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Galloping to victory in Maisons-Laffitte

Once the seat of royal stables, the birthplace of horse racing in France is still the vital heart of the sport.

Photo credit:

Chris Van Lennep

Maisons Laffitte, a short train ride west of Paris, is the birthplace of horse racing in France, with a history that dates back to the 1600s and centers around the magnificent château at the heart of the town. It was built in 1640 to host King Louis XIII when he wanted to visit, and included stables that could accommodate 56 horses. The first races were held later that century in front of the château, with special stands for the royal court. The château changed hands several times over the years, but one thing remained constant; a thriving passion for horse racing.

With the arrival of train service from Paris in 1843 came a track with permanent stands where anybody could come and put wagers on the horses and watch them run; suddenly, it was more than an aristocratic pastime — it was something anyone could participate in.

A town for horse lovers

Skip forward 175 years and you find that Maisons-Laffitte is still horse-centric, with dozens of stables, horse trainers, training tracks, and of course, the château still presiding over it all.

Secret Journeys’ ambassador to the world of French horse racing is Gina Rarick, a former journalist who took a most unusual path to her current career as a horse trainer with her own stables in Maisons-Laffitte. Gina’s passion for racing started as she began writing about the sport for her newspaper, the now-defunct International Herald Tribune. Once, she even rode in a special race for journalists as a neophyte — and won. The thrill of that ride led her to get more and more involved in the world of horses and racing until she left her job in 2008 to pursue her passion full time. She rented stables and started to work with a handful of horses for owners willing to take a chance on an untested trainer. Now she trains 16 horses and owns her own stables. She’s developed a reputation as a winning trainer whose animals consistently place in races around France.

This turn of events still seems to surprise Gina, who grew up on a dairy farm outside of Greenwood, Wisconsin. “I was determined never to work on a farm or be my own boss,” she says. “And I failed on both counts.”

Insider’s look at the sport

For Secret Journeys, Gina offers a rare opportunity to see the world of horse racing from an insider’s perspective. She can show visitors her early morning routine, and the thrill of watching a horse and rider in practice at a full sprint. She and her team travel with her horses to tracks around France. The horses’ owners — individuals and groups — pay her for stabling and training the horses, but like other trainers, she earns a percentage of her horses’ winnings at the tracks. “And that’s how every trainer is judged — by their winnings,” she said.

Secret Journeys also offers the opportunity to join Gina at a race in a track near Paris, such as the venerable Longchamps or at Chantilly.

Gina says she loves sharing her passion for racing, and that visitors are fascinated by the backstage activity on race day at a track — seeing how light and athletic the jockeys are, seeing how the horses are handicapped (with extra weight added to some saddles to even the odds), and how different French tracks are from American-style horse tracks.

But nothing tops being at the finish line, she says, when you have a winner. “It takes so much to win a horse race that when you win it’s an incredible shot of adrenaline,” she says. “For an owner, there’s nothing like the first time seeing their silks — their own colors and banner — coming across the finish line. It’s something you remember forever.”

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