Back in New York now after almost three and a half weeks in France. As the trip went along, I didn’t look much at a computer. Once the Kavanaugh process and Yankee postseason effort had concluded, I decided to devote pretty much all waking moments to the there and then. No time-wasting distractions from news of the day back home.

So, as I try to recap the trip a bit, I’ll break it up into a few chapters. I’ll start with a look at two visits to the race track.

On Monday, October 8, I went to the “hippodrome” in Toulouse for a seven race card that started at 4:40 PM.  There were five flat races on grass described officially as “bon souple” (which equates to the US version of “good” – or a bit of give) and two on the same course with hurdles.  No race had a purse larger than 20-thousand euros.  Field sizes were good, averaging eight or nine.  In French horse racing, the bettor prefers a large field size even more than in the states because of a wagering provision that sets thresholds liberalizing payoffs on certain bets in races that have eight contestants or more.

Admission was five euros. That included a program with an ok-amount of information.  I was also handed a two-euros coupon to be applied toward a losing bet.

I’ve now been to five French race tracks and have decided to quit making more than just an occasional small bet.  There is an online source for past performance data (with some kind of speed figure metric) that has more depth but I’m not able to digest it enough to make informed wagers.  I tinker a bit.  I make standard win bets but I’m more intrigued about watching the track’s processes – or how organizers of a card present the day’s events.

The public address announcer (a woman’s voice) at Toulouse was different than the race caller.  She would announce outcomes.  She called entrants to the walking ring and gave the cue for riders up.  After the fifth, she giggled while mentioning Taka Takata Kataka who finished third.  Takata’s full name is a tongue-twister and posed a challenge to the race caller as the seven-year-old filly figured prominent throughout.

Earlier, before the third race, I watched the handlers of five-year-old filly Clorinda walk her with great confidence.  Beaming with smiles and pride, the two women who prepared Clorinda in the 15 minutes or so before jockey Julien Grosjean climbed aboard made it clear they were associated with the race’s top contestant.  Sure enough, Clorinda (seen above with her team posing for the winner’s circle photo) cruised late and won.

It was announced later that the track’s stewards suspended jockey Alexandre Gavilan “pour avoir fait un usage manifestement abusif de sa cravache” (or – abusive use of the whip) while riding Gojici to a third place finish in that same race.  The repeat nature of the infraction produced a four-day suspension.  Many European jockeys crank fully when snapping their whip.  I go through phases honestly where I’m bothered by the excessive aspect of it – while at other times don’t really even notice it.

Exactly a week before (October 1, 2018), I was able to see the first seven contests of a nine-race card at famed Chantilly racecourse about 30 miles north of Paris.

Chantilly has a small, nothing-fancy grandstand but it is famous for its breathtaking backdrop (seen above). There’s a “Museum of the Horse” and a chateau on the grounds of Domaine de Chantilly. On the day I went, it was brilliantly sunny but brisk and windy. There’s a super-accessible, fan-friendly walking ring. About 25 yards from there, you pass through the interior of the grandstand to reach the track apron.

To get to Chantilly, I took a SNCF regional train from Gare du Nord and then walked about 15 minutes from there to the track. Admission was five euros. There was a “program” but it was little more than an entries list.

The quality of racing was high. It took me a few races to figure it out but Chantilly has a narrow all-weather track that looks like dirt. Four events went off on the synthetic surface. The feature was the “Prix de Conde,” an 80-thousand euros affair at 1800 meters (roughly nine furlongs) on the grass. Five majestically-bred two-year olds who all looked sensational in the paddock ran an exciting race. Godolphin’s colt Line of Duty (an Irish-bred son of Galileo) narrowly beat his stable mate Syrtis who happens to be a son of Frankel, one of the greatest runners of all-time.

Attendance was in only the low hundreds at both Chantilly and Toulouse which you can understand given the day of the week.  Depressingly low live attendance numbers are common in the US too but the sensible coordination and oversight of racing dates, post times, etc. by France’s horse racing overseer “France Galop” makes the sport’s health in France seem a bit more vibrant.   A calendar is set before the year starts.  The country has dozens and dozens of tracks in small villages that only put on a few cards per year.  Tracks are not stepping all over each other – or competing against one another – for wagering dollars – inside of a day.  A national horse racing television channel called Equida is carried on cable systems nationally on the widely-accessible tier.  The programming on the channel has a gambling tilt but a lot of time is devoted to the day-to-day passion of the humans who make the sport go through one-on-one interviews by a bunch of reporters scattered about the country where the racing is taking place.

