Do the French even have a word for 'punter'?
THE French contribution to world culture might be called a mixed bag. French cricket I could happily live without, but French knickers, French letters and the French horn, where would we be without them? French mustard is no match for its English counterpart, I'm sure you'd agree, but the absence of French windows, French kisses and French polish would leave us in a world infinitely duller and with less-shiny sideboards.
Foie gras and French dressing are all very well, however. The real question is: what have the French ever done for punters? The answer, I'd venture: pas un saucisson, not a sausage.
Head across the Channel for an awayday at some of the world's most glorious racecourses, and you can enjoy hospitality that is the envy of the European Turf. A plate of frogs' legs and a cheeky white Burgundy will set you up nicely for a skirmish with the layers, but there the rot sets in.
The sad fact is that without the presence of the British - or, latterly, the Japanese - the average French racecourse has the kind of atmosphere that would have even a provincial librarian reaching for the artificial stimulants. On Arc day at Longchamp, the place is jumping like a pre-op frog in a frying pan, but on any other day, Group 1 or no Group 1, it is dead comme le dodo.
Parisians seem to stay away in their droves, leaving one man and his chien to hold the fort. Try to have a bet for any more than the price of a packet of Gauloises and the frosty matron in the booth raises an eyebrow at you, half stern, half stunned. If you win, you half expect the local gendarmes to give you an armed escort to the nearest Securicor van.
In short, the Gauls and betting just don't seem to mix, and yet to listen to Louis Romanet, French racing's grand fromage, you'd think he was presiding over the best system in the best of all possible worlds.
Quoted by JA McGrath in the Daily Telegraph last week, the director-general of France-Galop spoke of how he is dead against the arrival of betting exchanges on his shores, and mad keen to maintain a status quo that returns five per cent from betting for the benefit of prize-money, as opposed to less than one per cent in England, and 0.25 per cent from the exchanges.
"We don't have a problem with competition for the PMU Pari-Mutuel or the French Tote," said M Romanet (which is easy to say when there isn't any, I suppose), "but we don't want people to be able to bet on a horse to lose in our country."
Unsurprisingly, he says he is hoping the government will do a deal with the European Commission to "protect what we have in France", which will almost certainly involve a blockade by French lorry drivers and the reintroduction of the guillotine. (Isn't it odd how British racing sees its media rights washed down the drain by European law, while the French retain the admirable ability simply to raise two fingers and say "non".)
When all's said and done, though, where would you, as a punter rather than a holidaymaker, prefer to go racing on any day other than Arc day: England or France? Indeed, is it possible to be 'a punter' in France? Do the French even have a word for punter? If French racing could appeal more to punters, would it not reap the benefits?
I CHATTED recently to Harry Findlay, the embodiment of all things punting, a great admirer of French racecourses and a fervent advocate of pool betting. He said: "Put me in charge of the Pari-Mutuel and I'd have an even half-million (quid, not euros) with Louis Romanet that I could double its turnover in a year."
He has similarly strong views on the sale and future of our own Tote and I'd expect him to offer them, free of charge, to anybody prepared to listen (and some who aren't but simply come within earshot) in the not-too-distant future.
I guess the French argument would be that racing isn't all about punters, and that any country whose prize-money is as pitiful as ours has no place criticising a regime that can be made to look so healthy on paper. And they'd probably be right, but I still don't think they've got it cracked any more than we have.