DOMINIQUE DE BELLAIGUE
"We are quite proud of the fact that all medication is forbidden and we may be the only country with such severe limits".
In last month’s issue of TROT Magazine we presented an interview with the great French trainer Jean Pierre Dubois. This edition offers another view of the French racing industry from the perspective of Dominique de Bellaigue.
This gentleman holds the post of President of the Societe de’Encouragement a l’Eleveage du Cheval Francais (French Trotting’s Ruling Body), the governing body for the racing industry in France.
One of the most recognizable figures in French, if not global trotting, Monsieur de Bellaigue is arguably the most important single individual on that country’s racing scene. A prominent breeder whose roots can be traced back to 18th century France, he clearly has a passionate view of racing in his country and is unafraid of articulating his views (we hope nothing got lost in the translation).
TROT Magazine editor Harold Howe conducted this wide ranging discussion with Monsieur de Bellaigue in Paris earlier this year.
Most Canadians are unfamiliar with the French breeding industry. Put in perspective for us how it is organized.
The main characteristic of the French racing organization that differentiates it from other racing organizations in the world is that it is a private but non-profit entity under the authority of three government ministries — Agriculture, Finance and "Interieur" (Home Office).
If we go back in history we find that a Morality Act was passed in 1881 granting the right to operate Tote betting to those racing associations staging races with a view to improving horse breeds in France. Another act adopted in 1930 authorized those same racing associations to manage our off-track betting known as PMU (Pari Mutuel Urbain).
One aspect which will surprise most Canadians is that we have 260 race courses in France which represents nearly 50 percent of the racetracks in all of Europe. There are three categories of tracks — trotting, flat racing and obstacle but some racing associations deal with only one category.
How are these different organizations administered?
They are linked together by a Regional Federation comprised of nine regions which is led by an elected committee. If the chairman comes from the trotting side, then the vice-chairman must be a flat racing person.
Elections take place every four years.
There is a common bridge linking trotting and flat racing — the National Federation of French Racing which is alternately chaired every year by the Chairman of each of the two different organizations.
If we could just focus on the trotting side, how is it structured?
The membership of the Regional Committees is comprised of 21 members of which seven are owners, seven are breeders, four are owner-breeders, two are trainers and one driver. Each aspect elects its own representatives so it is quite democratic.
Then six members of the Regional Committee, together with six representatives from trotting associations in the region, form the Regional Council. The Council has the responsibility of dealing with the concerns of people in their region as well as offering opinions on prize money amounts and on applications for investment subsidies from the Common Fund for Breeding and Racing. The funding for that comes from a levy on wagering.
The Committee of the parent Racing Association for Trotting then has nine chairmen of Regional Councils, nine chairmen of Regional Committees plus 16 others who are elected every four years. These include five representing breeders, five among owners, three among owner-breeders, two among trainers and one for drivers. The members of the Societe’s Committee total 34 individuals plus 16 co-opted ones for a total of 50 members. It sounds cumbersome but it works.
You serve as president of the Societe and are in the second year of your second four year term.
That’s right. It is an unpaid position despite the fact that it requires an extraordinary amount of time. I am just one of the people who contribute to make trotting evolve in France.
The biggest problem someone in this position faces is dealing with the state —it is a continuous fight. The government bodies accept horse racing because it generates so much money for the treasury. It matters little to them that for the French public, horse racing is like American football to people in the U.S.
Let’s talk about wagering in France.
For trotting and flat racing combined the off-course betting turnover through the PMU amounts to 36 billion French Francs (CDN $7.2 billion). Of that 6.1 billion French Francs (CDN $1.2 billion) goes back to the state with a little more than 24 billion French Francs (CDN $4.5 billion) returned to the wagering public.
