Racing: Chantilly all set for the coup de grace: Greg Wood reports on worsening symptoms of decline in the fortunes of the French turf

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CHANTILLY is probably the world's most picturesque racecourse. It is grand and elegant, and dominated by a baroque folly, a palatial stable complex built for a local nobleman who believed he would be reincarnated as a horse. As befits its splendour, it is the home of the French Derby and Oaks.

And now it is almost certainly defunct. Nine of the 12 members of the GIE-Galop, French racing's ruling body, voted yesterday to close Chantilly with immediate effect. Though a unanimous verdict was required to seal the decision, its reprieve is not expected to extend beyond a second vote a week today. The Derby and Oaks have already been provisionally rescheduled at Longchamp.

Maisons-Laffitte too is living on borrowed time. There were no dissenting voices in a vote on its future, and while closure has been postponed until 1995, it is only to allow a programme of local redevelopment to take effect.

Maisons-Laffitte, on the banks of the Seine, was plagued by heavy ground and unpopular with many trainers. Its demise is unfortunate, but not disastrous. Not so Chantilly. It is hard to imagine what might be an equivalent loss for British racing, as the course combines the prestige of Newmarket, the glamour of Ascot and the setting of Goodwood. The Sussex track perhaps comes closest, since it is also a cornerstone of high summer, but could any British fan imagine a season without Glorious Goodwood?

Either a majority of the GIE- Galop's dozen members are philistines, or French racing is in trouble. That the latter is the case is perhaps of greater long-term concern. Officials can be replaced, but the demise of Chantilly is merely a symptom of a more general malaise gripping the French turf. Betting revenue is in decline, crowd figures too, and when the Government approved a pre-emptive F700m ( pounds 79m) rescue package in 1992, the small print's strictures included the closure of at least one of Paris's seven tracks.

'Quite frankly there are just too many race tracks around Paris,' Desmond Stoneham, French representative of the International Racing Bureau, said this week. 'New York's got only two, but we've got five on the Flat alone. Tote turnover is down 2.73 per cent this year and they've got to make economies.'

Yet the closures will do more to satisfy the Government's conditions than to significantly reduce French racing's annual deficit, currently running at F70m ( pounds 7.9m). 'Chantilly doesn't cost much to run,' Stoneham said, 'and it's prestigious, a shop window. I think it's a cosmetic decision. They've said they've got to close a track, and they've got to close one. It's part of the package.'

And yes, this is the same French system which was for so long considered a model for our own. The state's betting monopoly appeared to offer a path to riches, reflected in high prize money and low prices. Yet despite the derisory gate charges, crowds remain small. Off-course betting is the main provider for French racecourses and if turnover drops, the cracks swiftly appear.

Nor will yesterday's closures necessarily be the last. While the GEI-Galop committee's chairman, Jacques Charon, was congratulating his fellow members on a 'courageous decision', whispers were already suggesting that Deauville's future may come under discussion later this year. If there is no security for the chic seaside retreat where Parisian high society escapes the August sun, few tracks can face the future with confidence.

(Photograph omitted)