the same period: five flat, one jumps and four mixed. Emerging superfilly Songbird will go in the Spa's Coaching Club American Oaks on Sunday, July 24. Meanwhile, Wesley Ward, who trained No Nay Never to win the Prix Morny in 2013, is preparing Lady Aurelia, Stonestreet Stables' exciting seven-length winner of Royal Ascot's Queen Mary Stakes, for an Aug. 21 tilt against colts in the Morny.
Rather than stay at home and place bets over the phone or on the Internet, any racing fan worth his salt would do a far, far better thing by spending two weeks in Saratoga followed by two weeks in Deauville, or vice-versa. Just make sure you have your vices in order. These are two of the most expensive cities in the world – in the best of times and the worst of times.
Alan Shuback is a former columnist and foreign correspondent at Daily Racing Form and The Sporting Life.
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