Monsieur Bruno Saint-Palais, the spokesman for the French trotting Establishment, very deliberately made the sign of the cross over his lips. Then he leaned forward and declared intensely, "We call your American trotters little goats."
This cross-my-mustache-and-hope-to-die statement is sacred dogma with most French horsemen, and when their trotting heroine Roquépine starts in next week's $100,000 International at Roosevelt Raceway, the French will be—as usual—out to get our goats. They consider their trotters superior, a race apart. Since the time of Colbert, Louis XIV's finance minister, the government has been actively and expensively engaged in purifying the breed of French horses—Thoroughbreds, trotters, saddle horses and even cart horses. A royal 1665 edict ordered the finance minister to "reestablish in the kingdom stud farms ruined by wars...to build them up in such a way that his Majesty's subjects should be no longer obliged to spend money abroad."
At that time the French Government also imported a number of English stallions, because, it was explained, French horses "had not only diminished in number but in quality due to the deterioration of the breed since the 16th century." Colbert set up state studs (21 of them are functioning now) offering breeders a choice selection of stallions of every type—Thoroughbred, trotter, half-bred, Arab, Percheron, etc. By 1668 a royal commission was deciding which animals could be bred and which stallions should be castrated, at their owners' expense, because they were not of sufficient quality. Even now, 300 years later, this rigid selection process continues. A team of three men—a veterinarian, a member of the Ministry of Agriculture and a representative of the breeders' organization—must pass on a horse's conformation, quality and lineage before he can be used as a stallion. Last year some 25 trotters were barred from stud service. If the owner decides to mate such a horse anyway, the offspring will be classed as "meat" and will be unable to compete at recognized tracks.
The trotter that the French government works so hard to propagate is a tall, well-boned, robust animal. From time to time, to give these horses "nervous influx," trotting mares are crossed with Thoroughbreds, but never, never nowadays with foreign trotting stock. Until 30 years ago American trotters were accepted in the French stud book—Roquépine has a Yankee strain—but by 1938 the Norman horsemen who rule French trotting had decided that U.S. stallions were hurting the French strain. (There is a counterargument that what the Americans were probably hurting was not the breed so much as the Normans' pride and pocketbooks. American horses had won the Prix d'Amérique, France's premier trotting event, five of eight times between 1931 and 1938. There are now only three races in France in which étrangers can compete. "We only want our horses to race with the best foreign horses," Saint-Palais explains.)
Whatever the actual reasons for France's equine apartheid policy, there is something unique and praiseworthy in her concern for her bloodstock. The government spends $4.4 million annually on its state studs; in 1967, $200,000 went just on the purchase of trotting stallions. That old cliché, "for the improvement of the breed," can probably only be legitimately used in France. "It is a tradition with us," Saint-Palais says. "For three centuries the important thing has been the pleasure of producing a good breed."
The well-bred flavor of French trotting is reflected in the magnificent estate of Grosbois, 11 miles southeast of Paris, where the country's best Standard-breds are trained. The horses are exercised on paths cut through forests where Louis XIII, Napoleon, Fouché and Talleyrand hunted boar and stags. In a swale in the parkland below the 16th century ch√¢teau lie the stables, meticulously built and cared for. Each trainer has a private yard with a house for his family, apartments for his stablemen and 30 stalls for his stock. There are 30 of these establishments in identical neo-Norman style architecture.
The Société d'Encouragement à l'Élevage du Cheval Fran√ßais, the organization that administers French trotting, bought Grosbois in 1962 for around $2 million. The stable complexes cost $200,000 apiece to construct and are leased by the Société to outstanding trainers for $7,000 a year. There is also a swimming pool, a cinema and a racetrack kitchen that has a selection of fine wines and brandies. There are greenhouses to keep the wives of the horsemen supplied with flowers and even the windows of the grooms' quarters are hung with starched eyelet curtains.
It is in this genteel setting that Henri Levesque, the owner and trainer of the champion Roquépine and France's most successful harness horseman, lives and works. A ruddy square-faced man of 61, he is a savvy, self-made Norman and an enigma to French racing society.
Levesque was once a beef farmer in Beuzeville la-Bastille, a village four miles from Utah Beach. In 1947 he decided to give up his cattle and make his fortune with trotters. He was 40 years old, and his experience with horses had been limited to driving in a few amateur races during the war. These had been pickup affairs held in meadows, or around the streets and square of the nearby town of Carentan.
There is a story told to explain Levesque's change of profession. One night in 1942 a gypsy in a Paris cabaret is said to have read his palm and told him he would become rich and successful training racehorses. Very probably, Levesque believed the prediction. In any case, five years later he took his life in his palms, sold some cows, gave up a tripe cannery he was operating and began buying horses. Levesque would visit the neighboring farms, picking up a foal here and a yearling there. He would buy one for $500 down and $500 if the animal won, and barter for another, offering four or five cows. Levesque is a shrewd judge—"he smells a good horse with his nose," Saint-Palais says. But he also is careful to buy trotters with good bloodlines. "I was the first one to be exacting in choosing horses by their lineage," he says. "The success of the majority of Thoroughbred studs is based on the quality of their bloodlines. I thought this ought also to be true of the trotter, but no one else did."
