This is a French mystery story. It is about a horse, a trainer, a blonde and a loaded lump of sugar.
Since it is a French story, let's begin with the blonde. She is Suzy Volterra, one of France's most celebrated race-horse owners. Suzy is a charming sportswoman, an elegant widow who whirls high in Paris society, sipping champagne, flashing mink.
The trainer is Fran√ßois Mathet, 51, cold, reserved, proud and phenomenally successful. He was educated at Saumur, an old guard French cavalry school which still considers the use of tanks in warfare uncouth. Mathet spent several years in the army, then resigned to become a fulltime amateur rider. In 1945, Mathet turned trainer, opening his first modest stable in Chantilly.
In a tough, tight little world whose boundaries are stables and forest paths used for early-morning gallops, Mathet's name soon became a byword for backbreaking effort and efficiency. He drilled his lads and staff as he himself had been drilled at Saumur. Refusing horses which he regarded as inferior, keeping aloof from other trainers, Mathet slowly acquired a tremendous reputation. Today many men envy him; some hate him. He ignores them all.
August 2, 1959
The horse in the mystery is Vamour, a 3-year-old colt, owned by Suzy Volterra, trained by Mathet. Vamour was a solid favorite to win the Prix Noailles last May, but he ran a sluggish race and finished eighth. As the race ended, Mathet hurled his crop to the ground. He ordered chemical tests taken on the horse. The results revealed traces of barbiturate, indicating that Vamour had been doped, probably by being fed a doctored lump of sugar. Mathet summoned the police. They uncovered no clues.
Vamour went back into training for the Grand Prix de Paris, France's richest race for 3-year-olds. Mathet entered him in two prep races, both of which he won. He looked so spectacular in workouts before the big race that he was made favorite.
Vamour finished seventh. His jockey complained that the horse had been listless. Again chemical tests were taken, this time by both a vet and the police. The vet found traces of barbiturate. The police found nothing, but this might be explained by the fact that the samples were allowed to lie around for four days before being analyzed. Again police uncovered no clues.
The Vamour case has created a furor among Europe's racing fans, from Britain's Jockey Club to France's Société d'Encouragement pour l'Amélioration des Races de Chevaux. Who doped Vamour?
Some racing experts suspected a ring of gamblers or foreign bookmakers. Others thought it was the work of some embittered former employee of Mathet's. France's 85-year-old columnist Jean Trarieux, one of the best racing writers in the business, was skeptical. "If the story is true, this is something which affects the whole of French racing," he wrote. "But I have reason to believe that it is due to the special circumstances which prevail at M. Mathet's stable." Trarieux feels this abnormally proud man has been unable to explain or accept some of his own defeats except in terms of an imaginary crime. Beyond that, Trarieux explains the traces of drugs found in the horse thusly: that many trainers give their most nervous horses mild tranquilizer pills to calm them.
Whatever the truth, Suzy Volterra drew wide sympathy when she said, "The public's faith and the honor of French racing have been betrayed."