Both Equida and France’s DRF equivalent “Paris-Turf” give what seems to be near parity to coverage of the trotters and jumpers as they do flat racing.

I have limited understanding of the sport’s economics in France but can say for sure that both the central, single-voiced governance and dynamic television coverage are both superior features vs. what we have in the states.

Chantilly temporarily hosted France’s biggest race of the year – the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe – in 2016 and 2017 – while it’s longtime home Longchamp got an expensive, well-received makeover.

Images on TV of the new Longchamp reveal amazing features – especially related to the walking ring – and view of Paris looking outward from the grandstand.  Visits there on a regular racing day are said to be awesome although this year’s Arc was met with complaints about food, drink, betting and bathroom deficiencies.  I watched the Arc on TV at my rented apartment in Toulouse.  Equida’s feed was really well done.  Commercial-free.  It was an extremely well-produced telecast loaded with color, amazing camera angles and interviews with key players.

Enable’s thrilling victory in the Arc (a successful defense of her title despite just one prep in the run-up to this year’s race) has been followed by news she’ll come to Louisville in two weeks to run in the Breeder’s Cup Turf.

If she can prevail at what will be short odds, it’ll be the first time the Arc winner has ever pulled off a Breeder’s Cup win in the same year. I think she’s gonna do it.

Now in Toulouse and already into day five of a 12-day stretch.

It was go, go, go in Paris so I’m relieved to slow the pace in a city I know my way around in a bit.

I arrived Toulouse on a Wednesday afternoon Air France flight out of Orly. It’s a sixty-minute ride. The flight operation at Orly is impressively well-organized and disciplined.

You check-in via stand-alone kiosk and tag your own bag. Or you can check-in on your mobile. That’s how we do it in the states of course. But then you must wait until the two-hour mark prior to scheduled departure to learn of your flight’s assigned “hall.” Only then can you hand off your bag. Airline workers check your boarding pass and examine the tag on the suitcase but they’re merely funneling you into a completely automated smart-system that puts the onus of completing check-in on the person flying. The technology is such that this process feels shielded from some of the potentially unnecessary stressful human interactions required of a regular enplanement.

Even security was markedly more professional and definitely less chaotic than the typical TSA free-for-all.

Once thru the x-ray, sure enough there was a clean, well-stocked snack shop that you always seem to see in French airports. No price gouging.

As you board, there’s not a myriad of ordered groups. There’s no frenzy to get on the plane. You can grab one of eight or nine major French newspapers for free as you enter the jetway.

US air carriers should seek to implement some of the sanity-based initiatives advanced effectively in French and German airports. Professionalism, cleanliness and self-reliance at critical parts of a basic check-in (by supplementing rather than diminishing labor’s involvement) makes flying a pleasure. Easier said than done, I guess. Especially given the entrenched place the TSA now has in US bureaucracy not to mention a greater thirst for profit by America’s aviation business positioned entirely in the private sector.

US airlines ultimately control even the government-imposed framework of the flying experience through their lobbying might and it baffles me how little interest the American aviation industry has in tightening up basic principles executed so well in Europe.

From the Toulouse airport to the city’s center, it’s less than 2 euros for a ticket on the tram. It’s about a 25-minute ride. And from there, I walked 15 minutes to meet the young man who handed off keys to his rented apartment via the Airbnb plaform. I’m staying at the exact same place as a year ago. At about 58 dollars a night, the apartment’s location is the key. It’s in the heart of town – close to everything. It’s on a quiet street and in a quiet building.

I was pretty tired the first night on arrival so kept it low key. On Thursday, I went to a gig at Le Rex – a pretty big club that’s close to where I’m staying. The Paris outfit Zombie Zombie was the headliner. I actually preferred the opener – DERINËGOLEM – a two-piece from Sète. Megi Xexo plays violin and gets maximum sound and range way beyond what you’d expect. Brian DeBalma plays drums and the combo is extraordinary. Xexo is from Albania and she incorporates her homeland’s flavor into the duo’s sound.

