To date, more than 250 active sites are listed among the various horse-racing publications in France. While all regions have such facilities, their distribution is highly uneven. The leaders, in descending order, are the Loire, Basse-Normandie, Aquitaine, Brittany and Provence-Cote d'Azur, followed closely by the Ile-de-France, which has nine racecourses. While these figures indicated the current activity in horse racing, they do not fully reflect the architectural history of the racecourses, since many have since been destroyed.
The beginning of the history of races in France remains unclear. The first meetings were held starting in 1669 on the plains on the outskirts of Paris in the countryside, including the Bois de Boulogne and the Achères plain. In the 1853 publication Turf, Eugene Chapu outlines the numerous motivations that would lead to the full-fledged practice of races: an enthusiasm for hunting, sporting challenges and social events. From 1776 onwards, the movements of the court in various castles on the outskirts of Paris were also critical to the development of sites such as Fontainebleau, where the Comte d'Artois raced. In the Paris region, the most decisive activity took place during the Restoration: Louis XVIII regulated racing and many institutions were created to breed thoroughbred horses. Charles X continued the measures and, against this propitious backdrop, the Amateur Racing Company was created in 1826, composed of sportsmen who gathered around to Mortemart, the Champs de Mars or the Bois de Boulogne with removable stands. Chapu reports that "from the last years of the Restoration until 1833, 1,000 or 1,100 horse owners were racing in the various racecourses in France."
The types of races varied depending on the site. The Bièvre Valley near Jouy-en-Josas was chosen in 1834 to host the first steeplechase race in Paris. Nearby, on the Porchefontaine plain and in Croix de Berny, between Versailles and Choisy-le-Roi, sport horse riding saw its true beginnings from 1838 to 1848 and on to 1881. The Champ de Mars provided an ideal setting for flat races. Here, the Horse Improvement Encouragement Society organised its first races in the 1830s.