While many come for the racing at the Prix de Diane in Chantilly, north of Paris, plenty of others come simply to see and be seenWhile many come for the racing at the Prix de Diane in Chantilly, north of Paris, plenty of others come simply to see and be seen (AFP Photo/LUCAS BARIOULET)
Chantilly (France) (AFP) - Champagne corks pop over the pounding of hooves and the "best hat" prize is as fiercely contested as the race itself: welcome to the Prix de Diane, a highlight of the year for France's horsey set.
Some 40,000 well-dressed spectators flocked to Sunday's races in the shadow of a chateau north of Paris, clutching picnic baskets, ice-cold wine bottles, and -- in many cases -- hats ranging from the stylish to the outlandish.
Held each June in Chantilly, a picturesque forest town built around horseracing, the Prix de Diane or French Oaks has long been considered a pinnacle of "elegance a la francaise" since its founding in 1843.
"It's an event unique in the world," said Andre Berteau, a former jockey who has attended the race for 20 years.
"To start with, there's only one racecourse like this with a view over a chateau surrounded by forests. We're really lucky here," added Berteau, his top hat perched at a rakish angle.
While many come for an event that draws some of Europe's best three-year-old fillies, plenty of others come simply to see and be seen.
In particular, the 300 fashionistas vying in the Concours d'Elegance or Elegance Contest, and the hundreds of others swarming around the catwalk, displayed minimal interest in the flat race won this year by feisty English 7-1 shot Laurens.
Some of the also-rans for the best-dressed award included a huge black-and-red confection resembling a tropical flower, a gold cloche and a riff on a Spanish matador's hat.
- Mad Hatters -
A fair number of those jockeying for the only prize that mattered were professional milliners spying an opportunity to show off their most inventive work.
Some took inspiration from the race itself, topping their hats with model horses or champagne flutes.
But other strayed from the equine theme.
A group of young millinery graduates came in Alice In Wonderland garb, including one dressed as the Queen of Hearts and another as the Mad Hatter's tea table.
"I wanted something very large and something very feminine," explained 23-year-old Nadege Monett, leaning over to display the teapot and saucers perched upon her head, a flamingo-shaped umbrella under her arm.
"I wanted something very stylish, very 19th century -- personally when I think of the Prix de Diane, I think of an Englishwoman with those big hats and lace and umbrellas."
- From haute couture to Primark -
Comfort and convenience were set aside for the day.
One woman, a hand clamped to the large pink-and-gold contraption attached to her head, could be heard saying: "It's alright so long as I don't turn to the right."
Johanna Contremoulins, a 27-year-old human resources manager from Normandy, clinched the coveted "Most Elegant" title, winning rave reviews for a spiralling pink hat topped with spiky plant fronds.
But the top 10 also included Sara Rose from Carlow in Ireland, who delighted in the fact that she had come close to winning, despite having assembled her chic monochrome outfit mostly from high street brands Primark and New Look.
"It's no fun when somebody wins who spent 3,000 euros ($3,500) on their outfit," she said.
Rose works at the Newmarket racecourse in England and acknowledged that the French race appeared decidedly better behaved than Ladies Day at Ascot, where even the most elegantly dressed, after a bottle or two of champagne, are frequently a little worse for wear by home time.
"But we're not at the end of the day yet, so we'll see," she laughed.