Out At the Track With Kaz

Picnic at Longchamps
First the picnic, then the tips, then the bets.

A Day With Our Own London Tipster at Longchamp

Paris:-Sunday, 5. October 1997:- Cars are bunching up and slowing down a bit about 500 yards before the Saint-Cloud tunnel. M-R says we will be late. Usually they bunch up one and a half kilometres before the tunnel; and she always says we are going to be late.

Today is our annual 'Prix de l'Arc' day at the races, and we are ahead of time and the weather is truly perfect. Usually it is cold, threatening to rain or worse, and often cloudy - but some others years it has been half-good, and we consider it the last day to spend outside, in Paris.

Kaz Lissowski phoned from the 'horseshoe' at the finish line of the Longchamp racetrack in the Bois de Boulogne to say they are holding a spot free for the car. So there's no rush.

The run along the Seine to the turnoff to the track is fast - we are early M-R! - but the line to enter the infield today's program cover is a bit longer. For the 15-franc entry fee, I tip the guy five. After the tunnel under the track, there is a straight lane between cars and we whiz down it without too many parking attendants to ignore.

Today's official program brochure.

I turn a big right at the end and head to the horseshoe, narrowly missing some Brit picnickers, and come to a tape barrier. It is the parking of the 'hospitality'-thing which is not hospitable to lower classes. M-R hits 80 percent of full-panic. I get out of the car and talk the gorilla into letting me through to take a reverse loop back and try another lane.

We get close enough. It's not like a drive-in movie; we're not watching the races from the car, not in this weather. This year, our part has a super-gigantic blue ground-sheet for the crumbs and chicken bones; and on the whole, they do not look as wasted as usual.

Instead of sulking - in fear of an afternoon of freezing to death; I do a complete round of hand-shakes and air-kisses, even to the kids, and get immediately into a conference with Kaz and toss 20 francs into the tombola. It is my only wager.

As in past years, for this 76th running of 'l'Arc,' Kaz is our official tipster. He plays the jumpers while in London and this is his only flat-race of the year. For it, he studies the form for us - and places his bets at least a month or two early - in London.

When ready to begin, everybody throws down their drinks - down their throats - and their chicken bones, and then borrow pens from each other to tick off the winner's names.

Kaz takes any old racing sheet he finds, and begins by telling us the betting possibilities at a French track are byzantine in complexity; with all the combos of wins, places, shows, twins, double-ups, back-to-backs, paris, mutuels; and this year, a new wrinkle: bet on one horse and if its brother or sister wins, so do you. They have to run in the same race on the same day though.

After a long hot August and September, the ground has been tested with a 'pentometre' and found to be 'assez souple.' Kaz says the French always minimize the result by a point Kaz and turf paper and it is in fact, 'firm.' Not a day for good mud-runners.

This whole crowd of grown people, and some of the older kids, listen to Kaz' entire spiel, from the first race to the seventh; but we are mostly interested in the fifth, the 'Arc' itself.

Out of a few lines in a racing paper, Kaz makes a half-hour exposition about guessing right and wrong about expensive ponies.

He says things like, for example in the second race, it is not worth betting on. He then recommends betting 'win' on horse one or two. I think horse two wins. Actually he says the first three races are 'open affairs' with French fillies and for the third race shrugs his shoulders and says, "Bet one, two, or three or all of them." Horse two wins. This is another horse trained by Madame Head; a lady who specializes in winning horses - having had one in the second race and two in the first.

To Kaz, the fourth race - a sprint - of a kilometre! - does not look good and tells us Madame Head is not optimistic about her number 11, 'Pas de Reponse,' even though it won recently at Deauville after a complicated illness. Kaz nevertheless picks it as well as numbers one and nine as winners. Madame Head trained the horse that won this race last year.

Finally we are at number five, at l'Arc. Kaz begins by reminding us of how everybody who bet on Helissio last year won pots of money; and how he, Kaz, won so much by betting two months early on it, that he invited everybody to dinner. We do, in fact, remember this. Some of us.

He says London bookmakers have classed number four with a 'good' outsider's chance and the odds on it were 60 to one, and maybe 20 to one for a 'place.'

Then he reminds us that no less than - maybe more - four of last years' nags are running again this year in this race. The Irish horse, 'Oscar Schindler' came in third last year and although Kaz sees him as a 'stayer,' he hasn't seen much improvement in his form.

Another Irish horse, with the Polish name of 'Pilsudski,' was second last year and Kaz says he has been doing very well this year, with a bunch of firsts and seconds, but over different lengths than this race. He also says Pilsudski was a Polish general and President of Poland between the wars and his, Kaz,' grandfather was his personal physician.

