By the time Julius Caesar arrived on what would centuries later become French soil, the Celtic tribes of Gaul had raised one of the most advanced cavalries in the world. Though unable to halt the expansion of the Roman Empire, Vercingetorix and his band of Gallic horseman, mounted on ancient breeds like the Camargue from Provence, were able to inflict bruising setbacks, such as at the Battle of Gergovia in 52 BC. After their defeat, elements of Celtic culture, like the horse goddess Epona, were even integrated into Roman mythology.
Flash forward 1,600 years and horse breeding had become a national obsession, one closely regulated by royal decree. In 1665, Louis XIV and his Minister of Finance Jean-Baptiste Colbert founded the Haras Nationaux, one of the country’s oldest administrations. Today, it comprises 22 stud farms, including the Haras du Pin in Normandy, the home of the French Thoroughbred. A century after the establishment of the haras, horse racing – a British import – started to take off in France.
Many of the Thoroughbred horses that you’ll find racing at top-tier courses like Longchamp are trained at either Chantilly or Maisons-Laffitte, two centers within 20 miles of Paris. Further afield, the town of Deauville on the Normandy coast – what is sometimes referred to as the 21st arrondissement given the influx of Parisians during the summer months – is famed for its racing and annual yearling sale in August.