Loveliness of Longchamp is sadly lost on the locals; Nicholas Godfrey samples the holiday atmosphere in the Bois de Boulogne for the Grand Prix de Paris meeting.
HOW'S this for a French horseracing joke? What do you get if you cross a nation-defining holiday with one of the most historic, richly endowed races in Europe? Then you offer free entry to one of the world's most iconic racetracks, laying on a range of special attractions for the more casual visitor? Well, what you certainly don't get is the sort of crowd the event deserves. If this is a joke, then it isn't funny any more.
Five years ago, when the Prix du Jockey Club's distance was reduced, the French authorities also moved the Grand Prix de Paris to the evening of July 14, Bastille Day, in a bid to revivify what was once France's greatest race.
The Grand Prix itself has blossomed since, giving rise to suggestions that it ought to be considered France's true Derby event - subsequent Arc winner Rail Link scored for the sponsors Juddmonte in 2006 - but evidently this persuasively remodelled card still suffers from the French racing malaise in popularity terms.
At 6pm, we are half an hour into an eight-race meeting featuring a couple of Group races and two more Listeds featuring all the top French stables augmented by a couple of cross-Channel visitors. Minutes before the second race, it is virtually deserted in front of the stands.
Partly this is down to the lack of bookmakers, which leaves a wide patch of ground adjacent to the straight as a no man's land. Partly it is down to the weather, sultry summer having broken into biblical thunderstorms early in the afternoon.
Mainly, though, this is par pour les courses in France, where the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe meeting is an anomaly, blessed with a unique atmosphere that owes much to the annual pilgrimage of rosbifs.
Even at graceful Longchamp in the Bois de Boulogne they face an uphill struggle at the gate. And that includes Bastille Day, when tricolore bunting adorns the wrought-iron gates and red, white and blue flags are handed out to customers, there are pony rides and carousel on the infield, plus a post-race fireworks display midway through a set from DJ Zebra.
An influx later in the evening results in an estimated attendance of about 6,500, and clerk of the course Christian Delporte expected better. "Of course it is a little disappointing because last year we had double that number," he says. "This has to be due to the storms at lunchtime. People have abandoned their picnics on the pelouse [infield]."
Longchamp is one of seven Parisian tracks, alongside three more Flat (Saint-Cloud, Maisons-Laffitte and Chantilly, 41km away), two jumps (nearby Auteuil and Enghien) and one for trotting (Vincennes).
Its prevailing atmosphere is civilised rather than boisterous, befitting a famously elegant venue that so entranced the likes of Manet and Degas a century ago and rightly remains a byword for racing prestige.
Opened in April 1857 in front of Napoleon III, the place reeks of racing history, from the 1865 Triple Crown winner Gladiateur, the Avenger of Waterloo whose statue stands on a finely manicured lawn behind the main gate. He also won the Grand Prix de Paris in 1865, the year before he took the Ascot Gold Cup. By 40 lengths.
Longchamp is redolent of such racing legend: even on a quiet day it is difficult to avoid thinking of Ribot and Sea-Bird, Mill Reef and Dancing Brave, Suave Dancer (he's got a statue as well) and Peintre Celebre, Montjeu and Sea The Stars.
There can be few more romantic sights in racing than the view from the stands of the Eiffel Tower poking out of the Bois on the far side of the track, and Longchamp's landmarks have long since entered the sport's folklore, from the false straight (the slight right-hand turn before the proper straight) to the windmill (moulin) on the turn just after the winning post.
The layout involves a confusion of interlaced circuits and 46 different starting points, so perhaps it is hardly surprising that races tend to be run at a crawl before ending in a sprint to the line. No wonder jockeys don't like making the running given the potential for error.
Wednesday night's meeting is the last until September as the Parisian racing community decamps en masse for the seaside airs at Deauville, but you will have to visit fairly soon after that if you want to experience the track in its current state as it is earmarked for a revamp in the near future. The Arc will move for a year, probably to Chantilly, maybe in 2012.
The most densely populated section of the racecourse, by some degree, is directly outside the weighing-room complex, home to the racing professionals congregating around the Right Royal restaurant behind the rond de presentation (parade ring).
Although the general public is denied access to this VIP area, everywhere else is free this evening. Turn left after entering and you'll be greeted by a lovely wooded backlot, tonight featuring various added entertainments such as Guitar Hero demonstrations and more conventional musical instruction for kids - you haven't lived until you've heard Queen's We Will Rock You played on brass and percussion by a bunch of ten-year-olds.
The dominant trainer in the Grand Prix is the same dominant figure as everywhere else for the last two decades or more: racing's own little emperor, Andre Fabre, who has won the race on ten previous occasions. Not this time, however, when his two progressive representatives are well beaten behind the Aga Khan's Behkabad, who holds off Prix du Jockey Club runner-up Planteur (didn't like the whip) to become his owner's latest serious Arc contender.
The fairy lights are lighting up the paddock by the time Gerald Mosse returns to accept the bravos after the EUR600,000 event. The only pity is that there aren't greater numbers around to salute the winning partnership. Such a fine venue deserves more - and not just once a year.
Celebrating Bastille Day with a night at the races, where the crowd was disappointingly sparse