Paris—at first glance this caf� seems like any other.
Filled with the scent of Gitanes and Pernod, it's a neighborhood spot where aproned waiters weave lazily between tables as traffic passes its terrace and regulars drop in like clockwork. The caf�, like many others, is beneath a frayed red awning, filled with clatter, gossip and glances; there is a dulled zinc-top bar, a round owner, carafes of cheap wine. But on closer examination, a visitor might notice the steady procession of clients to a back counter. And caf� tables don't wear this way through normal use, not without years of scratching pens.
Whether the event be galop, trot or obstacle, picking horses is more than just a pastime in France; it's a national passion. Film stars tout competing racing forms, and feature races are televised daily. The evening newscast routinely ends with the weather and handicapping tips. As many as 15 million bets—all legal—have been known to ride on a single daily race.
The French devote hours to sitting in caf�s, and racing is a French passion that fits the caf� pace. With 7,000 caf� and tabac locations, France's Pari Mutuel Urbain (PMU) is the largest offtrack betting system in Europe, generating an annual handle of 35 billion francs ($6 billion). That makes PMU the seventh-largest service company in France. It draws one of every seven citizens regularly to a betting window.
The system was created in 1930 as a government-regulated consortium of 10 French racing societies. Today, PMU is a clearing house for bettors and breeders; it sets racing dates, makes odds and takes bets; and it distributes winnings through nearly 7,000 authorized outlets. PMU claims to redistribute 70% of its total handle to bettors. It retains another 5.5% for operating costs and contributes 6.3 billion francs ($1.1 billion) annually to government revenues. The remainder of the money goes "to the encouragement of horse breeding in France."
It is, without question, a wildly successful organization. And despite the image of a sleepy parieur (bettor) drifting into a caf�, filling out punch-card entries and setting down a 10-franc piece, it's technologically up-to-date. Within the last five years, PMU has spent millions to eliminate its old hand-processed system and recast itself into a high-tech organization. This new network—which uses high-speed computers, in-caf� terminals, satellite transmissions and electronic self-service installations—has increased French betting by 25% and allowed expansion into neighboring Monaco and Switzerland. PMU is currently negotiating the takeover of the ailing Belgian PMU system, and last month a French delegation was in Moscow examining the possibilities for a French-run PMU in Russia. It has also introduced cours-caf�s.
Begun four years ago, the cours-caf�s are sophisticated tele-theaters. There are about 150 of them now, concentrated mostly around Lyons and Marseilles, though a few have recently opened in Paris. These privately owned, licensed betting parlors are to the traditional caf� what a Ferrari is to the family Ford. There is an admission charge (up to 100 francs, about $17, depending on the location) and the plush decor is dominated by large-screen television sets.
"This spot is a lot cleaner, a little classier than the caf�s or the track," says a young two-cigarette Parisian (one dangles on the lip, the other behind his ear). Around him, monitors advise bettors of the current odds and results while other screens are filled with replays of a previous race. Behind the caf� bar—between making sandwiches and drinks—a white-haired barman named Pelou studies the racing form. While serving coffee, he slips a word and a coin to a friend, who proceeds to the cashier's window in the back.
Leuthold von Oertzen, director of commercial operations for PMU, says, "Our biggest day is still Sunday. That's the day that Tierc� began in 1954, and the older players are more accustomed to playing on Sunday."
In the Tierc�, a bettor has to pick the first three finishers in a feature race. The bettor wins if the three horses he has selected finish in the first three, though his winnings are much larger if the exact order is picked. Today, PMU has a daily Tierc� and divides its pool among various types of horse racing—thoroughbred, steeplechase, harness. The specific race for a Tierc� is announced the day of the race, and the betting and payoffs for the nationwide pari-mutuel are enormous. Prestigious events such as the Prix de l' Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp or Le Grand Steeplechase de Paris at Auteuil are usually given priority.