A day at the races: L’hippodrome d’Auteuil

L’hippodrome d’Auteuil

BAM! The doors slam as they open, a moment of hustle follows as people rush in and out, and then once again the stagnant, slow Parisian pace falls like fog over everyone. With a loud beeeep the doors shut, the whole carriage takes a deep breath et on vient, on vient on vient shoooooh: the metro is like an animated film with its own sound effects and caricatures, stop, slam, boom! et on est arrivé. You walk upstairs, light a cigarette and pass the gates, lost yet unconfused, explaining yourself in a French that abuses the language but pleases everyone, and in a minute you will find yourself on the endless field of slippery grass, wishing to run for the grass goes on and on and there is no one in sight, but there is no time – there is never enough time, and the horses fill the field, galloping, rushing by you, jockeys in their flamboyant colours, lying down, one with their horses. It is all technique, strategy, knowledge, but what you hear the old men say again and again, as they walk around in their grey trousers and jackets and old-fashioned hats, with binoculars and papers of the gallop, is that on sait jamais.

And it is true, on sait jamais, for your first bet is on a rowdy beast of a horse that explodes in the start, muscles playing under the deep brown skin of his back legs, the jockey unable to hold him as he sprints ahead of the field, loses his rhythm and arrives fifth – the race being too long, too fast. They run faster than cars, you see them going, the jockeys’ helmets becoming blurry lines in black and white, the ambulance following unable to keep up with their pace. No, the men say, reading their papers, that will not do: the horse cannot know the length of the ride – and that jockey could not hold him, this will not do but alas, on sait jamais.

So you follow the crowd into the back of the hippodrome and watch the horses as they are walked around in circles in the light rain. You can sense in the air how hot their blood is, see the lines of their long muscles, their ears moving attentively. A man walking side by side with a chestnut catches your eye: he is older, his pace easy, his smile just a moment away in his open face. You catch his eye and he will know, point at the horse, laugh, and the horse will know, too, because for every energetic, nervous move he sees the man in the corner of his eye – and his ears will twitch, and he will regain his free harmony, enter the void that Paris is, reach the peace of the day. There is a tenderness in the man’s movements as they walk together; this horse cannot win, the rider will be too kind to him, but there is no doubt that he can run as no one else, each gallop as clear as a note of a saxophone.

There is another horse there that stands out from the crowd, a nervous gray, nostrils wide open, Arab blood racing in his veins for every anxious step. He will brake, lead the field from far ahead, untamed, unstoppable and the 4,400 m long race will be too great for his huge body, and he will grow tired, unable to end ahead of everyone. Your heart beats fast, a forgotten cigarette slowly burning in your hand, and the horses brake out and the bell rings and off they go, go go go. The crowd becomes one watching them race, the gray, of course, leading the field. That horse is mad, and the jockey lets him run whilst the chestnut is kept in the middle, his step sure and wild but they are kind to him, unwilling to break a horse like that in a race like this. They race past, mud flying, their rhythm mad and intense and the races fill your lungs until you can no longer breathe, no longer sit, and the crowd rises, stands up for the thrill is too great. Kids shout allez! and oh they do, they go, they fly by, kings of the world: your thrill is but a quarter of theirs as they fly over the fences. The chestnut breaks away from the field, slowly gaining on the gray and another horse that has come up to the front, racing side by side with the gray, but the latter is the most mad of them all, and as the other horse gains over him, one can see his instincts taking over; the jockey stands up, let’s him run loose, and his tired body rushes on filled with new strength, by far overtaking every other horse in the field. The race is beautiful, horses flying, their bodies shining the rain, feet in the air, and then the chestnut is let loose: he will not win the race, he cannot – they are indeed too kind to him, yet he does not jump but flies over the obstacle, his flight the most beautiful, mane flying, hooves hardly touching the ground, his pace easier than every other horse’s, even the mad one’s. On viens, on viens, we all have to go, have to run, leave everything behind for one must go, one must always go, yet always coming back just as the horses, making a turn and flying past you again, durum-durum-durum, feet in harmonious rhythm: there is no music like this.

The crazy horse wins, but for him it is no victory, he has just survived – survival is all he can achieve, perhaps all anyone can ever achieve – and as you see him walking in circles after the race, he is too exhausted to drink and although his owner, a middle-aged woman in high-heels and a fake smile, seems pleased, it is the older man walking the chestnut that is happy for his third place, and he wins you enough money to pay for the day; the most marvelous horse of them all, cashing in at 3:1 and there is no need to play in the very last race, and how does one choose a horse to bet on after seeing this horse fly?

Fulfilled, no longer one with the crowd but one with the field on which the horses ride, race, fly, almost in line, the winning jockey getting ahead first after the last turn, and as he passes he does not shout but roars out a yaaaaaah, pist in the air, victory! victory! The last race is the most beautiful, the horses running yeeeah, no yes, yes, yes, no time for that, they fly too fast: it’s an enormous yawp of yeah and wind and rain and two riders have fallen but you are far from the anxieties of the hippodrome, for you it is just the thrill of running, of seeing the manes fly and the horses going more mad than you ever can however hard you try, and they bring you along, you go mad with them, race the field, the world, the wind; oh and that gray, the most mad of them all! It is wild, it is true, it is life: intense and fast and lasting for no more than a few minutes, and then you return to the dull, slow pace of the city, but inside you are still racing, still part of their madness. Just as it fills up any horse anywhere, it will fill you forever if only you lift your eyes to the skies, it will no longer be the horses but you that gallop, running in eternity across slippery fields of grass, flying, going on and on and on, yeeaaah!

By Maria Kruglyak

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