Of the 4.9 billion French Francs (CDN $950 million) left, approximately 2.7 billion (CDN $527 million) is dedicated to cover the costs of operating the PMU. That leaves 2.2 billion Francs (CDN $430 million) left for the parent racing associations of which trotting receives approximately 1.1 billion (CDN $215 million). Then from there approximately 950 million French Francs (CDN $185 million) is distributed in prize money.
We conduct 10,000 races in a year for an average total prize money of 88,000 French Francs (CDN $17,000 per race). A contract signed with the Ministry of Finance stipulates that total prize money must follow the PMU’s turnover trend unless a specific waver is granted.
What about the size of the racing industry in terms of people?
The activity provides 53,000 jobs which means that it provides a living for some 130,000 individuals.
The prize money in France is totally financed by the betting operation. Racing professionals can live on it. There are approximately 3,500 breeders, 4,400 owners, 1,300 trainers and 2,200 drivers.
In addition, the PMU or off-track betting, agency employs 1,700 people with 8,000 sales points in the country.
Tell us about the horse population.
Our broodmare total is about 17,000 which is possibly the largest in the world. There are 650 stallions in France with about 11,000 foalings each year of which only 3,800 qualify per generation.
Our Stud Book has six categories of mares. A mare is allowed to breed for nine years but if she has not produced an offspring that is a Category 1 performer then she is no longer allowed to be bred.
What exactly is the "French Trotter"?
Our horse is a bloodline that has been recognized since the 19th century as has the Russian "Orloff" Trotter and the Cold Blooded Trotter that one finds specifically in the Scandinavian countries.
Contrary to what some may think, the French Trotter can be bred anywhere in the world providing that the request submitted by the breeder to the officials in charge of the French Stud Book is approved and the rules of the Stud Book are strictly adhered to.
Once approval has been granted, all the breeders of French Trotters are subjected to the same rules and benefits whether they reside in France, Belgium, Sweden or in any other country. In a number of territories, a reciprocal agreement has been signed and the regulatory procedures have been set up as has been the case in Belgium and Switzerland.
It is well known that the French Stud book is closed. Why?
For a period 10 years ago or so that was not the case. The American bred Workaholic was introduced and it was the biggest mistake the French breeding officials ever made.
Today the book is closed and I believe will stay that way in order to maintain the unique characteristics of the French blood although one can find traces of American blood in many of our horses. France is very different from other countries and only our national stud could ever bring in an American stallion. The opportunity does not exist for private individuals to do so.
I have also discussed this with genetic specialists who have said that it is their opinion that bringing in new blood to cross with the existing French blood probably would be successful in the first generation. However, they believe that not only will it fail to improve but there will be detrimental effects in the next generation. That is something we cannot allow to happen.
France’s position is contrary to that of other European countries who are consistently importing the best trotting blood they can afford. Critics argue that France is being left behind.
I do not agree. The evolution in the world is to bring a new order to old traditions. All nations have traditions that they must protect such as Scandinavia is doing with its cold bloods. They are very fond of those horses and will never give them up. Why should we?
The prize money is good for our horses and better times exist now than in the past.
A number of notable European breeders interviewed in this publication have stated that it is their belief that the great trotters of the future will be sired by French stallions but hail from American mares. What is your view?
That may be so but I believe the evolution with the horse will not lie in breeding but in training methods. In France we are behind other countries.
However, we are quite proud of the fact that all medication is forbidden and we may be the only country with such severe limits. There are some who will inevitably try to use medications that cannot be traced but we have very good laboratory testing methods.
The sport of international cycling particularly in France, has been plagued with doping scandals in recent years. Has the negative publicity spilled over to horse racing?
The laboratories doing our analysis are much more performance enhancing oriented than were the ones for humans. Still they are motivated to do even better testing to ensure racing will never fall into a similar situation as cycling. Development of better testing is ongoing.
North American racing is quite permissive in allowing medication in comparison with France. In your view does that diminish its credibility?
If you are asking me do I believe it is corrupt, the answer is no. The organization of racing there is much different.
