Arena: Fading glories in a grand setting: Chantilly: Sue Montgomery surveys the beauty of the Paris racecourse which will today stage the French Derby

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CREAM, lace and horses. All smack of elegant good living, and the image is quite right for Chantilly, the home of the French Derby, which will be run there today for the 144th time. It is quite, quite beautiful, and so damn French in the grand manner. But sadly, almost tragically, the racecourse almost went the way of the aristocrats. Earlier this year it was deemed surplus to requirements by the new order in French racing, and sentenced to death.

The town of Chantilly, 20 miles north of Paris, is the Newmarket of France, unofficial headquarters of the sport. Here are the great training stables and exercise gallops: sweeping expanses of soft, manicured turf and silent avenues of sand through the great beech forests that once echoed to the hunting horns of Louis XV.

The only horses you will find among the trees now are strings of thoroughbreds from the nearby yards of Boutin, Fabre, Head and of dozens of others. The grass gallop of Les Aigles is magnificent, but one of the sheer delights of life is to walk in the Chantilly forest early on a spring morning with the sparkling sun slanting through pale young leaves and the only sounds the rhythmic thud of horses' feet and the chink of metal bits.

Racing first took place at Chantilly in May 1834, a year after the formation of the French Jockey Club and two years before the first running of the French Derby (properly called the Prix du

Jockey-Club). The inaugural classic went to a horse called Franck, which was owned by an English lord. It was a filthy day, the dandies and the pretty ladies got wet, and the whole thing attracted little notice.

The racing community at Chantilly was more or less founded by the English, who were the only people with professional experience of training horses. They colonised the town during the mid- 19th century and there was traffic of horses and people in both directions. The trainer Criquette Head's great-grandfather, an English jockey, is buried in the graveyard at Newmarket.

But Chantilly's most notable feature, the huge, stately building that forms the superb backdrop to the racecourse, is thoroughly French. It is a century older than the racecourse, built by one Louis- Henri de Bourbon, the seventh Prince de Conde of the blood royal. The building is not, as is often supposed, the chateau but the Grandes Ecuries, the great stables. Royal inbreeding being what it is, the prince was a little eccentric in mind. He once had a dream that he would be reincarnated as a horse, and decided to build himself a stable in which he could spend his after-life in suitably magnificent style. It took 20 years to build, and it had stalls enough for the prince and 249 of his fellows.

There is a chateau, and a very pretty one, too, with a moat, a formal lake and gables and turrets, but it is dwarfed by the stables. It, the chateau, the superb museum of the horse, and an outdoor restaurant in the chateau grounds called Le Hameau (which serves wonderful summer country food) should be visited.

Like Epsom, Chantilly racecourse is under-used. Racing takes place only in June, this weekend and next, when the Prix de Diane (French Oaks, founded in 1843) is run. That is a shame, because it is a fair, if demanding, test of a horse, a right-handed track with a stiff uphill climb to the finish.

Jockey-Club and Diane days are great social occasions, particularly the latter, with its recent sponsorship by the Paris fashion house Hermes. The frocks on display then, worn as only French women can wear them, tend to make Royal Ascot look like a grunge party. Lavish entertainments are laid on between races on the two big days.

But no amount of elegance can disguise the genteel shabbiness of the environment. The setting cannot be matched, but the grandstand, the stabling, the facilities (the chief Paris-Turf correspondent has opted to stay in the office today, and let someone else go to 'that dump') are now flawed, and it will take more than a coat of paint to put them right. The place needs a lot of money spent on it, for safety and aesthetic purposes, which is one reason it was put in the tumbril, along with another Paris track, Maisons-Laffitte.

There was an outcry from the professionals and from local councils, who feared for their town if the racing facility was lost, and a financial package was put together to save Chantilly. French racing's cost-cutting exercise will send Maisons-Laffitte to the guillotine, but its sacrifice will bring new life to Chantilly in the form of new fixtures next year. And next month the Grandes Ecuries will witness a new mood of commercialism: a Pink Floyd concert in the infield will bring in more than pounds 1m.

(Photograph omitted)