France: Deauville

Four legs good? Yes, if you can afford them. Clearly, this is no one-horse town

Leafing through the auction catalogue at the Deauville thoroughbred sales, it's clear that choosing and buying a horse with the potential to become a champion is just as much a gamble as picking winners by the trackside.

Leafing through the auction catalogue at the Deauville thoroughbred sales, it's clear that choosing and buying a horse with the potential to become a champion is just as much a gamble as picking winners by the trackside.

Each page delivers in minute detail everything you could wish to know about a horse's lineage, including the names and past victories of its ancestors, all the way back to its great-grandparents. For the pregnant mares, the track record of the stallion providing the service is of vital importance. Just like gamblers, the buyers here were banking on their own systems of working out "the form". But this sort of intimate detail comes as second nature to visitors to Deauville, who are attracted to this stylish town in Normandy's Calvados region for its equine links.

Calvados, as well as finding fame for its apples, is also horse country. Not only is Deauville home to one of the world's three most important thoroughbred sales – along with Newmarket and Lexington – but the area also has eight racecourses as well as countless stud farms. If that wasn't enough, a street map of Deauville looks suspiciously like the head of a racehorse, the town's port representing a pricked-up ear and the La Touques district its snout.

The Deauville sales take place several times a year – with the biggest in August – and are open to the public. There are sales for both thoroughbreds and trotters.

Attending a sale is truly fascinating, and not just for horse lovers. Excitable girls looking for their first horse sit alongside English lords and wealthy Japanese buyers. The merely curious just sit and watch, barely moving for fear of being mistaken as a buyer by the blue-blazered bid spotters who hover around the pit and holler if they see so much as a raised eyebrow. If all this talk makes you think about snapping up a bargain, think again: trainer Eric Danel says it costs £800 a month to look after and train a thoroughbred.

Walk out to La Touques racecourse any morning and you can see Danel putting the horses he trains through their paces. Other trainers prefer to use Deauville's long, sandy beach to give their horses a run between 7am and 10am most mornings.

Racing in Deauville begins in earnest on 30 June and races alternate between the pretty course at Clairefontaine and the larger track at La Touques. But the horse's influence isn't limited to Deauville. In October, Calvados holds its annual Equi'Days equestrian festival, with races taking place at all the courses around the area.

If you're an experienced rider, there are plenty of riding holidays on offer in Calvados. Simon North runs La Source from a pretty farmhouse in the village of St Julien Le Faucon, offering weeks during summer, in groups of six or fewer, from £530 per person. Start with an energising English breakfast before a day's ride through the forests and then relax in the evening with some local cider. Inntravel runs three-night breaks for riders of all levels based at the Auberge de l'Abbaye in the village of Le Bec Hellouin, from £270, including ferry crossings and five hours' tuition.

It seems horses have always been a symbol of wealth, even in Norman times. For horses are a highlight of another attraction that draws the British in particular to these parts: the Bayeux Tapestry. Brilliantly displayed in the museum in the nearby city of Bayeux, the tapestry dazzlingly depicts William the Conqueror's invasion of Britain, including the Battle of Hastings. The significance of the horse in this historical document is that the Normans were richer and could afford to be mounted, unlike their English opponents. Their victory at Hastings looks very one-sided as a result.

But a fool and his money are soon parted. If you are well-heeled enough to contemplate buying a nag of your own, remember the old English rhyme: "One white foot, buy him; two white feet, try him; three white feet, look well about him; four white feet, go on without him." It probably makes as much sense as my auction catalogue.

The Facts

Getting there

There are three daily sailings between Portsmouth and Le Havre with P&O Portsmouth (0870 2424 999; www.poportsmouth.com). A five-day return costs from £164 for a car and two passengers in June.

Being there

For information about riding holidays, contact La Source ( www.ridingholidays france.com), or Inntravel (01653 629000; www.inntravel.co.uk).

Further information

Thoroughbred sales 17-21 August, 21-23 October and 6-9 December. Trotter sales 16 May, 23 July, 11-13 September, 24 October and 27 November. International showjumping, 5-7 July. Equi'Days 2002 12-27 October.

Deauville tourist office (00 33 2 31 14 40 00; www.deauville.org).

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