At first Levesque did not attempt to train his own animals, sending them instead to experienced horsemen. But he stayed close to his stock, asked questions and learned the professional methods. In 1951 he himself began to train ("Trainers were too expensive"), and the next year he finished the season as France's ninth-leading trainer, with 47 victories.
This early success was attributed primarily to luck, but Levesque's horses continued to win. He has owned and developed four French trotting champions since 1956. He usually buys about 50 young horses each year, tries them as 2-year-olds and discards maybe 40 of them. Of the 10 that are left, seven may be what Levesque considers "useful," two of better quality and one of potential world class. These choice horses he sends back to Normandy "to be put in the cupboard" until they are 3-year-olds. Levesque does not believe in racing his horses at 2. He says, "I force myself to be patient. I try not to hasten the growth of my stock. The beef that we allow to mature tranquilly always produce much better meat than the ones we force. Similarly, in racehorses, the ones that are allowed to grow patiently are of superior quality."
It is this stockman's sense that is at the base of Levesque's success. But there has to be something more. "It is the horse bone in his head," says a Norman friend.
Old trotting owners who have been around for generations admit that Levesque is a phenomenon, but admit it begrudgingly. "Il n'a pas d'origines," points out one member of the sport's aristocracy. Perhaps because he is still something of an outsider, there remains in Levesque a suspicion and reticence with strangers. He can be a bluffly cordial and debonair host, meeting midday visitors to his stables at Grosbois in a midnight-blue silk suit. A silver ice bucket of champagne will be waiting in the living room, which is decorated with flowers, antiques, velvets and a remarkable tapestry carpet depicting the Judgment of Solomon. But if Levesque's horoscope in that day's France-Soir warns him of a difficult meeting or a troublesome afternoon, he will be blandly uncooperative and deaf to all questions. He is hard of hearing, but close friends remark that the degree of his deafness depends on what is being said. And when Levesque's horoscope tells him to "discuss your problems frankly," he will be open and entertaining.
He will tell, for example, about how he got this tapestry of Solomon. A number of years ago he was in Hamburg in the home of a leading German horseman, Kurt H√∂rmann. He told H√∂rmann he had a 3-year-old filly named Masina that had never raced, and he would like to swap her for the carpet and two African swords that were hanging on the wall. H√∂rmann looked up Masina's breeding in the stud book and declined the offer. The filly ended up winning the Prix d'Amérique and $314,272 for Levesque. Four years ago Levesque was back in Hamburg and back in H√∂rmann's house. Again he made an offer. He would sell the German a fine mare he had who had already won $50,000. The price: $24,000 and the tapestry. H√∂rmann agreed. Levesque got the carpet and H√∂rmann the horse, which has not won a race since.
There are other tales of how Levesque succeeded without really trying. There was the time his car broke down at the gate of a farmer. Levesque went to the house for help and came away buying the dam of Masina. A few years later Levesque sold a horse called Oscar R L to an Italian, but Oscar got sick after leaving France; Levesque took him back and earned $408,609 racing him. Another time Levesque bought two young mares, full sisters. A. friend wanted one of them for his stud. Levesque told him to take his choice. The man picked. Levesque was left with the dam of Roquépine. Finally, there is the story of Upsalin, who is the best 4-year-old trotter now competing in France. His dam was well-bred but undistinguished as a racing mare. Levesque gave her to a friend who thought he had made a good deal when he sold her for $2,000. When Levesque heard about the sale, he was upset. He tried to buy the mare back for $2,000, then $4,000, but the new owner would not sell. Levesque then offered to buy the mare's first foal, dead or alive, no matter what its sire, for $2,000. The deal was made, and the offspring was Upsalin.
It may be luck, but not dumb luck, that has given Levesque his preeminent position in French trotting. He has won every major race, including four of the last eight Prix d'Amériques. Many of these winners he drove himself. It is economical; he does not have to pay a driver or share the purse.
In spite of all his victories, Levesque still savors each success. There was one celebration at Vincennes when he and his friends drank 62 magnums of champagne in the racetrack cellar. His annual champagne bill there is around $2,000. After winning, he has been known to dance on tabletops, singing Maurice Chevalier songs.
Since Roquépine came along, Levesque had been dancing throughout Europe. She has won in Stockholm, Copenhagen, Turin, Milan, Munich, Hamburg and Naples—38 races and $762,247. Only one trotter, Su Mac Lad ($885,095), has earned more. Now 7, Roquépine has won three Prix d'Amériques—hergreat-granddam, Uranie, a champion in the '20s, is the only other horse to take the classic three times. Levesque's mare is a fine quality bay with amazing muscular strength. She inherits her powerful gait from her sire, Atus II, a "mounted" trotter. In France some Standardbreds are ridden, not driven, and often these horses make superior stallions. Roquépine is another of the Amazons that French breeding has produced. The finest French trotters have been females—Uranie, Gélinotte, Masina, Ozó. Mares have won 15 of the 30 Prix d'Amériques that have gone to French-bred horses. Significantly, all the foreign winners of this race (there are 13) were males.
At Roosevelt, Roquépine and Levesque will meet Sweden's Kentucky Fibber, Italy's Ecumene, Germany's Simmerl, Austria's Epsom and America's Carlisle. She may not be in top form this trip, but she will still probably be good enough to have her owner up on a tabletop again. After all, she is the most famous trotter in the world, and she has only got to beat a few undistinguished foreigners and one American goat.