By Mark Cramer
For devoted horseplayers, the reopening on Apr. 8 of what is now called ParisLongchamp, after 917 days without racing, was less about the sleek architectural aesthetics and more about one particular radical change in track-surface landscape architecture: L’Open Stretch.
This is the name for the new passing lane, a chance for horses blocked on the rail to move into a six-metre wide inner corridor that opens up two furlongs from the finish line. I decided to watch each race like Simenon’s Inspector Maigret, trying to uncover any telling evidence about the pros and cons of the Open Stretch.
Rather than depend entirely on my own observational skills, I spent the time between races gathering perspectives from trainers and jockeys. I came away with renewed confidence in the ability of members of the human species to arrive at radically opposed opinions about something that looks so simple.
The opening race was limited to five starters. Alexis Badel had the two-horse in the lead when the rail gave way to the passing lane and he moved his filly slightly into the passing corridor so as to block the access of his pursuers. This allowed the pace presser and eventual winner to make her move without having to veer out. Without the open stretch, the outcome would not have changed.
I would later ask Badel’s mother, trainer Myriam Bollack, how she saw the open stretch.
“My son is a jockey,” she said. “He thinks that with the tactical way of French racing, the open stretch won’t work as well as it does in England. Today’s ground is holding, so horses can’t close that well, so it will be difficult to judge it based on today’s results.”
Other trainers were more judgmental. Freddy Head was blunt.
“I’m not for it!” he told me, in Shakespearean English, adding that it could create confusion for riders making a move against rivals coming from all sides, which reminded me of the type of traffic anarchy I’d faced when riding my bike to Longchamp.
Pascal Bary took the diametrically opposite stance.
“It makes races cleaner [plus limpides],” he said, as if no other logic existed.
My observation of the G2 Prix d’Harcourt, fifth race, 12-horse field, seems to support his contention. In the stretch, two horses made moves into the passing corridor, eventually not able to prolong their efforts. But without the open stretch, these two riders would have had to swing outward, into moving traffic, potentially creating gridlock.
The race was eventually won from the middle, with a trip that Bary would have called “limpide.” Indirectly, the open stretch seemed to have reduced traffic along the middle corridors by providing a separate outlet.
Initially, jockeys had reacted favorably to a pre-test of the open stretch, but I found the opinions of riders to be divided. In the Paris-Turf (Apr. 7), Olivier Peslier, who has ridden in open- stretch racing in Hong Kong, Germany and England, said, “I’m a little sceptical.”
Peslier referred to a disadvantage for pace-setting riders, who sometimes need the support of the rail. Paris-Turf editorialist Kévin Baudon elaborated on Peslier’s point, suggesting that a legitimate front-runner might end up forced into the role of rabbit, losing their only tactical advantage, the rail, when attacked on all sides. It might also reduce the chances of closers needing to run with cover in order to make their move.
However, Baudon recognized that the open stretch might simply make it more likely for the best horse to win. Jockey Tony Piccone won the second race as a presser behind a front-runner that drifted out, thereby not needing the passing lane to win the race. Nevertheless, Piccone approved the open stretch with a “C’est top!”
Ioritz Mendizábal agreed. Of the open stretch, this four-time winner of the French riding championship, La Cravache d’Or, told me, “It’s a good option. You’ll have a better race.”
Outside the same jockeys’ room, I asked the same question to Christophe Soumillon, “L’open stretch, pour ou contre?” and got the opposite answer.
His theatrical “Contre” reverberated through the white corridor. In a later interview, he called the open stretch a “bêtise,” roughly, an “idiocy”. “There will always be horses that get bad trips,” he said, expressing the fear that the Open Stretch could “change the way we ride.”
And why would nine-time Cravache d’Or winner Soumillon want any change? It ain’t broke for Soumillon, so no need to fix it.
For a different perspective I sought the opinion of my favorite rider, Delphine Santiago. Santiago once suffered what should have been a career-ending injury but came back to ride the races, against the best wishes of her gracious parents.
Why? I’d asked her in a previous interview.”Look at me!” she said. “That’s what I am and that’s what know.” Chalk up one point for determinism in the duel against free will.
I knew where to find Santiago. After each ride, she studies the replay on the monitor outside the jockey room, in search of subtle lessons for future rides. She’d just finished 13th in the third race, in a field of 18 horses. Her 6% win rate is not a fair indicator of her skills, since she usually races in the huge fields of lower level completion, with odds like today’s 38-1.
I went to look for her, knowing I’d have to wait through eight or nine replays of the same race until she had extracted the last possible lesson.
“So what do you think of the open stretch?” I asked.
“It’s superb,” she said. “There’s much less tension for the riders.”
The open stretch represents a bold initiative by ParisLongchamp. It adds an exciting dimension of polemics and tactics for the big summer races, culminating in the G1 Qatar Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe on the first Sunday in October.