French racing pays homage to Queen, ex-chief recalls her British humour

·4-min read

The late Queen Elizabeth II's French and knowledge of racing was impeccable whilst she was blessed with "a typical British sense of humour", the former head of French racing Louis Romanet told AFP on Sunday.

Racing was the sport Britain's longest-serving monarch, who died on Thursday aged 96, was most closely associated with.

French racing paid homage to her by holding a minute's silence prior to the Group One Prix Vermeille -- one of three trials on Sunday for their flagship race the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe -- at Longchamp.

"It was the very least French racing could do to honour her," said Romanet.

"She was a friend of France and of racing."

Romanet, 74, witnessed her humour first hand when her filly Highclere won the French Oaks (Prix de Diane) in 1974 at Chantilly.

Romanet, who was for 40 years director-general of French racing authority France Galop till retiring in 2007, had accompanied her to a reception hosted by renowned owner-breeder Marcel Boussac at his chateau.

A visit in her Rolls Royce to the training centre at Chantilly -- where the majority of top trainers have their stables -- followed before alighting at the racecourse.

That all served as the aperitif said Romanet to the race itself where Highclere arrived with a big reputation having won the English 1000 Guineas.

"It was fantastic," he said.

"She could not restrain herself and was cheering madly for Highclere, whilst her racing manager Lord Porchester swung his binoculars over his head when she won.

"After the trophy had been presented to her by Boussac, I moved to take it back and she fixed me with a stare and said in French 'Monsieur Romanet why are you taking the trophy?'.

"I replied so we can have Highclere and your name engraved on it.

"She smiled and said 'Do not worry about that, give it to my secretary. I am hosting a dinner at Windsor Castle this evening and I would like it on the table.

"'We have very good engravers in England too you know'.

"That was typical British humour."

- 'It is midnight' -

Romanet was to pay a visit to Windsor Castle over 20 years later in 1995.

He was invited as president of the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities (IFHA) to have lunch prior to racing at Royal Ascot.

The Queen enjoyed one of her greatest successes with Estimate winning the meeting's most historic race the Ascot Gold Cup in 2013 -- her broad smile captured on television and beamed round the world.

Romanet said he and his wife had been overly punctual and were the first to arrive.

He found himself seated between the Queen and the Queen Mother, who was also a noted turfiste.

"I began talking with the Queen and she said 'I will make a sign when you should turn and talk to my mother'," he said.

"However, she completely forgot as we were talking about racing and then she finally realised and made the sign.

"I turned and spoke to the Queen Mother. Suddenly after a few minutes the Queen Mother stopped and smiled and said 'Monsieur Romanet why when I am speaking in French do you reply in English!'

"I replied sorry Madame I was so impressed by your French I did not realise I was speaking English. We both burst into laughter."

He said further evidence of the Queen's humour was that the famous Prix de Diane trophy was placed right in front of him.

It was not the last time the Queen's enthusiasm for talking about racing was at odds with her timing.

The Queen -- who went to Longchamp during a state visit in 1972 and a race was named in her honour 'La Coupe de Sa Majeste Reine Elizabeth' (now the Prix Sandringham) -- was a guest of the late Alec Head at the Haras de Quesnay in Normandy in 1984 after the commemorations for the 40th anniversary of D Day.

"Dinner finished at 10 and then we put on film of the best races of the season thusfar and talked about racing," said Romanet.

"Suddenly an aide appeared and pointed at his watch and said 'Ma'am it is midnight'.

"Her impeccable French, her love of racing and her humour, she was a remarkable lady!"