"There is little doubt that Henri Levesque's grand French mare Roquepine is the best trotting horse in the world. In an exhausting 18-month campaign—through which she has been given no rest—she has won 26 of 37 starts in Europe and the U.S., turning back the main challengers on both continents. She may even be, as Levesque claims, "the perfect racehorse." But don't try to prove it by the drivers who chased her as she won the $100,000 Roosevelt International last weekend. Roquepine deserved to win because she is fast, strong and smooth-gaited, but there is reason to think she won largely because of the very strange way in which the race was trotted.
Roquepine rates as one of the finest horses to appear in the colorful nine-year history of the International. Last summer she would have beaten the brilliant Canadian mare Armbro Flight if her driver had not made two egregious mistakes. There were no Armbro Flights in Saturday's field, and Roquepine was expected to vindicate herself before American observers in triumphant style. But, ironically, her victory in the slowest and most controversial International ever did little for her reputation as a champion.
The race climaxed a long and painful week for Joey Goldstein, the promotional genius who is almost solely responsible for the success of the International. Joey started by engaging an extrasensory-perception practitioner named Kreskin to predict the result of the race and thus supply this year's publicity gimmick. Kreskin put on an elaborate show—but hedged at the last minute and did not make a selection. Then Goldstein played up the revenge angle by suggesting that Jean-René Gougeon, who had been deposed as the driver of Roquepine, was craving an upset of Levesque, who chose to drive his mare himself. Unfortunately, Gougeon, now handling the other French entrant, Oscar R L, was thinking of anything but revenge as he wound up aiding his countryman and, some thought, in a slightly illegal way.
To complete Joey's joyless week, it rained on International night, so the track was sloppy and the crowd disappointing. But the race was even more so, for it turned into a French-controlled nonrace that was won in a ridiculously slow 2:43 4/5 for the mile and a quarter.
August 27, 1967
"If we had done what the French did, we'd be suspended for a year," said Joe O'Brien, who finished third with Canada's Governor Armbro.
"Yes," said Sanders Russell, who was second with the other Canadian, Fresh Yankee, "but you know what we can do about it now? Nothing." Even the soft-spoken Swedish driver, Robert Westergren, had some hard thoughts. "In our country if we do something like that we are fined or suspended," he said.
What the French drivers did was throw up their biggest barrier since the Maginot Line, and this time it worked. Levesque, leaving from the rail, took the lead easily with Roquepine. Governor Armbro moved into a good position behind him on the inside, with the U.S. trotter, Perfect Freight, third. At the quarter-mile pole these unsuspecting victims were trapped when Gougeon came pounding up on the outside to draw abreast of Roquepine—and stay there. For almost a full mile the French drivers kept their horses more or less side by side, trotting easily and with agonizing slowness. O'Brien was hopelessly trapped in the pocket behind them with Governor Armbro, and anyone else who wanted to challenge the French would have had to rush around them three wide, a suicidal tactic against quality opposition on a half-mile track.
"I thought you had a perfect spot there on the rail," Russell told Joe O'Brien later. "It would have been perfect if they had been taking shots at each other in front of you." But the French were most certainly not taking any shots at each other, and Roquepine ended up unchallenged. The two U.S. horses had nothing to offer. Perfect Freight could not handle the sloppy track, and Real Speed eliminated himself by breaking stride before the start. That left the Canadians as the main contenders, but with O'Brien in trouble on the rail and Russell forced to work his way forward on the far outside, there was no chance to test the French.
Roquepine finally flashed some of her speed in the final quarter, when she pulled away from the field to defeat Fresh Yankee by three-quarters of a length. She could clearly have won by more if Levesque had whipped her at all. Oscar R L tired and wound up fifth, but not before he seemed to cut in front of O'Brien at one point.
Levesque, a handsome, gray-haired Norman who is one of Europe's leading Standard bred breeders and owners, was furious at suggestions of collusion. "Do you think I need money so much that I would come all the way over here and try to win a race that way?" he asked. "I had no plan to work with Oscar R L or set that slow pace. If someone had challenged me sooner I would have gone faster. I did not talk to Gougeon about tactics before the race. In fact, when he first moved up, I thought it was one of the American horses coming. They were supposed to have all the speed."
Few people believed that Levesque had devised any special plot to steal the International. He has been extremely sporting throughout Roquepine's fine career, meeting all comers under all conditions in many countries. It hardly seems likely that he would suddenly resort to new methods. What is more probable is that the French drivers were unaware of local rules and customs.
The betting public might have been better protected in this case if the French had been coupled as an entry—but this is not customary in international events and has never seemed necessary before. And other drivers would have been aided if someone had emphasized the rule that forbids slowing down a pace as much as Levesque did.
"In France, Levesque's entries have done this kind of thing before," said Karsten Buer, who drove Norway's Scott Protector. "Roquepine and Oscar R L worked together well when they ran one-two in the Prix d'Am√®rique this year. I should have expected it when Oscar R L started to move past me, and come out to cut him off. At least we would have had an honest pace."
"I could have set as fast a pace as necessary," said Levesque, "and my mare still would have closed fast enough to win." He undoubtedly was right. Roquepine is not in her best form now, but she is still good enough to trot much faster than she did. It is too bad she was not asked to, because she deserved more than the tarnished victory she got out of this International.