Every time in the past that the great French trotting mare Roquépine went out on the track at Long Island's Roosevelt Raceway to earn her owner a feed bag of U.S. dollars, the shortest odds on the board were that something controversial would happen:
•In the 1966 Roosevelt International she was closing fast at the finish but lost by a neck to the Canadian entry. There was some speculation that Driver Jean-René Gougeon had misjudged the finish line. He denied it.
•Last year Roquépine won the International with Owner-Trainer Henri Levesque in the sulky, but this time other drivers complained that Gougeon, driving another French horse, had blocked them out of any chance to battle for the lead.
•One week after that fuss, on a very foggy night, Roquépine finished first in the Challenge Cup but was legislated back to sixth place by the judges for side-swiping another sulky. His mare had "merely brushed" it, insisted Levesque, who felt the race should have been canceled anyway because of the two-foot visibility.
July 21, 1968
Yet, despite the hassles, there was 7-year-old Roquépine, the belle of the world's trotters, prancing around Roosevelt Raceway last Saturday night, which must be a tribute either to Franco-American amity or the lure of a $100,000 pot in the 10th annual International, the glamour race for top trotters from all over the world. And this year Roquépine took her sweet time, stayed in good position, passed Sweden's Kentucky Fibber in the stretch and won without so much as a faint echo of anybody yelling, "Stop, thief!"
Roquépine's chief opposition was not expected to come from Scandinavia, even though harness racing ranks second only to soccer there. The second choice in the betting was the United States standard-bearer, a somewhat unreliable horse named Carlisle, driven, trained and formerly co-owned by Billy Haughton.
Now, Carlisle's main trouble is shoes. He is harder on them than the elephant is on the waxed floor in that awful commercial. Up to and through Saturday night's race Carlisle had worn at least six different kinds, including what trotting people call five-eighths half-rounds, three-quarters (plastic) and three-quarters (steel), and, says Haughton, "He's won with them all." The front shoes he used in the International weighed 14 ounces, about twice as heavy as most top trotters need.
All that reshoeing was not so bad; it was Carlisle's tendency to go bare-hoofed that caused problems. He tossed shoes at least three times in races. His latest shoe-throwing episode occurred in the American Trotting Championship on June 22 at Roosevelt when, midway in the race, Haughton saw "that bare foot come up in my face." Crazy boots Carlisle had somehow lost his left front shoe but won anyway and thus qualified for the International.
"I'll be looking all over tonight to see a shoe flying," said one of Billy's stablehands the morning of the race.
For Haughton the International was just one of many races, although by far the most important, during a typically frantic week in which he raced horses at four tracks in three states. He is one of America's best and wealthiest driver-trainers and runs a huge, famous stable. Relaxing on Sunday, he took his family out in their 31-foot cabin cruiser, interrupting the outing to haul in an overturned sailboat. On Monday he loaded his wife and five kids in the boat again and sped off to the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, where the drawing was held for International post positions. Haughton and Carlisle got the third slot. Roquépine drew No. 6, not so desirable.
Lloyd Lloyds, a part owner of Carlisle and a manufacturer of ladies' coats who has had his horses under Billy's care for over nine years, was worried over his horse's past inconsistencies. "The horse is in good shape," said Lloyds. "No excuses. But the bugger just has a habit of blowing the big ones. I don't know if we've got the best horse, but we've got the best driver."
Besides Carlisle, what other trotter could challenge Roquépine? Well, probably none in the race, but publicity men at Roosevelt Raceway had a number of gimmicks going for them besides the Statue of Liberty. Princess Asya Tranfo was there from Milan to supervise the care of her Italian entry, Ecumene, foaled at the time of the Ecumenical Council. The princess claimed she could speak seven languages and communicate with horses pretty well, too. She said she liked matzoh balls, perhaps because she originally came from Russia. She said she was not impressed with titles.
These included her own and that of Baron Andor von Beess und Chrostin, the driver of the Austrian horse, who may be referred to as plainfolks Andy von Beess. Andy holds the Austrian record for victories in one year—100 exactly. He had 99 wins on about Dec. 10 of that record year but played hell getting into three figures. In the final race of the final day Andy was third in the homestretch and then the two horses ahead of him broke.
The baron's horse and the princess' horse worked out regularly, but the West German entry, an 8-year-old stallion named Simmerl, would not have anything to do with that sweaty nonsense. His driver-trainer, Rolf Luff, said he had had the best luck just walking Simmerl in the days or weeks between races. You know, stroll around a bit and air out the horse blanket.