Most Canadian breeders are very intrigued by the French Breeders’ Awards. Tell us how it works.
All breeders of French Trotters receive a Breeders’ Award which is calculated on the racing results of their horses.
At the moment this represents 12.5 percent of the purse money allocated to organized races in France. While the purses allocated to races organized outside our country are not financed by France, our Societe pays to the breeders a return of 12.5 percent up to 200,000 French Francs (CDN $39,000) per horse per year. Now this is based on the earnings of their French Trotters born in France or a foreign country providing the races are classified in Group 1 or that the amount of the purse money offered is equal to or greater than one million French Francs (CDN $195,000).
For example, even if a horse is born in Sweden and has never raced in France but is registered as a French Trotter in the French Stud Book, the breeder is still entitled to the Breeders’ Awards from France. To my knowledge, this is the only registry body in the world to give such generous breeders awards no matter the country in which the breeder resides.
Why is transported semen not allowed?
It is prohibited because we are afraid that it would lead to frozen semen. That is not where we wish to go.
The sale of yearlings by public auction make up an integral part of the breeding industry in Canada. What number are sold in this fashion in France?
From the 11,000 foals I mentioned, approximately 1,000 are sold in that fashion which is a little less than 10 percent.
Does the Societe conduct horse sales and if so tell us about that effort.
We do not organize public sales but support private sale organizations.
"Monte" races, or trotting under saddle, is quite popular in France. Why is that so?
In French trotting, trotting under saddle is part of the programming selection just as the mile distance is for the American Trotter.
For the French trotter, the criteria for selection includes under the saddle racing with requirements according to the type of horse including physical fitness, soundness and development of the thorax and training on long distances to build endurance. Speed is not the only factor involved in winning races.
Under the saddle races are popular in our country particularly in competitions like the Prix de Cornulier which is rated as the equivalent of the Prix d’Amerique. But I must say that the general public does seem to prefer harness racing to under the saddle racing.
Why is the Prix d'Amerique contested over a distance of 2,700 meters and in your view is it the ultimate test in all of trotting?
That distance is the classic length for our horses. We have a very small number of 1,609 metre races which is one mile. For us, races of 2,100 to 2,400 meters are considered short distance events while 3,000 to 4,000 meters are long distance races.
Therefore, the distance of the Prix d’Amerique is not extraordinary and quite normal for our horses in France.
When Moni Maker won the 1999 Prix d’Amerique did it make any sort of impression on the French breeding and racing industry?
It did nothing. That is not to say she wasn’t very popular in France because she was but not because she was an American bred trotter. She was popular simply because she was a great performer. Our public is very knowledgeable and appreciative of the best horses regardless of where they are from.
The connections of Goodtimes, the 1999 Older Trotting Horse of the Year in Canada, considered racing in the Prix d’Amerique until they realized the horse was ineligible because of the fact that he is a gelding. Why are geldings forbidden to race in that event?
According to the law that was enacted in 1861, Racing Societes were authorized to have wagering only on races held for the sole purpose of improving the breed and the bloodlines of our horses.
Consequently, all major racing events and most certainly championship races for male and/or female horses are closed to geldings and spayed fillies and mares.
Is there a strong effort to encourage North American presence in the Prix d’Amerique as there is by Swedish and Norwegian racing authorities to have overseas horses for the Elitlopp and Oslo Grand Prix?
I believe that we are making every effort possible concerning this great racing event.
We are not talking an invitational event here, we are talking of the most prestigious open race and I must add that because of the number of horses entered in this race each year, we are forced to scratch entries thus disappointing many owners.
Furthermore, we are the first to simulcast our live races on the North American continent.
I would ask did the Hambletonian people contribute more efforts to get the French horses to race in America?
In North American racing the drivers are very much in the spotlight rather than owners and trainers. What is the situation in France?
Here the situation is quite similar. Ten years ago the best jockeys and drivers were also the best trainers, there was really no factual distinction.
