Under starter's orders and they're off across the Channel

If you are suffering from Royal Ascot withdrawal symptoms, the French horse-racing scene could be the answer. Midge Todhunter is all of a flutter

We are people-watching, amid scenes mirroring Ladies' Day at Royal Ascot. The tree-shaded paddock quickly becomes thronged with glamour and elegance for the preliminaries of the Poule d'Essai des Poulains (the French 2,000 Guineas). The world's richest racehorse owners are here to see their own equestrian stars, talented enough to compete at this, the highest level of European flat racing.

Advisers keep Sheikh Mohammed advised, as his star jockey Frankie Dettori walks purposefully across the paddock and bows his head. Cameras and microphones are thrust at them.

Most of our small group of around 20 people travelling with Horse Racing Abroad had pre-booked tables in a restaurant high in the Longchamp grandstand. And later in the day I began to understand why. If there is a criticism of the Longchamp racetrack, it is that the racing takes place at a distance. You need binoculars, or to be near to a closed-circuit TV screen.

Lorraine, our guide for the weekend, is a director of the company and has been conducting these tours for 20 years. She speaks perfect French, and is well versed in French racing. She gave the group an introductory tour of the Longchamp facilities; a group briefing on reading the race card, and an explanatory talk on the French betting system. There are no bookies on French racecourses, although there is plenty of gambling, done on the government-run system, tho equivalent to the British Tote.

The all-inclusive weekend trip began at midday on a Friday, at Waterloo station in London. We had a choice of three- or four-star hotels, and I stayed in the three-star Ampere Hotel close to the Champs Elysées. It was faultless.

At around 8am on Saturday we were taken on an escorted visit to Chantilly, less than an hour's drive away, where most of France's horses and top trainers are based. A small provincial town, it has a human population of 4,500, and an equine population of 2,600. It is run by France Galop (the French Jockey Club), and 70 groundsmen tend the 500 acres of gallops and exercise grounds. The training grounds are vast, and immaculately kept.

We joined the trainer Criquette Head as she directed operations, with a string of horses galloping on the training grounds. Ms Head is a fourth-generation trainer, and her family is France's most famous racing dynasty. She trains 190 horses in four stable yards adjacent to gallops, and has 80 stable staff.

Ms Head settled back on her shooting stick (which she jokingly calls her "pony" as an injury means she no longer rides) and, in perfect English, began naming every horse in her string, beginning with his or her pedigree, as they flashed past us up the long vista of a tree-lined sand gallop. To hear her impart her knowledge so freely – and reflect on great horses and how they were trained over the years at these spectacular facilities – was fascinating.

On balance, the organised racing trips abroad get my vote, as opposed to going it alone. They add a further dimension to the weekend. And, as with joining any group, you will meet new people and make new friends. They may well see me again.

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