Racing: Arc deal fails to cover the cracks: Europe's richest contest finds fresh funds but the French turf's era of prosperity seems destined for decline

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LOUIS ROMANET, French racing's normally debonair front man, did his best to strike an attitude of 'Crisis? What crisis?' yesterday, but he was far from convincing. The more Romanet pointed at a new pounds 450,000 sponsorship deal for the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, the more you wondered about the closure notices issued to two major French courses the day before.

Even Romanet's success in finding a replacement for Ciga, Arc sponsors since 1988, was less than complete. Forte Hotels, who bankrolled the race during the mid-1980s, will renew their support, but have declined to follow Ciga's lead by sponsoring the entire weekend's racing. Romanet has much work to do if he is to find a corporate patron for each of the supporting contests. The fear is that his shiny future is built on flimsy foundations.

The decision to close Chantilly in particular has stimulated astonishment and regret on both sides of the Channel. Romanet argued yesterday that it was a simple matter of supply and demand - too many racecourses, not enough cash - but it is surely a sign of deep-rooted weakness if French racing can no longer support the dazzling course which has staged the Prix du Jockey Club (French Derby) since 1836. It may be more than coincidence that the Prix du Jockey Club itself is also looking for a new sponsor.

'There will be a lot of pressure,' Romanet said. 'There have been a lot of petitions and there may be more. But Chantilly needs major renovation, an investment of between pounds 5m and pounds 7m, and we cannot afford to pay that.'

The money on offer from Forte pales by comparison, and nor is it on offer for nothing. 'We would be looking for the same sort of return that you get from advertising, between five and 10 times our investment, but in a mixture of ways,' Richard Power, Forte's Communications Director, said. Never forget that sponsorship is richly beneficial to both parties.

Of course, Britain's cash- starved racing establishment can ill afford self-satisfaction. One of the British Horseracing Board's prime objectives, Sunday racing with legalised betting, appears as distant as ever, though the BHB yesterday announced two more experimental fixtures later this year in an attempt to maintain the campaign's faltering momentum.

Haydock, on 7 August, and Uttoxeter, on 23 October, will stage the meetings, but no betting will be allowed. 'We are confident that there will be a big crowd,' David McAllister, Uttoxeter's clerk of the course, said. 'We hope that when we get real Sunday racing, this course will be in the forefront.'

He may be waiting some time. The recent vote in the House of Commons to permit shops to open for six hours on Sunday betrayed the politicians' resistance to any significant change rather than a reforming spirit.

Also interesting is Kempton's decision to withdraw an application to stage its Charisma Gold Cup card on a Sunday. The sponsors, it seems, were keen to be able to bet.

This carries a whiff of what happened to the newly-attired king of fable, and the BHB's campaign of experimental meetings should perhaps proceed with caution. Arsenal playing Spurs in fancy dress might sell out Highbury once, but the novelty would soon wear off.

People want the real thing. Any decline in the attendance at one-off Sunday meetings would knock the wind from the BHB's claim that seven-day racing is much in demand.

(Photograph omitted)