Racing Par Excellence: The Biggest Horse Races in France

The French are rarely too far away in the realm of sporting excellence, with our Gallic cousins boasting many of the best cyclists on the planet, a two-time World Cup-winning football team, and one of the finest Rugby Union sides in the world. It therefore shouldn’t be surprising to learn that the horse racing programme is also of an extremely high standard.

Under the auspices of the sport’s governing body, Franc-Galop, the French play host to a steady stream of high-class contests, including 28 rated at Group 1 level. Here, we take a look at a selection of the biggest and best the nation has to offer.

Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe

Longchamp Racecourse
Longchamp Racecourse (David Wipf, CC BY 2.0, via Flickr)
  • Distance – 1m4f
  • Where – Longchamp
  • When – First Sunday in October
  • 21st Century Famous Winners – Sea The Stars (2009), Golden Horn (2015), Enable (2017, 2018)

Prix du l'arc de TriompheOf the 28 Group 1 contests held in France, no fewer than 17 take place at the wonderful Paris track of Longchamp. Standing tall over them all – and towering over the majority of 1m4f events held anywhere in the world – is the October showstopper of the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.

First held in 1920, this mile-and-a-half event now acts as a late-season beacon which never fails to draw the most talented turf performers on the planet. Offering €5m in total prize money, it is the fifth richest turf race in the world and always lives up to its slogan of “It’s not a race, it’s a monument.”

Prix Du Jockey Club

  • Distance – 1m2½f
  • Where – Chantilly
  • When – Early June
  • 21st Century Famous Winners – Shamardal (2005), Almanzor (2016), Sottsass (2019)

Despite being run over a trip that is a furlong and a half less than its Epsom counterpart, this contest has come to be known as the French Derby. First held back in 1836, it is one of the most historic events on the French calendar and the jewel in the crown of the picturesque Chantilly track.

In common with Classic contests held in other nations, the race is restricted to three-year-old contenders and bestows significant prestige – and the lion’s share of the €1.5m in total prize money – upon the winner. A key date on the domestic calendar, the contest also regularly attracts top talent from the leading British and Irish yards.

Prix de Diane

  • Distance – 1m2½f
  • Where – Chantilly
  • When – June
  • 21st Century Famous Winners – Zarkava (2008), Treve (2013), Laurens (2018)

First appearing in 1843 and named in honour of the mythological goddess, the Prix de Diane is the centrepiece of one of the most fashionable race days of the season in a nation famed for its sartorial elegance. Chantilly in June is a place to see and be seen and, of course, take in this thrilling €1m event, run over the distance of 1m2½f.

Restricted to three-year-old fillies, this is effectively the female-only version of the Prix du Jockey club and has unsurprisingly come to be known as the French Oaks. Only two runners have completed the English and French Oaks double – the most recent (as of 2023) being Pawneese in 1976.

Prix Jacques Le Marois

  • Distance – 1m
  • Where – Deauville
  • When – August
  • 21st Century Famous Winners – Dubawi (2005), Goldikova (2009), Kingman (2014)

Named in honour of a former president at the Normandy track of Deauville, this summer season highlight belongs at the top table of European 1m events. Open to colts and fillies aged three and older, this thrilling event provides a fascinating clash of ages and genders, as the best of the best lock horns in pursuit of the €1m purse.

All-time greats Miesque and Dubai Millennium counted among the legendary names to land the prize in the 20th century. In more recent years, the British raiders have compiled a fabulous record, with John Gosden and Frankie Dettori teaming up to win four consecutive editions between 2020 and 2023.

Grand Prix de Paris

  • Distance – 1m4f
  • Where – Longchamp
  • When – 14th July
  • 21st Century Famous Winners – Rail Link (2006), Kew Gardens (2018), Hurricane Lane (2021)

Strictly on race conditions, this race, not the Prix Du Jockey Club, bears the most resemblance to the Epsom Derby. Held over the same 1m4f trip as the Surrey highlight and restricted to three-year-old contenders, this Longchamp cracker attracts a similarly high calibre of horse.

Acting as the star turn at the hugely popular Bastille Day fixture, the race has become a staple of the French sporting calendar. Initially introduced to provide a valuable contest in which the best of the home runners could compete with overseas raiders attracted by the prize money, the contest has achieved that aim, with Aidan O’Brien, Sir Henry Cecil, Charlie Appleby, and Ian Balding all tasting victory over the years.

Poule D’Essai Des Poulains & Poule D’Essai Des Pouliches

  • Distance – 1m
  • Where – Longchamp
  • When – May
  • 21st Century Famous Winners – Poulains: Lope De Vega (2010), Persian King (2019), St Mark’s Basilica (2021). Pouliches: Divine Proportions (2005), Special Duty (2010), Ervedya (2015)

Taking inspiration from the English Newmarket Classics, this high-profile event was initially run as a single contest – known simply as the Poule D’Essai – until split into separate colts and fillies divisions in 1883. Since that date, the Poule D’Essai Des Poulains has served as the opening colts-only contest of the French flat season, with the Poule D’Essai Des Pouliches being the equivalent event for the fillies.

Offering €600,000 and €500,000 respectively, and held as part of the same May fixture, the proximity of the races to the English equivalents means that few horses attempt the Guineas double these days, but the top British and Irish yards are invariably strongly represented in both races.

Prix de l’Abbaye de Longchamp

  • Distance – 5f
  • Where – Longchamp
  • When – October
  • 21st Century Famous Winners – Marchand d’Or (2008), Marsha (2016), Battaash (2017)

Longchamp, Paris, is the focal point of the horse racing world in early October each year, courtesy of the magnificent Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. All top races deserve a quality card of supporting action, and topping the bill on Arc Weekend is one of the most coveted sprint contests of the European season.

Taking place over a fast and furious five furlongs, one of the unique selling points of this race is that it is open to all runners aged two and older. That includes colts, fillies, mares, and geldings, setting the stage to determine who really is the fastest of them all.