Fashion First, then Horses at Prix de Diane

The French fillies classic kicks off the country's summer racing season.

By John Gilmore

The hats are large and the designer-label dresses shimmer in the glorious sunshine. All around champagne corks keep popping and specially created picnic baskets are laid out everywhere, as live music floats out across the vast park area inside the Chantilly racecourse. Welcome to the Prix de Diane (Fr-I) fillies classic—also known as Ladies Day since it was first run in 1843. Every year it lives up to its unique reputation as an event not to be missed by the bourgeoisie class and the well-healed alike.

In the provincial town of Chantilly, up-market fashion shops have been offering broad selections of Prix Diane style dresses and hats for weeks ahead of the race, which regularly attracts crowds of 25,000-plus. Bars, restaurants, and hotels will all do a roaring trade.

The June 17 race is part of a carnival that kicks off the French summer racing season but, apart from a handful of owners and serious punters, the horses aren’t the focus. For most racegoers the Diane is all about turning up at noon, partying with with lots of bubbly, showing off the most outrageous hat and hopefully being photographed for a glossy magazine.

The event is one of the few occasions in France where all the classes mix together to enjoy a "Picnic on the Pelouse." The 2011 edition of this event was a sea of different colours. If you’re enamoured of fashion and a fabulous setting then Chantilly is hard to beat with its magnificent backdrop Chateau, surrounding area of lush forest, and sand track gallops through the forest. Altogether the track and its surroundings create idyllic training conditions for the 2,500 racehorses in the region.

Related Photos

QPrix de Diane

Prix de Diane Photos.

Ironically, England gets some credit for the town’s very existence as a major training center and racecourse. Queen Victoria’s eccentric cousin Lord Seymour, during a chance hunting trip through Chantilly’s forest in 1833, instantly recognized the potential for the lush turf area in front of the Chateau to support a racecourse.

The Duc D’Aumale family, owners of the Chateau and avid horse lovers, were happy to oblige. The rest is history and the original pioneer lads, jockeys, trainers and Thoroughbred horses were brought over from England, where racing unlike France was fully established. By 1836 the first Prix Du Jockey Club was run and seven years later—the initial Prix de Diane. The pioneeer racing families including Carter, Cunnington, Jennings, and Watkins quickly built stables in Chantilly, nearby Lamorlaye and Gouvieux. The stage had been set to have a major impact on French racing, which flourished through their descendents.

Perhaps some of the British residents, racegoers, and visiting tourists, may regard the racecourse and the celebrated training gallops in the surrounding forest as a fitting legacy of all those talented trainers, jockeys and lads from the 19th century. Unfortunately, a lot of the local residents today are not aware just how much the town owes to them a debt of gratitude and the opportunity for everyone to have fun at the Prix de Diane like they will June 17.