Craon: where racing and farming are a marriage made in heaven
Arguably my favourite three days of the year take place at one of the more obscure provincial racecourses of France, in the heart of l'Ouest, a racing, breeding and agricultural area like few others. That meeting is Les Trois Glorieuses, at Craon in Mayenne, this year staged from September 4-6.
The fixture stages a mixed card on each of three days, the most important in its summer calendar of just 10 days, with a new date in December this year. The feature race is the Grand Cross Country de Craon, a £60,000 steeplechase over 3m6f, or about 6,000m. It's one of relatively few racing fixtures where an enormous crowd attends, some 15,000 each day, animatedly following the racing and greeting their country neighbours. There's certainly an element of Cheltenham about it, even if the standard of racing doesn't quite match.
Racing has been going on here since 1848, and small wonder. The department of Mayenne has a significant population of horses trained for all types of racing, including notably at Senonnes, where Louisa Carberry trained this year's winner of the Grand Steeplechase de Paris. There are numerous racecourses including Senonnes itself, Lion d'Angers, Chateau Gontier, Angers and Le Mans to name but a few.
Craon, at the centre of a vibrant farming region, has much in common with a UK point-to-Point. The first ever race, limited to trotters, in 1848, was restricted to farmers from the area. A Mayenne publication, l'Annuaire de Chateau Gontier, remarked in 1878, "On our arrival, we were struck by the array of elegant marquees bedecked with bunting, trophies piled high, some for farmers, some for horsemen. It seemed from their set up to be in honour of farming... and a symbol of thanks for the fertility of the soil that nurtured them."
Remarkably, the Trois Glorieuses has continued virtually unabated through 173 years, its only cancellation in 1943. Not even the invasion of Normandy and the American sweep round through the Pays de Loire the following year managed to put Mayenne's farmers off their sport. The racecourse was able to run the 2020 fixture with a much reduced crowd of 5,000.
The broadly oval track has a multiplicity of variables to allow for different distances, and the unique cross country includes a river to run through, plough and numerous banks, as well as crossing the main road to fences on the other side, where the traffic has to be halted for the duration of the race. Among the trotting races is the Trophée Vert, one of the sport's most prestigious prizes and a massive betting race.
In a visit in the early '90s, it has to be said the preliminaries appeared quite chaotic. Spectators could enter the paddock, and the area seemed more crowded than the outer rail. But the ambiance of the meeting was terrific; I stood in one of the two stands next to an elderly Frenchman who might have walked out of the pages of a Tintin comic. " Mon Dieu," he remarked as a big strapping bay horse tanked his rider on the way to and from the practice fence, "il va casser la geule!" The same horse made all and won unchallenged!
The layout has since been much improved with a new paddock behind the stands, and a restaurant nearby. The paddock is once again confined to those with a runner. But many winners are being prepared for export. It's not unusual for a handy novice to be sold over the phone before the winner has returned to unsaddle, suhc is the demand for able and precocious French-bred jumpers.
More recently, the course has seen foreign runners as one of the later legs in the Crystal Cup, an imaginative international challenge set up to nurture cross country racing. An early advocate of this was Devon-based UK trainer Nick Williams, who is setting up a satellite yard in France this summer. He is part of a growing flow of British trainers using the French 3 month trainer's licence to send teams temporarily to France, and others settling permanently in France, lured by attractive travel allowances and high prize money. The Crystal Cup has reassuringly remained in place during the Covid interruptions, and concludes at Cheltenham in December.
A notable British winner was 2014 Grand National runner-up Balthazar King, who won the Grand Cross-Country de Craon five months later. Almost unnoticed by a fiercely partisan crowd, his owner and trainer needed my assistance to redeem their winnings as the tote window could only pay out a maximum of €3,000. Suffice to say, the winnings far exceeded that; enough to fund a very entertaining dinner in Laval a little later.
Nor is British competition limited to the Jumps community. Jason Ward notched a first listed success with Maifalki in September 2018, and the 30% bonus as a French-bred was a significant factor in the decision where to run.
But above all, Craon is a rarity among racecourses in France where a knowledgeable crowd enjoys their racing to the full and embraces the fun of the fair that accompanies it. Under the astute guidance of Chairman Hugues Crosnier, the racecourse has got its development plans back on track through the purchase of land on the Segre road that dissects the course.
Irrespective of what happens in the medium term, Craon is a jewel in the crown of provincial courses, with a fair galloping track and the occasional quirky event that differentiates.
Long may it thrive.