All of the promotional nonsense could not disguise the fact that Roquépine probably was in a class by herself, a mighty mare who had won thousands and thousands of dollars at such exotic places as Stockholm, Milan and Yonkers. Although Levesque, the wise Norman horse trader, often put Roquépine through her morning workouts during the week, he chose to be a spectator with more than 40,000 others for the International, letting Gougeon take the reins.
"I have had the glory of winning with Roquépine in both the Prix d'Amérique and the Roosevelt International in the same year," said Levesque. "I now want to give Gougeon the opportunity to do the same."
Roquépine's workouts leading up to the race were sharp, although some rail-birds thought they detected a bit of lameness in the mare's left front leg. Lameness in the leg had contributed to Roquépine's two straight defeats before coming to America, but Levesque insisted she was as sound as the franc. The diathermy treatments on that left front leg were merely a precaution. "If she was not sound, I would not have brought her," he said.
The Frenchman's strategy for the race did not differ much from Haughton's. He expected and wanted Carlisle and the Canadian entr, Fresh Yankee, both with better post positions, to set the pace in the mile-and-a-quarter trot. Roquépine would contentedly follow along about third, ready to pounce at the right moment.
Instead, when the race got under way, tiny Knut Lindblom zoomed Kentucky Fibber over from the eighth post position and took possession of the rail. The Swedish horse, who has hardy American ancestors, was not to give up the lead until almost the very end. Fresh Yankee moved into second and, just as Levesque had hoped, Roquépine slipped into third.
Roquépine soon shot up to second, happy then to let Fibber pitty-pat along slowly (2:08.4 for the mile). Billy Haughton, too, was content to stay back, knowing Carlisle had plenty of oats to burn and, so far anyway, four well-fastened shoes. Ecumene of Italy, Simmerl of West Germany, Le Chant of New Zealand and Epsom of Austria might as well have left the track with the marshal's horse.
At the final turn Kentucky Fibber was still on the rail and Gougeon had Roquépine just behind and outside, like Jim Ryun ready to grind under an opponent with a devastating stretch kick. Suddenly Carlisle, easily tagging along behind Roquépine and in fine position to swing a little wide and have an unobstructed path to the finish, messed up his footwork and fell back.
Fresh Yankee, who had been fourth, moved around Carlisle and took his place in a hectic three-horse race to the wire. Or at least it was hectic until Gougeon, not worried about a thing apparently, eased ahead between the other two without bothering to use his whip. He just shook the reins vigorously and Roquépine stretched out for an easy one-length victory, becoming the first International champion to defend the title successfully. And there is no question now about Jean-René Gougeon knowing where the finish line is.
Kentucky Fibber fought off not-so-Fresh Yankee to get second money by a neck. Carlisle ended up sixth, and few spectators could understand what had gone haywire with him. Billy Haughton was a little stunned himself.
"Isn't that unbelievable?" moaned Haughton as he re-entered the paddock. "I just wanted to follow Roquépine, that's all, and that's what I was doing. I hadn't used Carlisle a step; I was just sitting with him."
Haughton explained that on the last turn crazy Carlisle, for no apparent reason except that he was not supplied with a rearview mirror, turned his head around, boring into his own side pole. Then—who knows how or why—Carlisle forgot he was in the International Trot and started to do a halfway decent imitation of a pacer. "It's unbelievable getting tangled up going that slow," said Haughton.
Roquépine was clocked in 2:38.3, a slow time with a fast field on a fast track.
"At no time was I in a hurry," said the handsome Gougeon. "I was taking my time. The pace was slow. I didn't want to go to the front, and Kentucky Fibber really didn't want to, either.
"If it goes slow and I can win, that's good. If it goes fast and I can win, that's fine, too."
For Levesque the victory was worth $50,000. (The money came in handy; before the race Levesque had to pony up $21,153 when the sheriff threatened to seize the mare for an overdue shipping bill.) Roquépine's earnings now total $821,505, the most ever for a trotting mare, and it is just as plain as the nose on De Gaulle's face that she will soon pass Su Mac Lad ($885,095) as the biggest moneybags trotter of all time.
Levesque celebrated by throwing a postrace party for 60 or so horsemen and newsmen at the Island Inn, near the raceway, but he absolutely refused to start the shindig before someone located his groom and brought him over. Thus it was not until the first hour of July 14, Bastille Day, that corks popped from the champagne. French champagne, of course.