The late Queen Elizabeth II’s French and racing skills were impeccable, while she was blessed with “a typically British sense of humour,” former French race director Louis Romanet told AFP on Sunday.
Racing was the sport most closely associated with Britain’s longest-serving monarch, who died on Thursday aged 96.
French racing paid homage to her with a minute’s silence before the Group One Prix Vermeille – one of three stages on Sunday for their flagship race, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe – at Longchamp.
“It was the least French racing could do to honor her,” said Romanet.
“She was a friend of France and of racing.”
Romanet, 74, saw her humor first hand when her filly, Highclere, won the French Oaks (Prix de Diane) at Chantilly in 1974.
Romanet, who was General Manager of France Galop for 40 years until he retired in 2007, had accompanied her to a reception hosted by renowned owner and breeder Marcel Boussac at his chateau.
A visit to her Rolls Royce at the Chantilly training center – where most top trainers have their stables – followed before stepping out onto the track.
It all served as an aperitif, Romanet said of the race itself, where Highclere arrived with a big reputation after winning the English 1000 Guineas.
“It was fantastic,” he said.
“She couldn’t help but cheer like crazy for Highclere while her race director, Lord Porchester, swung his binoculars over his head as she won.
“After Boussac gave her the trophy, I went to take it back and she stared at me and said in French ‘Monsieur Romanet, why do you take the trophy?’.
“I answered so we could engrave Highclere and your name on it.
“She smiled and said, ‘Don’t worry about it, give it to my secretary. I’m hosting a dinner at Windsor Castle tonight and I’d like to have it on the table.
“‘We also have very good engravers in England, you know.’
“It was typically British humour.”
– ‘It’s midnight’ –
Romanet was due to visit Windsor Castle over 20 years later in 1995.
He was invited as President of the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities (IFHA) to lunch at Royal Ascot before the race.
The Queen had one of her greatest achievements when Estimate won the most historic race of the meet, the Ascot Gold Cup in 2013 – her big smile was captured by television and beamed around the world.
Romanet said he and his wife were ahead of schedule and arrived first.
He found himself between the Queen and the Queen Mother, who was also a well-known turfist.
“I started talking to the queen and she said, ‘I’ll signal when you should turn around and talk to my mother,'” he said.
“However, she completely forgot when we were talking about racing and then she finally got the hang of it and made the mark.
“I turned and spoke to the Queen Mother. Suddenly, after a few minutes, the Queen Mother stopped and smiled and said: ‘Monsieur Romanet, why are you answering in English when I am speaking in French?’
“I apologize Madame, I was so impressed with your French that I didn’t realize I spoke English. We both burst out laughing.”
He said further evidence of the Queen’s humor was that the famous Prix de Diane trophy was placed right in front of him.
It wasn’t the last time the Queen’s enthusiasm for talking about races was at odds with her timing.
The Queen, who went to Longchamp during a state visit in 1972 and named a race ‘La Coupe de Sa Majeste Reine Elizabeth’ (now Prix Sandringham) in her honor, was a guest of the late Alec Head at the Haras de Quesnay in Normandy in 1984 after the commemorations of the 40th anniversary of D-Day.
“Dinner ended at 10 a.m. and then we showed the best races of the season so far and talked about racing,” said Romanet.
“Suddenly an aide appeared, pointed to his watch and said, ‘Ma’am, it’s midnight’.
“Her impeccable French, her love of racing and her sense of humor, she was a remarkable woman!”