The Prix d'Amérique may be the prize of America, but it is not—if the French can prevent it by hook, crook or the rules in some book—a prize for America. National honor demands victory for France, and a French win in this trotting race is synonymous with an American loss. Two strains of Standard-bred blood dominate international harness racing. One is American, the other French, and the Louvre may fall into the Seine before the chauvinistic men of Gaul will allow the breeds to mix.
When the field for the Prix d'Amérique trotted to the start at Vincennes last Sunday, the six étrangers were all American-bred, although only one, Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence Sheppard"s Elma, was American-owned. The other expatriates were Italy's Nike Hanover, Elaine Rodney and Behave, Germany's Torrid Song and Russia's Apex Hanover. Seven kilometers down the highway from Vincennes another Italian-American, Fire-star, was left nibbling hay in a tin-roofed barn because the Société du Cheval Fran√ßais decided that six American-breds were enough for 12 French trotters to handle. Firestar's owner had paid his stallion's entry fee, $200, and had spent some $2,000 shipping the horse to Paris, but the commissar of French trotting has, according to the country's rules, "the right to fix the number of entries of any nationality" in an international race, and he fixed Firestar right out of the Prix d'Amérique.
A group of wealthy Norman farmers control French trotting, and they do not welcome strangers who might swipe their golden eggs. As Roger Nataf, news editor of Paris-Turf, explains, "If they must shake hands with a foreigner, it is with the tips of their fingers. I am French, but I am obliged to say that these French are not very sporting. They are horse traders, these Normans, and are interested in buying and selling. They like to limit the market to the goods they trade in, and that is why, years ago, they passed a law barring foreign horses from regularly competing here and outlawing the use of any but French blood in our studs." The rule was passed after American-bred horses had trotted off with five of the preceding seven Prix d'Amériques.
Trotting is, as one Frenchman has put it, "like the discotheque, coming on and on and on." If the number of starters were not limited there would be 100 entries in almost every race at Vincennes. And there is enough money stashed away at the Société du Cheval Fran√ßais office on the Rue d'Astorg to increase purses by hundreds of thousands of dollars. There is, however, no need to do this, as the track already offers more in purses than any track in Europe and rivals Roosevelt and Yonkers Raceways. Every existing tierce record has been made on a trotting race, and this year's Prix d'Amérique set a new high in tierce wagering—$12.2 million.
Not only is harness racing flourishing in France, its growth has been completely unforced. There is no such thing as press-agentry. Nike Hanover ate his artichokes last week unmolested by popping flash bulbs. The 1-mile dipsy-doodle cinder track is a natural course. As a horseplaying waiter in a Champs-Elysées café said: "It goes up and down and breaks a horse's legs." Another Parisian curled the end of his strawberry-blond mustache and advised, "If you bet on the Prix d'Amérique, back Ozo, the French mare. It's going to rain and you want a plodder, not a fast horse. A fast horse gets halfway around, his legs start to ache and he throws it up."
The hill on the far turn at Vincennes has slowed many horses, and the French expect it to stop any animal with a trace of American blood. Should it not, a driver may be subjected to a little whipmanship. American horsemen, not without reason, fear the wide-ranging tassel on the tip of a French whip but, as Elma's driver, John Simpson, remarked: "What can you do, carry a gun?" Hans Fromming, the successful German who drives Ozo, was less concerned. Before the race he said quietly: "I have driven all over the world and it is best just to adjust your tactics to those of the country you are in."
This year, for the first time, the winners of previous Prix d'Amérique were not handicapped 25 or 50 meters behind the field, and, also for the first time, the start was from an American-style gate. The Italians were dubious of both changes. Said Gerhard Kruger, driver of Elaine Rodney, "The French do not want you to win. Last year they had long faces and were very unhappy when Elaine won the Prix de France. The association changed the handicap rule because Ozo could not win last year with the 25-meter handicap she had for winning the 1963 Prix d'Amérique."
If the Italians were leery of the French, the Russians were more so. Ever since they purchased Apex Hanover from American Roy Cleveland for seven Russian horses and as much caviar and cut glass as he could carry home from Moscow, 29-year-old Maria Bourdova has groomed and driven Apex. "The horse," explains Yevgeny Dolmatov, director of the Moscow Hippodrome, "has been much more satisfactory in Russia than in the United States. He has won six races at distances up to two miles." The Russians expected Apex to perform well in the mile-and-‚Öùths Prix d'Amérique but in Paris they learned that a woman could not drive at Vincennes. "La gracieuse Maria Bourdova est triste," Paris-Turf reported. Maria was more than triste. "I thought French women had been liberated," she said.
As for the American mare, Owner Lawrence Sheppard summed up Elma's trip to Paris best: "Win or lose, it's all kind of an adventure. I'd like to win an international race like that some day, maybe with Ayres or some other horse. We wanted to see how Europeans did things, what you have to do to win a race like that. We've found that going one mile on their tracks is like going two on ours." Elma was shipped to France the last week in November, but Trainer Simpson now realizes an American horse needs five or six months of conditioning in Europe to perform creditably under such unfamiliar circumstances. The courses are rough and deep, not at all like the billiard-table tracks of the U.S. Furthermore, American horses are not used to racing in the cold, wet weather that hangs over Paris in January.
The Monday preceding the Prix d'Amérique, Simpson put Elma through a stiff work. Twice he took her around the track at Vincennes, and three times he made her climb the long hill. "She would have called me names if she could talk," he said afterward. "Either I've dulled her, or she'll have a better set of legs under her."
Simpson himself had no legs at all in Paris—at least not for sightseeing and shopping. He joined in. the spirit of his surroundings by taking up Gaulois cigarettes, naughty jokes and sea urchins, and there was a time One afternoon when he was tempted by a young French girl's suggestion that he should swap his rimless glasses for horn-rimmed ones because he would look 10 years younger. Simpson tried to squirm out of shopping by saying, "If I bring my wife home too much, she'll think I'm apologizing for something. She'll be suspicious." He finally decided he would buy perfume, and he drove to the marbled, tapestried, chan-deliered splendor of Guerlain. With a Rogers Peet Stetson in hand, he moved restlessly about on the thick carpets until his package was wrapped, and he dashed quickly back to his Peugeot. "I wish I hadn't talked to home today," he reflected. "My son says the colts are going good in Florida and I want to get back to Orlando to see them." He was reminded there were only a few days to go before he would be home. "Oh, no," he said, "there's Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday."
Well, Sunday finally came for John Simpson, and for the Italians, Germans, Russians and French. And of all the experts, the mustached Parisian was exactly right. It rained, and Ozo won. She had to come from behind, but she overpowered Elaine Rodney in the stretch with her long stride. Elma was blocked by tiring horses coming up the hill, though she closed well to finish seventh after shuffling through the field. The Tricolor of France was placed over Ozo's withers, and Johnny Simpson went home to his colts in Florida. He may be back next year with Ayres, and he may look nine years younger. At the last minute he bought the hornrimmed glasses.