A Visit to France With Flying Start: Unicorns Might Exist

The Life
Spending an October morning at Chantilly Training Center in Chantilly, France. (Courtesy of Annise Montplaisir)

Second-year Godolphin Flying Start trainee Annise Montplaisir describes her team’s trip to France.

We cultivate imagination in children, allowing them to believe they can be whatever they dream of when they grow up. Some want to be princesses or princes and ride unicorns. While unicorns do not exist, these dreams are not far-fetched from horse racing reality.

Imagine walking through a dense forest in the early hours of the morning. The sky is clear and you can still see the stars. The air is snappy and crisp, like the leaves under your feet. You lift each foot and set it down carefully, as not to shatter the silence. It is October in Chantilly, France. You reach the edge of the thicket where a sand track creates a passageway. Voices bounce through trees, and as they approach you can hear the familiar jingle of metal buckles and rubbing of leather tack. A line of horses and riders appears out of the darkness, barely more than silhouettes as your eyes adjust to the low lighting. You remain still, not wanting to be the one who spooks a horse and disrupts the peace.

Chantilly Training Center (Courtesy of Annise Montplaisir)

It sounds like a vision, but this is the Chantilly Training Center.

Godolphin Flying Start is an international management and leadership program in the Thoroughbred industry, founded by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum (read my introduction blog about the program). While Flying Start is a scholarship and France is not one of the countries in our curriculum, trainees are encouraged to take self-funded industry trips to maximize our number of learning experiences. Two months after beginning Flying Start in Ireland in August 2018, the 12 of us trainees traveled to France for the Qatar Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (known as “the Arc”) – one of the most exalted races in the world.

Both the training center and Chantilly Racecourse, along with Longchamp, Deauville, Saint-Cloud, Auteuil, and Maisons-Laffitte racecourses, are operated by France Galop, the racing body that facilitated our visit.

You might picture your transportation through a lovely French town as a vintage roadster bike complete with a basket and bell. But France Galop did one better and set us up with electric bikes – the ones you pedal and a little motor kicks in to make the bike zoom along quicker, thus lessening your pedaling effort. These thrilling bikes did have bells, but created significantly more of an impact when one trainee was looking around and crashed into a pole. Thankfully, he wasn’t hurt!

Chantilly Training Center is divided into named segments. The Forest, where we started our tour of Chantilly, holds the Piste des Lions track (called a gallop), which is a wide, long, and gradual uphill climb. Les Aigles is an expansive grass field with turf, sand, and synthetic gallops interspersed, and even includes jumps for horses to train over. Lamorlaye and Coye-La-Foret is an area especially for horses that race over jumps, and Avilly Saint Leonard has a track where horses can train year-round.

Arc day at Longchamp (Courtesy of Annise Montplaisir)

We drove to Paris for the Arqana Arc Sale of horses in training on the evening preceding the Arc de Triomphe. The great race was returning to Paris and Longchamp Racecourse after spending two years at Chantilly while Longchamp underwent a two-year renovation. The new Longchamp is illuminated with sparkling lights and glows gold.

Enable, who actually might be a real unicorn, was pursuing her second Arc victory in 2018 after beating Cloth of Stars the previous year. To watch the Arc, I stood beside two friends from the U.S. who are involved in Nexus Racing Club, which allows young adults to experience affordable racehorse ownership. As Enable raced down the stretch along the rail, jockey Frankie Dettori encouraged her on, pushing and scrubbing along her neck. It looked for a moment like she was going to distance herself from the field, but in the final strides, bright yellow silks carried by a petite chestnut filly named Sea of Class came blazing up on the outside. She drew alongside Enable, both fillies a picture of determination: ears pinned, nostrils flared, resolute. My friends and I and everyone around us screamed and shook one another, unsure if Enable could hold on. But she did.

In racing today, you blink and many horses who have shown brief flashes of talent are retired and move on to breeding careers. Those with extended racing careers develop a loyal fan base that follows them throughout their lives on the track and beyond to when their offspring are racing. In addition her two Arc wins, Enable was runner-up in the 2019 edition. At the time of writing this, the queen remains in training with John Gosden, with intentions of competing in her fourth Arc in 2020.

newsletter sign-up

Stay up-to-date with the best from America's Best Racing!