the galloping passion of athletes for racehorses

« Just to make the horses neigh with pleasure ». The number of athletes who practice the verses of Alain Bashung’s song continues to grow. After Antoine Griezmann and Tony Parker, it’s the turn of Renaud Lavillenie and, even more recently, Nicolas Batum to invest in horse racing. And these are only the most popular sports people. Behind these mega stars, other athletes have forged a real passion with the equestrian world. This attraction offers an unexpected light on an extremely coded and compartmentalized world which asks only to leave the image of smoky bar-tobacco that it sometimes conveys.

How did we go from the work horse to the horse of attraction? Some, like Luis Fernandez or even Diego Maradona when they were still playing, got ahead of the hype horse racing. Since then, the sports world, and in particular that of football, has followed suit. First at a trot, then at a gallop in recent years. Jérôme Rothen, Loïc Perrin, Clément Lenglet, Carlo Ancelotti: the round ball has gradually taken over racetracks. Has the gown become the new fashionable accessory for footballers, always in search of new trends?

« I hope this is not a fad », says Lionel Charbonnier. The former Auxerre goalkeeper, replacing the Blues 1998 world champions, was also one of the precursors of this « horse fever ». He remembers that« To the time everyone did not care a little about me, I passed by a UFO «  with his teammates and his trainer Guy Roux. But very quickly, the virtues born from contact with equines appear in broad daylight.

Not only does the goalkeeper’s passion for horses not alter his performance on the pitch, but on the contrary, it transcends them. « Guy Roux has sometimes allowed me, the very morning of the matches in Auxerre, to go see my horses to better prepare myself mentally «  remembers Charbonnier. « He was just warning me not to take any hoof kicks (laughs). It’s still a dangerous job, a career can quickly break down. »

The arrival in horse racing is often the result of chance, a meeting, or a family transmission, as for Antoine Griezmann, who fell into it from an early age thanks to his father, a true enthusiast. For Tony Parker, it is Valéry Demory, coach of the ASVEL women’s basketball team who led the former playmaker of the France team and the San Antonio Spurs to the stables. Renaud Lavillenie, he became owner through his teammate Jules Cyprès, son of a famous breeder, and who knew how to share his love of the horse with the pole vaulter.

Other sportsmen, neo-retirees and in search of thrills, push the experience even further. This is the case for example of Sylvain Chavanel, former cyclist turned driver (the driver of a sulky in trotting races) amateur. What do all these athletes have in common? They do not set foot in the stirrup out of greed. The equestrian world, if it drains a lot of money, in particular because of betting on races, remains very uncertain in terms of return on investment. « If it’s investing to earn money, there will be more disappointments than happy », warns David Garcion, former French football champion with FC Nantes in 1995 and who was already immersed in horse racing at the time of his career as a professional player.

Especially since owning racehorses comes at a price. Very high. The purchase of such a competition animal is extremely variable but its maintenance amounts to 25,000 euros per year. As for the cracks, they evolve in another sphere where the projections of certain gallopers are estimated at 350,000 euros! A Parker or a Griezmann could certainly afford this luxury but they made the choice to enter this environment on tiptoe rather than with their big hooves.

Tony Parker surrounded by jockeys during the famous Prix de Diane in Chantilly, June 20, 2021. (BERTRAND GUAY / AFP)

Horse racing is the world of humility. Renaud Lavillenie, Olympic gold medalist he is, had to start by carrying buckets of oats to the foals. Likewise, not all of these champions seek to attract attention to racetracks. David Garcion reminds us: « The athlete does not do this for glory because the owner of a horse often remains in the shade, it is always the driver and his mount who collect the light ». If it is not for the fame and the money how then to explain this infatuation for the equestrian thing?

« Athletes realize that the horse is a real athlete, like them. They see what the horse goes through in training and identify with it. They share the same values ​​of self-sacrifice. », Lionel Charbonnier analysis. We would therefore witness a phenomenon of projection of oneself with the animal, almost a narcissistic mimicry. « There is a real fascination with the beauty of the beast, and its athletic performance », adds David Garcion. « Horses have a career similar to ours, Loïc Perrin declared to 20 minutes, with the same training, the same injuries, the same hazards « .

« The only difference between us and them is that they can’t talk, so they can’t express problems when there are problems or say when everything is fine », Renaud Lavillenie points out to us. On the other hand, the horse also has its character, its way of moving forward, and when it is a competitor, it will do everything to win, even if it is not the most talented « .

Champions know how to recognize each other. Lionel Charbonnier confirms: « Horse riding is a sport in its own right, jockeys and drivers are also real high-level athletes who go to the weight room! «  For the former goalkeeper, the links between football and horse riding are obvious. « Knowing how to tame an animal weighing 500 kilos is a sporting strategy in its own right « , he specifies. « Contact with horses helped me a lot to get my coaching diplomas because this job is a job of observation. Of its players, of its opponents. Well the horse is the same thing ».

David Garcion agrees: « There are also similarities in the link maintained with the trainers. Those I have known in the equine world have exactly the same approach as those of football, with the same motivational speeches and identical methods: heartbeats, fractional, etc. « 

For some retired athletes, horse racing is also a way to regain the adrenaline of competition days. « THEThe week before the race, we are under stress, we look at how the other horses have run, we ask the trainer how the horse behaved in training «  remembers the ex of Nantes. Horse racing then becomes a palliative but « vst is also an escape route because while the sportsmen are with the animals they do not think about their competition. This allows to disconnect «  adds Charbonnier.

However, all these champions do not embark on this adventure without the will to win. The adrenaline also comes from the victory, from that final stretch where the horse, with bloodshot eyes and smoking nostrils, gives all he has to cross the line first. Tony Parker is one of those people who wants to shine on every court, not just on the basketball court. « He wanted to invest in a horse that could win right away » says Ludovic Gadbin, the coach of the quadruple NBA champion’s filly, at Parisian. The former leader of the Spurs even offered himself a little coquetry: each owner having to choose the colors of his jacket, he of course opted for the black and white of San Antonio …

Like « TP », Antoine Griezmann knows how to give himself the means of his ambitions. The FC Barcelona striker recently acquired, for more than 300,000 euros, a batch of four English thoroughbreds. With the barely veiled goal, the home stretch of the American Grand Prix or that of the Arc de Triomphe. The 2018 world champion nonetheless keeps his feet on the ground and does not forget his roots, those which introduced him to the equestrian world. This is how he founded, with his father, his own company of racehorses in Mâcon, his birthplace.

« He, like his father, show great patience », admires Philippe Decouz in The Parisian. The trainer of Griezmann’s horses takes up the filiation between the athlete and the mount: « Antoine knows the hazards of top-level sport and knows how horses are athletes. The Griezmanns are true connoisseurs, able to analyze a race like specialists. »

Owning his jacket truly marks the entry into the world of equestrianism. « Having your own colors is a real pride », confirms Renaud Lavillenie in an interview with Equidia. Even if he confesses that« currently the goal is not to become an extraordinary owner with all the cracks possible but to start a human adventure », the pride of the champion quickly regains the upper hand. « I am a competitor and my dream would be to meet at Auteuil with my jacket in the race ». Hunt the natural, it comes back … at a gallop.

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