Yet another Madame Head-trained horse, 'Yokohama,' will try to be in front - of Helissio - according to Kaz. But the hero, 'Helissio,' although still very good, has lost some lustre, may not be in the mood, or the jockey may try to hold him back from taking the lead in the first few metres out of the starting gate.

Somebody asks a question and I miss the comments about number 14, 'My Emma.' Kaz is hot on number 13, 'Peintre Célèbre' though. He says it will most likely be the favorite, because it won the French Derby and the Prix de Paris; but tempers this with pointing out his tender age of three years, for this 2,400 metre trek.

The German horse, 'Borgia' is another Kaz favorite. Kaz says this horse has had surprise wins against better horses - and Kaz will buy dinner on this one because the odds are long.

To sum up, in the order of one, two, three; Kaz recommendations are 'Helissio,' 'Borgia,' and 'Peintre Célèbre.'

He runs down the sixth and seventh races and then everybody picks up their chicken bones to take up where they left off, or they go off the bet on the first race.

I wander around and find people to talk to like Bogdan and Nigel, and ladies to give air-kisses to, and refuse After finish, 3rd race lots of drinks of champagne, wine, mineral water and cheese. A lot of the British community come out for this race meeting; and it seems a lot of them come from UK itself, and there are a lot of groups having picnics.

The first finishers, in a race before the 'Arc,' get a good hand from the sizeable crowd.

Ahh, the air is good. Since the infield is pretty level it is hard to tell if there are more cars here this year, but the stands across the track look like they have more people in them - but, for this number-one race in France, the numbers are not huge.

The Pope had a million people at this track in August, but I don't think the nags have more than 30-40,000 today. There are a lot of other things going on in Paris and around it today as well - there are tons of 'randoneers' in Paris for example. This is a new sports term for an old-fashioned activity - walking.

The grass is brown in the infield and the 'souple' track and very grass-green and it looks cool and I bet the horses like it too. The dust doesn't show on my sneakers; other people's dark shoes look like they've been 'randoneering' in the Sahara.

Actually what other people have been doing is going down to the popular betting windows where the walk is graveled and if they win, they have to go back to collect their loot. I get out of this loop and do not especially notice much in the way of big cheer with my picnickers, who I visit occasionally to count the chicken bones.

It seems as if there are only bones very much sooner this year. It is because of the weather - nobody is paying attention to time while they are warm. In past years, an afternoon here seemed like a month, sometimes.

For the fifth race I find a spot up on top of one of the lesser public's sordid betting barracks, and I have a clear view of the stands and the finish line. It is a long way for the camera and I do not hope for much.

The race goes off, and a couple of announcers two-time each other breathlessly to keep us up-to-date with what's happening way off wherever they run most of the race - ha! - down to the Pont de Sèvres and back? - but when the 18 runners appear around the final turn and get lined up for the final straight, then...

The crowd's noise rises like a three-stage Ariane 5 rocket cranking up for a run to Venus, and I feel a jolt of electricity from the people around me, and the roar swells, and swells, and... suddenly it is over. Race horses are pretty fast. WooHo!

Here is how they finish: 'Peintre Célèbre,' first; 'Pilsudski' second and 'Borgia' comes in third. 'Oscar Schindler' finishes fourth. Helissio finishes.

Kaz cleans up; he will spring for another dinner. M-R cashes in her tickets for a small profit, but is overjoyed to win our Results of the Prix de l'Arc picnic's tombola. She is so clever at this, she even deducts what she put in the pot, to calculate the actual gain. I tell her I spent 10 francs on tips.

And here is the score - only provisional - but looking good!

I am looking at a TV trying to figure out the winning odds for 'l'Arc' when Kaz comes up. He starts to explain them to me - until he realizes we are looking at the odds for the sixth race. These look interesting enough so he pulls out his porti-phone and places a bet on it with his bookie in London.

We stay for the remainder of the races which run off largely unnoticed and then get in the usual huge traffic jam as everybody decides to go home at the same time. The trouble with getting out of Longchamp is all the roads lead into it.

This year I do not get lost in the uncharted wilds of the lower 16th arrondissement and actually manage to find the beginning of the A13 by way of an unlikely entrance which allows me to skip the Sunday-clogged périphérique altogether, saving maybe three-quarters of an hour on the trip.

Traffic is fast heading west into the setting sun. Traffic coming back from Normandy, and from Versailles, is pretty nearly standing still, waiting for the tile-counters to get through the tunnel at Saint-Cloud.

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