Often times I find that whenever people tell me I simply have to experience a specific event, I end up disappointed because my level of expectation has gotten too high. Not so with the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
For years, friends of varying nationalities -- American, Swedish, Irish, German, and British -- have been after me to go. So, this past weekend, I finally made my way across the Atlantic to see what all the fuss was about.
The short version of my experience is this: book your ticket for the 2013 Arc. A slightly longer version is as follows:
The Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe is like no other race I have attended, and I have gone to top quality races in four countries.
For one thing, due in part to a financially wise sponsorship, the average, everyday race fan can go to the Arc for free and have a seat at the finish line.
There are multiple online promotions and tickets that allow free entry, and Longchamp is set up in a very fan-friendly manner. Furthermore, race day programs are free. There are stacks of them as you walk in the gates, and they are there for everyone. Not only that, there is a free shuttle system from the Metro (subway) to the track. Getting there was easy enough, and although I was wary of leaving the packed track this way, the system ran like clockwork.
Although I was credentialed to cover the race, I ended up spending most of the day with a friend who was simply there for fun. There are wide steps at Longchamp, and it is Arc tradition to pick your spot and enjoy the races. No tickets, no seat assignments, just excellent vantage points. Of course, there are also tickets for purchase that come with seats in the grandstand.
Hanging out on the steps, however, was one of the most enjoyable race afternoons I have ever had. There were groups around us that had been coming for more than 30 consecutive years, and they were more than happy to welcome some Americans to the collection. Plus, my vantage point was far better than I have had at many events where I have paid for tickets.
By the end of the day, the people around me hailed from England, Germany, Australia, and Japan. The Aussie joked that our spot on the steps had become the United Nations, and it was true. Jokes were made, life stories were told, and betting hunches were shared. One kindly man from Britain carries around a photo of a pet rabbit he used to own because it brings him racing luck. I thought he was a bit off his rocker until he had the winner of the first four races.
Longchamp itself is as beautiful as any track you could hope to visit, and Arc day is a well run event. Races went off at a snappy 35 minutes apart all day. Only an additional 10 minutes was added to that number before the Arc itself, which kept the day from dragging. There is nothing like an hour and a half wait between races to bring down a jovial crowd.
The only time there was a significant delay between races was after the Arc itself. A platform pulled by draft horses was brought to the middle of the track so the crowd could cheer on the connections as they received their trophies. The connections themselves arrived in horse-drawn carriages. A few years back, there was a commercial for the Arc that carried the following tag line: "More than a victory, a coronation."
I have never seen a truer advertisement.
As for the race itself, this year's addition was thrilling, even if it was won by an outsider. During the stretch, it appeared Japan was finally going to see one of its own crowned when Orfevre, its 2011 Horse of the Year and Triple Crown winner, went to the front. Plenty of his fans from his native country were on hand for the race and Japanese flags began waving wildly. For those few seconds, it was hard not to get caught up in their enthusiasm and cheer wildly for the handsome chestnut runner.
But racing is a fickle game, and at the very end, 33-1 longshot Solemia came charging late to beat Orfevere by a neck. Although that was not part of the script, the filly still received a warm reception when she made her way back in front of the crowd. Many of the same Japanese flags that were waving home Orfevere were raised in salute to the filly that denied him.
I know one of the most annoying things to hear is that you can't understand something until you experience it, but in the Arc's case, it is very much true. I have now joined the chorus singing its praises.
Is it cheap to get to Paris? Of course not. But when you factor in how little it costs to go to the race itself, it becomes much more feasible.
I have had one friend question the reception an American traveling in Paris might receive. To that I say, respect the country you are in. An awkward "Bonjour! Pardon!" will get you pretty far. I do not speak French but my sad attempts to try have been enough to be treated kindly by everyone I have come across.
The Arc is a bucket list item that has value far beyond the ability to say you've done something. At least for me, it is an experience that I will treasure for a long time to come.
Amanda Duckworth is a freelance journalist who lives in Lexington, Ky. Among her other duties, she is an editor for Gallop Magazine. Write to her at email@example.com.