The audience reaction was very positive such that the Xexo wanted to play longer than the gig’s organizer would allow. There was a brief staredown on this before the house lights came on and made it official.

The indie rock video is mostly a lost art form currently but DERINËGOLEM made a really great one for their tune DERINËBUGGG. They played the song Thursday night and it sounded great.

The oddly-elevated platform bar inside the main room sold pints of lager for 6 euros. After purchasing my second beer of the evening, I missed a step returning to the main floor and nearly went down. It’s actually kind of a miracle there wasn’t a calamity given how I stumbled. I lost three or four ounces from the cup and sprayed some suds on a few standing patrons to whom I apologized. I returned to the bar to ask for clean-up materials, wiped up the mess and carried on without a problem.

Jacques and I went to the Ligue 1 soccer match between Toulouse and Nice on Friday night. The French league makes schedule adjustments on the fly to accomodate unique television windows on Friday and Sunday nights and so it was a complement to Toulouse to get the prime time shot on Friday. The website of the Toulouse Football Club advertised 15 euros tickets (with a 2 euro day-of-match surcharge on seats bought at the box office). Yet, when we arrived the cheapest ducat was 22 euros. Jacques briefly protested but the woman in the booth made the dubious claim that the 15 euros seats were “sold out.”

We sat in the end zone near where TFC’s supporters chant, sing and wave flags. It’s called the “Brice Taton” stand in honor of a TFC fan who was viciously killed in Belgrade before a Europa League match in 2009. The 28-year-old Taton and the TFC fans he was pre-gaming with were attacked at a bar near the stadium by Serbian thugs.

There was a moment of silence for Taton before Friday night’s match. His picture was displayed on the video board during the tribute.

Nice’s lone goal in the first half Friday came on a rush that started with what appeared to be a rough, foul-worthy take-down of a Toulouse player. TFC supporters reacted by shouting a crude sexual slur in unison at the referee.

A tying goal for Toulouse came in the second half followed by a blown scoring chance for Nice who had a three-on-one advantage in the box. 1-1 was the final. Toulouse sits eighth of 20 in the Ligue 1 standings after hanging on for dear life to avoid relegation at the end of last season.

The highlight of my stay so far in Toulouse came Saturday afternoon. Jacques was preparing pastries for an event that night and made a lunch in his backyard. I sipped from a bottle of cheap but tasty Faugeres. It was 75 degrees, breezy and beautiful. An insanely fresh splattering of fresh mozz topped a plate of just-picked sliced tomatoes from the adjoining garden of Vincent and Claire. There was saucisse de Toulouse with real-deal Dijon mustard and a fresh baguette followed by a medley of cheese that included Jacques’ new favorite.

“Beaufort d’ete” is made from cow’s milk produced in the summer in a hilly region between Grenoble and the Italian border. The cheese-makers credit the cow’s consumption of “la riche flore alpestre” or variety of flora unique in the summer like dandelions and the like for producing the dynamic I can’t even begin to describe. It’s amazing.

That night, we met at an old industrial hangar (about a fifteen-minute tram ride from city center) to watch two films selected by La Chatte a la Voisine (the non-profit music and arts collective that stages regular events in Toulouse). There were two English language films: “Kurt Cobain: About a Son” and “24 Hour Party People.” The Cobain flick was essentially an audio interview between a writer and Cobain (after gaining success) set to images of the places the Nirvana frontman came of age in.

“24 Hour Party People” was much more interesting to me. It’s a really entertaining retrospective of the broadcast journalist and Factory Records co-founder Tony Wilson. Set in Manchester, the film is presented in frenetic psuedo-documentary form and narrated by actor Steve Coogan who plays Wilson.

A heavy rain fell during the movie and some dripped through the ceiling in the hospitality portion of the building. The screen in the cinema section is huge. Patrons wore headsets to hear the film’s audio and there were French sub-titles which I tried to mesh with the sound I heard.

Today, I did laundry (mainly for clean socks) and went to see a photo exhibition featuring the work of friend and veteran photographer Franck Alix at a former Carmelite Chapel that dates to the 1600’s. I watched Enable and Frankie Dettori win the Arc on TV. Tomorrow, I’ll see the horses run in Toulouse.

I’ll drop in some details of the stretch in Paris and Lyon but that’s it for now.