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Champ de Mars Mauritius' hub of racing

Champ de Mars is the southern hemisphere's oldest racecourse and the world's third oldest turf club. Only the Jockey Club and Irish Turf Club have been around longer, and yet so few people outside of the sport of racing have even heard about this wonderful course in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

Champ de Mars was created by the British in an attempt to win over the island's public as they took over from the previous administration under the French. It was hoped that locals and those new to the island would meet and enjoy this new entertainment spot together. The Mauritius Turf Club was founded in 1812 and the first ever races at Champ de Mars were run in the winter of the same year. Mauritian independence was proclaimed here in 1968.

Serious racing enthusiasts might want to consider adding a visit to the hugely atmospheric Mauritian racecourse to their bucketlist. If you like the idea of travelling around the world and experiencing horse racing in many different weird and wonderful exotic locations, then Mauritius is the perfect place to start. To the east of Madagascar and Reunion, Mauritius is a former British and French colony that boasts pristine beaches, surreal mountain scenery and is home to very friendly, open locals.

Champ de Mars is located on the edge of the Mauritian capital Port Louis. Arriving from downtown amongst the throng of bicycles, mopeds and cars, you cross the track to be greeted by a simple arch way, erected for the course's bicentennial celebrations, which reads: Bienvenue au Champ de Mars. Not far from here there is a statue of Edward VII, staring out rather sternly towards the capital and the open sea. A very smart uniformed policeman appears to be guarding his royal highness. Nearby, there is also a memorial dedicated to a former French governor.

Cutting in from here to the main stand, hundreds of motorbikes and mopeds are parked together tightly on the grass as anticipation builds for the day of racing ahead.

Horse racing is the biggest sport in Mauritius.

It gets more column inches than any other sport and there are live televised races every Saturday during the season. Indeed, it is not unusual for upto 20,000 spectators to sometimes attend, especially for the major races such as the Maiden Cup. Crowds though have dipped in recent years and now average 7,000 for the weekly meetings.

90 minutes before the first race of the day and the centre of the course - Le Plaine - for which there is no fee to enter, is already filling up with racing enthusiasts, many of whom are purchasing local favourites from dozens of corrugated iron stalls such as Dholl Puri, samosas, fish and rice, and Gateux. Hundreds are betting on races taking place elsewhere in the world.

There are small betting kiosks all around and battered TVs broadcasting live meetings. Many punters are so keen to get their first bets on that they still haven't removed their motorbike helmets as they pay at the counters. Mauritians love betting although many of the bets placed are no more than a couple of pounds.

There is much excited debate about today's first race with Duke the Duke and Young Royal heavily fancied. Quite apart from the horse racing, Le Plaine is a great window on Mauritian life.

Crossing the track again, it costs 175 rupees to enter the main grandstand. Pride of place though are the private lodges. You can enjoy the perfect views and wonderful hospitality on offer here if you are a member of the Mauritius Turf Club, a stables members or as a visitor through the Crown Lodge. Crown lodge packages include an open bar with ice cold Phoenix beers straight from the fridge and food provided by a friendly waiter service. Local delights such as spicy Dholl Puri are included, as well as canapes and sandwiches. It is good honest food with no pretentious fanciness on show.

In the lodges, members and visitors get the chance to meet the owners and trainers as well as the racecourse manager and even the commentator. It quickly becomes apparent that the management of the MTC go out of their way to make their guests very welcome.

Most present are of course locals but there are also visiting racing enthusiasts from around the world, curious holidaymakers and even honeymooning couples. The lodges convey a subtle sense of colonial heritage with wooden chairs, ceiling fans, paintings and black and white photos of the course.

The course is in a valley below jagged mountains, with the skyline of the capital Port Louis and its distant harbour close by.

The scenic backdrop and majestic calmness fill the senses with a positive energy and there is an unmistakably happy vibe inside the stadium. The weather too is glorious: twenty six degrees with a cooling breeze rolling in off the Indian Ocean.

The scenic backdrop

It is a glorious day for racing but it is drawing towards the end of the season with the annual 31 race meetings finishing in December before returning again after the rains in March. Already one meeting was abandoned in October because of a huge tropical storm.

There are eight races run over the day with each race every 35 minutes. The maximum number of horses in any race is 11. A number of turf publications are on sale, including Pariaz Turf (20 Rupees) and the 76-page Race Time (number 766). The race card has so much information and so many statistics that even an amateur has a good chance of picking a winner if they do their homework.

There is a small red kiosk under the banyan trees in the main enclosure where programmes and magazines can be purchased. Nearby is a statue dedicated to Colonel Draper - The Father of the Mauritius Turf Club. After some frenzied late betting everyone is ready for the first race of the day.

Most people's eyes are glued to the big screen opposite the grandstand as the horses race on the far end of the course.The atmosphere suddenly explodes as the horses turn into the home straight.

The cheering and screaming intensifies as if a ripple of electricity is flowing through the stand.

Dozens and then hundreds begin to jump up and down shouting excitedly. Duke the Duke has won the first race of the day - the 1500 metres Velogic Container Services Trophy. It is a popular victory.

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Amongst today's crowd is a Russian TV crew filming for one of Russia's most popular reportage shows. There is also a group of English men on holiday, and one honeymooning couple is getting lots of attention up in the lodges. The majority of the crowd are, of course, a multicultural hotchpotch of Hindu, Muslim, Tamil, Chinese, Creole and French Mauritians. You sense that for many a day at the races in Mauritius is very much a social event; one where the cultural heritage of the day is central. It is an intimate racecourse where many attendees have been coming since their parents and grandparents first brought them as a child.

Many of the horses racing here today are from South Africa. They are brought over from Johannesburg and Cape Town due to the close proximity of Mauritius and a similar climate for periods of the year.

There are no big household names on the card today but many world famous jockeys such as Frankie Dettori love to race here as they combine work with pleasure with a holiday on the beautiful island of Mauritius in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

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The 1400-metre track is tight with distances from 1000-2400 metres. The 225-metre long home straight with the ground rising to the winning post makes for many photo finishes.

The photofinish room high above the winning post is extremely professional with almost a dozen staff using state of the art equipment. The commentator whips the crowd up into a frenzy with his exciting narration. He clearly knows what he is doing after 22 years in the job.

Parachute Man wins the big race of the day - La Coupe Des Presidents - by several lengths. Jockey R Joorawon even has time to turn around and gesticulate to Everest, Diamond Light and Top Jet, punching the air, as he gallops towards the winning post. The crowd goes absolutely wild with appreciation.

After the seventh race of the day, the jockeys and owners are presented with their trophies in the paddock. The members and those in the grandstand pack in to clap, cheer and congratulate today's victors.

Celebrating 200 years of passion it reads above the Mauritius Turf Club emblem. As well as passion, what you experience here is a highly professional but unmistakably fun atmosphere with a sense of the colonial splendour of yesteryear.

The MTC has an almost unmatched pedigree in the world of horse racing and it is clear that this friendly turf club wishes to preserve the traditions that make this one of the most memorable places on the planet to watch the sport.

Writer: Justin Walley
Published by Anderson & Co Publishing Ltd, 2018

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