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.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application Developer

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Service Engineers - Doncaster / Hull

£27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Service Only Engineers are requ...

Recruitment Genius: Employability / Recruitment Adviser

£23600 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Employability Service withi...

Day In a Page

Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

The secret CIA Starbucks

The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

One million Britons using food banks

Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

How to run a restaurant

As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
10 best tote bags

Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

Paul Scholes column

I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...