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The ‘Second-Oldest Racecourse in the World’ is Not Where You Think It Is

Written on : 22 March 2024
By : Steve Dunne
The ‘Second-Oldest Racecourse in the World’ is Not Where You Think It Is

As any horse-racing fanatic - or pub quiz specialist - will tell you, Chester Racecourse is the oldest racecourse in the world. But if you had to guess the location of the second oldest, you might be surprised to discover the claim staked by one exotic location. We at Villanovo don our fancy hats and take a look at an unlikely historical and contemporary cultural landmark in the middle of the Indian Ocean. 

An Unlikely Location for a Historic Racecourse

Say the word ‘Mauritius’ to anyone and the first image that will spring to their mind are likely something along the lines of swaying palms and soft, white sands, turquoise waters and a deep sense of the exotic. Of relaxation on spectacular beaches and of escape to breathtaking countryside

And for good reason – Mauritius is indeed all those things. However, as those who have visited the island paradise will attest, it is so much more than a mere picture postcard. It is home to a rich, multi-ethnic culture with an equally rich history, shaped for better or worse by successive colonial rulers and the traditions and customs they brought. The Champs de Mars Racecourse in the island’s buzzy capital of Port Louis is one such example. 

In 1812, two years after Britain had taken the island from their arch-rivals France, Sir Robert Farquar, the newly-appointed governor, was seeking a way to calm any lingering tensions that might be simmering away after years of warring. Following his intuition that the famously convivial atmosphere of horse-racing might just be the perfect tonic, he came up with the Champs de Mars Racecourse as a means of bringing together the British, French and local populations. As it turned out, his intuition was right. 

It quickly became popular among locals of all races and backgrounds and over the course of the 200 years since it was opened it has firmly established itself front and centre in the island’s cultural consciousness. It even became an informal town square of sorts. As Villanovo’s local concierge, Veronique, explains: “we live for the racecourse. It is our meeting place, our heritage”. 

Never was its special status more apparent when it staged the raising of the quadricolor flag marking Mauritius independence from the British in 1968 – the anniversary of which is marked to this day with celebrations every March 12th at the old racecourse.

A Unique Racecourse with a Unique Atmosphere

A Unique Racecourse with a Unique Atmosphere

Today, every Saturday between April and December the Champs de Mars gathers people from every social stratum to its luxuriant surroundings for race day, when it is not unusual for the racecourse to receive anywhere between 20,000 to 75,000 spectators, many of them families who have come to share their passion together. 

It is no hyperbole to state that the experience of attending a day’s racing in Mauritius is unlike anything you will experience the world over. Firstly, the setting is suitably spectacular for the famously beautiful island; an abundance of lush greenery overlooked by the famous peak of the Le Pouce mountain and with one end opening out to the blue Indian Ocean. Second, the design of the racecourse brings spectators incredibly close to the action, the grandstand pushed so close to the track that you can almost feel the whoosh of the horses as they gallop by. Jockeys often describe a feverishly exciting atmosphere quite unlike anything experienced at the likes of Ascot or Cheltenham.

Horse Racing and Mauritius: A National Obsession and a Personal Passion

Horse Racing and Mauritius: A National Obsession and a Personal Passion

“Whether you're well off or at the bottom of the ladder, from the north or the south… come race day, all eyes are on the races that are about to take place”, enthuses Veronique, who is quick to illustrate that horseracing is a passion shared by many in Mauritius.

“The media are always analysing and dissecting (the races). Whether you're an amateur or a connoisseur, whether you're in the north or the south, you're always looking for a 'tip' from a jockey or an owner.” 

Veronique’s relationship with horseracing is more intimate than most. She grew up within the Henry family whose enthusiasm for racing has led to their owning a stable for the past 4 generations and producing champions who have participated at the highest level, going down in local folklore along the way. Veronique’s uncle, the late Serge Henry Jr, enjoyed a glittering career in Mauritian horse-racing in the 90s, winning the trainers’ title on no less than 8 occasions, 5 of them consecutively between 1996 and 2000.   

“I grew up in an atmosphere where everything revolved around horse racing, with organisational meet-ups - meals in which instructions were issued - and days spent preparing our outfits, with hats and gloves which had to be different for each day. I remember, as a child, the fervour in our dressing room and the emotions of seeing our horses run. There were races and bets when everything was at stake... and of course parties to celebrate the victories!” 

The Maiden Cup: A Meet Not to Be Missed

The Maiden Cup: A Meet Not to Be Missed

Never are the celebrations greater than after the legendary Maiden Cup, the island’s equivalent to the Grand National, which every year draws huge crowds - even famously topping 100,000 spectators in 1984. 

The ambience is wonderfully inclusive, and the dress code diverse, with many sporting simple T-shirts and shorts, while those staying in the more prestigious boxes, such as the Parade Ring, are of course invited to don their finest hats and dress the part. After all, former guests have included the Duke and Duchess of York and even the late Queen Elizabeth II! 

“The Maiden cup is the day when people try to outdo one another for the most beautiful outfits”, smiles Veronique, “…the most burlesque hairstyles and hats in the executive boxes mingle with the age-old sarees of the pleine, (the more modest stalls).“

But for the most part, the joy lies in seeing the disparate peoples that have come together to make up this melting pot of an island revel in a truly open and welcoming atmosphere. Whether or not it is the second oldest racecourse in the world is open to debate (races were held at the likes of Newmarket and other sites long before the inauguration of the Champs de Mars…) but there is no denying that it has served its historical purpose. As Veronique can attest:

“A day at the Champ de Mars isn't just about the horses. A day at the races means experiencing the pluralism of my island in the true sense of the word. Here, people from all backgrounds and cultures rub shoulders without complexes or prejudices.”

Excellent work, Sir Farquar!

Note: The racing season in Mauritius runs from late March to early December, when it closes in spectacular fashion with the International Jockeys’ weekend, a meeting of jockeys from all over the world. For those wishing to attend a race day in Mauritius, you can contact our concierge, Veronique, who can help arrange VIP tickets for an unforgettable experience. 

Discover the Many Faces of Mauritius 

Discover the Many Faces of Mauritius 

There is far more to Mauritius than meets the eye. Famed for its great sweeps of ivory white sands, turquoise waters brimming with multicoloured fish and natural reefs, not to mention the leafy splendour of its interior hiking trails and national parks, it rightfully stakes a strong claim as the most beautiful holiday destination in the world. 

Dig a little deeper and you’ll soon find that its charms are not merely skin-deep. When you book a luxury villa in Mauritius with Villanovo, you will receive the benefit of our complimentary Travel Booklet, in which we detail the best restaurants, cafes, beaches and watersports activities to do during your stay. Furthermore, with our optional concierge service you can also receive the assistance of a dedicated local expert in the planning and smooth-running of your holiday, taking the stress and guesswork out of preparing the perfect holiday that you and your loved ones deserve. 

Contact us today to find out more.  

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