Currently, two or three of our best drivers have become genuine international stars. Owners and breeders have largely remained behind the scenes in racing.
North American visitors to France are envious of the Grobois training facility outside of Paris. We find it amazing that an organization like the Societe can own such a magnificent property which is utilized for the training of horses.
It was purchased in 1962 and the stables are rented to trainers. At the time of purchase there was nothing but the castle on the property so the stables have been constructed since.
I would have no idea what the value would be but that is of no concern because it will never be our intention to sell it. The value it has for us is in being a facility for the training of horses.
A number of notable stallions in North America have raced and bred mares in the off season. Is that commonplace in France as well?
That was something almost unheard of 10 years ago. Very few horses actually race when at stud.
However, many stallions now perform their stud duties during the breeding season and then return back to the races commencing in July taking advantage of both opportunities.
Hippodrome de Montreal, the Ontario Jockey Club and The Meadowlands have created the North American Trotting Series in an effort to attract Europe’s best trotters to race in Canada and the United States. What degree of success should they expect?
I hope that many great horses will make the trip to race in these events. However, there are three factors that may diminish the attraction of those races: (1) the temperature of July to September is hard on the European trotter; (2) the cost of transportation between Europe and North America; (3) the scope of the difference between the racing program in North America and the one in Europe or simply in France.
One must have a particular character of a "conquistador" to journey toward the unknown and leave something easy and simple but we hope that the North American events will breed success and benefit our sport.
Europe has also announced a World Cup Trot series which will create some scheduling problems.
Each European country wants to have its own governing body in racing. Whenever we want to create a new series of international races throughout Europe, as is the case for the Coupe du Monde de Trot which originated in Sweden and Germany before expanding to France and Italy, there seems to often be some kind of disagreement that arises with the racing entities of the different countries. It’s somewhat the case of European people surrounding the racing series in North America.
What role do you see the Internet playing in your industry?
We want to rehabilitate the racetrack and reinstate a tradition that started more than a millennium ago.
Evidently, racing on television and the Internet are two ways for us to attract more people.
What it amounts to is for us to be convincing enough and to manage to efficiently apply the latest technology in the best interests of our sport.
Where does the French racing industry appear to be headed?
The industry here seems to be acting diligently for the institution of a development regulation so that all horse related activities are brought back into focus and self-financed.
We launched EQUIDIA, a television channel on horse racing in France last October. The channel offers a wide range of information, films, documentaries and more than 2,700 hours of racing. It offers not only racing but also caters to equestrian competitions and all other horse and pony related activities.
Starting April 12th people were able to watch races on the “small screen” and bet directly from their homes thanks to the remote control.
We want to incite the public to come back to the tracks. We want the tracks to be a meeting place, a “must stop” for city folks who are looking for a relaxing and amusing place to be. That is where French racing is headed.
Canada and the United States find it odd that they are the only countries in the world which own the race data and as a result have an invaluable database. Why has that not happened in France?
Contrary to what you may believe, a computer system was developed in France more than 10 years ago. It offered a data bank on racing (Societe du cheval Francais) as well as on breeding (Harasire) and no such system existed on the North American continent at that time as confirmed by a group of USTA delegates visiting France.
The problem with our data service Minitel, is that access is restricted to France only but our system should be downloaded on the Internet in the near future and will then be available to people all over the world.
You have witnessed racing in North America. What thoughts do you have on it?
The biggest problem I see is having all of the races organized in the same fashion over a distance of one mile with just eight or nine horses in a mobile start. I believe the public must get very bored with seeing the same thing over and over again.
In France we have fields with 16 starters over a variety of distances and horse can no longer race past the age of 10 which ensures that we do not have the same problem. That is a reasonable age to stop. One must give a chance to the “Generation Next” horses which is only better for the public.
Interview conducted by Harold
Howe, editor of TROT Magazine
the official publication of Standardbred Canada.