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Fish Race: A carthorse worth backing

The French devised the Fish Race as an alternative livelihood for its unwanted horsemeat
THE WORD "carthorse" is often used disparagingly. I have done so myself, summing up a one-sided football match as racehorses v carthorses. And how many betting slips have been ripped up with the accompanying lament "bloody carthorse"!? Several dozen of mine, anyway.

Never again, however, will I take the carthorse's name in vain. For I have learnt about a French sporting event that showcases the remarkable strength and stamina of these splendid beasts. It is called La Route du Poisson. Roughly translated, less appealingly, as the Fish Race. It takes place every two years and is almost upon us. Moreover, this year's Fish Race will see a complete British team, aptly sponsored by Spillers Horse Feeds, competing for the very first time - albeit with little hope of success. "Even if we win," says a member of the British team, matter-of- factly, "the French will find some new rule to prevent us."

Still, if ever there was an event in which the principle thrill is in the taking part, it is the Fish Race. It was established as recently as 1991 but its inspiration dates from the 13th century, for it roughly follows the route covered daily by the fish hauliers of Boulogne-sur-Mer, who had to get the morning's catch to the markets of Paris before it began to pong. This daily ritual continued until 1848, when the first railway line opened between Paris and the Channel ports. And the Fish Race replicates it pretty accurately. Sixteen horses and carts, each with a driver and groom, hammer through the night along farm tracks and minor country roads. The autoroute is strictly out-of-bounds, which is rather a shame, because I have often thought that those sullen peage-operators deserve to be slapped in the face with a wet haddock, and it would be marvellous to see it done legitimately. Je suis desolee, Monsieur, mais c'est un tradition venerable.

There are 10 pairs of horses in each team, not to mention 10 drivers, 10 grooms, five lorry drivers, as well as navigators, farriers, vets, and a Formula One-style pit-stop team for hitching and unhitching at speed. Quite an undertaking, in other words. The course is a shade under 300km, and there are 21 checkpoints around 14km apart. Each pair of horses must be replaced after each stage and can take part in no more than three stages.

It is hard to imagine a similar event taking place in Britain. Think of all the Victor Meldrews bellowing "I don't believe it" as 32 carthorses pulling 16 carts thunder by in the middle of the night. In France, by contrast, villages compete fiercely for the prestige of being on the route of the Fish Race. In 1997, around 200,000 people turned out to watch, and at all hours, too. Rowena McDermott, the British team's chef d'equipe, has taken part several times before, and describes how uplifting it is to be clattering through some tiny hamlet at four in the morning, and to round a bend to find a French family sitting at a trestle table by the side of the road, raising glasses of vin de pays in animated support. Not, of course, that a team flying the Union Jack can expect too much support. Indeed, at the height of the Maastricht brouhaha, McDermott raced under the European Union Flag and was loudly booed.

Xenophobia apart, this equine Tour de France all sounds very jolly. And it serves a worthwhile purpose, too. It was originally established by a chap called Bruno Pourchet, head of the French National Stud at Compiegne, because several of the nine breeds of carthorse in France had become endangered. Partly as a result of the mechanisation of farming, but also, ironically, because the bottom had fallen out of the French horsemeat market. Traditionally, carthorses with dodgy temperaments had been sold for meat. But when the Iron Curtain came down, cheap horsemeat came piling into Western Europe from the former Eastern Bloc countries. The enterprising Pourchet wanted to give people a new reason for breeding heavy horses, and reckoned that pleasure-driving might be the answer, with the Fish Race as its Grand National and Derby rolled into one.

This year's Fish Race takes place over the weekend of 25 and 26 September. It begins in Le Touquet and concludes in Vincennes, Paris - appropriately on the French National Day of the Horse - comprising 11 French teams, plus teams from Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and the UK. The British team is still seeking sponsorship for the support vehicles. If you are interested, call Rowena McDermott on 01725 511951.