If you’ve never raced at the Champ de Mars in Mauritius, you’ve never raced at all, so those of us aficionados of the game will tell you. It’s not only the second oldest turf club in the world, it’s the also the most atmospheric. The racing correspondent for The Times, Mike Moon was a recent visitor, and while he was supposedly visiting the island on a travelogue, what really caught his fancy was the racing.
Mike Moon

I created a monster on the island of Mauritius. Well, at least that's what she said I'd done, simply by showing her how to interpret horseracing form. She proceeded to go on a winning betting spree that got her hopelessly hooked on the game. Serene and elegantly French, Mathilde started out as the perfect escourt for a day at the races. Thanks to me, she became distracted, beguiled by the sleek thoroughbreds; asailing the tote like a woman possessed. I passed comment on a jockey, a barrier draw, a fetlock, and she's absorbed the info, downloaded into a Gallic calculation, and whacked down a wager. And she'd win. I'd lose.

I airily put this down to beginner's luck and the Trifecta gods smiling on a pretty woman. But, deep down, I knew she was a racing natural, if not a monster.

It happened in one of the most unusual places in the world of racing.

Mars, the Greek god of war, might enjoy the battlefield named after him. Champ de Mars is a place of contestation, with horses galloping, hordes of people yelling, emotions veering from agony to ecstasy.

A day at Champ de Mars race course in Port Louis, Mauritius.

The racecourse in slap-bang in the middle of the Mauritian captal of Port Louis and bears no resemblance to its namesake in Paris, a prissily ordered park beside the Eiffel Tower. This field of Mars is way out in the Indian Ocean, a warm, colourful, an untidy place with a tropical African feel.

The course is so much a part of the city that a main street passes right through it, between turf and grandstands, and traffic must be diverted on race days.

Look to your right, from the century old stand and you see the cluster of downtown high-rises. To the left are the lovely heights of the volcanic mountain into which Port Louis snuggles.

What a place to race.

It's the shortest, tightest track you'll ever see. The 1300m circumference is less than half that of most racing venues. The horses are close to the grandstand throughout and often pass in front of the roaring crowd more than once during a race.

"No other event in Mauritius gathers together so many people every week," said Jacques Ritter, businessman, bon vivant and host of party central, the Crown Lodge box. "You don't just follow a race, you live it because you're in the heart of the action. It is a mythical place."

It's a grand description of Mauritian racing, which for more than 200 years has conjured magic from athleticism, communality and materialistic dreams.

The vivid, real experience is far removed from the mirage of Mauritius invented by French author Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre in his 1988 utopian novel Paul et Virginie.

Champ de Mars in the 1800's / Mauritius Tourism (p)

There's always a good crowd at Champ de Mars as racing is easily the most popular sporting activity in the country. Before off-course totes came in a few years ago, more than 20,000 people pitched up every Saturday. Nowadays an ordinary meeting sees 5,000 people, while big races such as the Maiden Cup pull 50,000.

Such numbers are the dream of South African racecourses.

Dreams, omens and superstition - and, of course, expertise in assessing horses and form - are the currency of the punters who throng beneath the beautiful old banyan trees that shade the bookmakers' cubicles.

These people are the population melange wrought of a Dutch-French-British colonial history, with ingredients of Arab traders, African slaves, Indian cane-cutters and Chinese labourers. And racing is their great pastime, after work in the sugar, textile and tourism industries that make Mauritius once of Africa's economic success stories. Racing itself chips into the treasury, with an 8% levy on betting turnover making gambling a 5% contributor to gross domestic product.

Speculation about potential Saturday winners starts when cards come out on a Thursday. Across the 2000 square kilometers of Mauritius, upcoming races and the drama of the last meeting are keenly discussed and there's extensive local TV coverage. Barmen, maitre d's and even spa masseurs at Le Saint Geran Hotel, on the other side of the island, were more than ready with a tip when they heard I was going to the gee-gees.

Horse's names these pundits mention might be familiar to South Africans. Most runners in Mauritius are imported from South Africa, having already won at the likes of Turffontein and Kenilworth and reach the top of their handicap capabilities there.

"Vettel is the best bet tomorrow" asserted the waiter as he handed me another concoction saturated in the island's famous rum. "But Love Struck is the danger."