The language varied from Swedish to German to several shades of English, but the question was always the same: could anyone hope to beat Nevele Pride, that formidable Cadillac of American harness racing? Nevele Pride, as everyone knows, is a well-established winner, on the trail to becoming the first trotter ever to earn $1 million. He had beaten about all the best horses on this side of the Atlantic, but now he faced a special sort of challenge—a worldly field assembled at Roosevelt Raceway in New York for the 11th edition of the $100,000 International Trot. If speculation about such a meeting seemed natural, it also seemed natural that there was one man among the drivers who had no doubts about the outcome.
Jean-René Gougeon is an ebullient Frenchman with a superb nose and a well-documented winning touch with harness horses. And the mere idea of anybody prematurely picking Nevele Pride was enough to set him stamping around, shaking his head and mumbling darkly.
"Nevele Pride is the best trotter you have ever had in America," Gougeon said when he showed up at Roosevelt's special International barn. "But the main thing is, perhaps he has no opposition in the U.S. Also, he is not bred and trained for the longer distances like our horses in France." He paused and smiled. "I think we can win, or else I would not have come."
This sort of talk would not have been surprising had Gougeon returned with Roquépine, often called the queen of French trotting, the horse he had driven when she won her second straight International victory last year. But Roquepine has retired and Gougeon's mare last week was a big, muscular 5-year-old newcomer named Une de Mai (One of May). Owned by Meat Packer Count Pierre de Montesson of Boucé, Normandy, Une de Mai had been trotting up a storm at tracks around France and Italy but was still an unknown factor in this country. The significant thing seemed to be that, while the International's mile and a quarter is considered a bit long for American trotters, most of Une de Mai's races had been at least a mile and a sixteenth—including a victory over Roquépine last June 6 at the Enghien course in France.
"I think Une de Mai may trot better than Roquépine," Gougeon told a skeptical American press. "She has more speed, she can leave faster. Now it will be interesting to compare Une de Mai with Nevele Pride."
The race originally had been scheduled a week earlier but was set back when three of the European trotters—Une de Mai and her French partner, Thetis IV, and Agaunar of Italy—were stranded in Europe because of an airlines strike. All the drivers were concerned that their horses might lose some sharpness, and for Stanley Dancer, the quiet, 42-year-old millionaire who trains and drives Nevele Pride, there was still another concern. All year long Dancer has aimed at two important goals before Nevele Pride is retired to stud late this fall by a syndicate that bought him for $3.2 million. First goal, and the most important to Dancer, is breaking Greyhound's world mile record of 1:55¼ set in 1938. The other is having the first trotter—and only the second harness horse, the other being Dancer's Cardigan Bay—ever to win a million dollars. The idle weekend cost Nevele Pride at least $40,000 in purse money, according to Dancer's estimate—not to mention a rare chance to break Greyhound's record on the fast mile track at DuQuoin, Ill. this week. "Now," said Dancer, "we will have to go for the record at one of the other mile tracks out there—either Indianapolis or Lexington."
The postponement also had its international incident: West Germany's True Friend—not an apt name under the circumstances—leaned over and nipped Mrs. Matilde Lonnqvist, the wife of one of the owners of Sweden's entry, Kentucky Fibber. But these things happen; stitches were taken and relations were mended.
Despite the problems, when the eight International starters were lined up last Saturday night, only one of the original field was missing—the Italian, Agaunar, who had been scratched after what his owner deemed a miserable tune-up race in Montecatini. As a replacement, Roosevelt officials tried to get New Zealand's Markalan but, learning that the horse was still recovering from an illness, they settled for an American fossil, the 9-year-old gelding Earl Laird, driven by Jimmy Cruise.
Shortly before race time, Dancer took a long look at Une de Mai.
"She's a nice-looking mare," he said. "But my horse is in fine shape, real good. He's the best horse I've ever had, better than Su Mac Lad. The record speaks for itself. I don't know much about these other trotters, but I do know that nobody in this country has done what Nevele Pride has done."
And up in the crowd of 39,212 spectators, Alex Ignatieff, a racing writer for the French magazine Week-End and one of Gougeon's closest friends, watched Dancer guide his colt out on the track. Ignatieff had come to the U.S. early to scout Pride's victory in the mile-and-a-quarter American Trotting Championship, a $50,000 race that had boosted the colt's career bankroll to $829,488. The final margin had been four lengths, but Ignatieff had not been overwhelmed.
"Nobody attacked Nevele Pride. They were afraid of him," Ignatieff said. "It will be quite different now because the European horses will not let him make his own race. He will be attacked. In Europe, and in France in particular, a race is a fight, every meter. And remember, Gougeon is much more aggressive than the average American driver."
Moments later, the mobile starting gate had barely been drawn aside when Dancer, to nobody's surprise, quickly maneuvered Nevele Pride from his No. 7 post position into the lead. Then, as the horses passed the quarter pole in a brisk 30 seconds, the terms of the race were set: Nevele Pride was on the lead, where he likes to be; Canadian champion Fresh Yankee was tucked right behind and Une de Mai was way out there in the middle of the track—where a horse usually tires quicker because of having to trot farther.
But Gougeon had his reasons. "I wasn't going to take her back and go into third," he was to explain, "because then Stanley Dancer would have been able to take back—and I didn't want him to do that. I wanted to keep the pressure on him, so I decided to stay up with Dancer on the outside."
Beat Nevele Pride by racing the entire distance on the outside? Preposterous, of course, and a great many American partisans clutched their programs and waited for Une de Mai to sputter, gasp and fall back into downtown Westbury. What they saw, instead, was Une de Mai, easily identifiable with a light blue cowl on her head, forcing the issue. Four times during the race Dancer tried to coast a little and—as he said later—"each time she came at me." Nevele Pride was trotting just fast enough—a minute for a half, 1:30.3 for three quarters and 2:01.3 for the mile—to burn up the kick he always has at the end.
As they headed into the final quarter, Dancer was chirping to his colt and then, turning for home, he pulled all stops and began to sting Nevele Pride's glistening hide with the whip. "But he was tired," said Dancer, "and he didn't want to go. I knew I was in trouble, but I thought the mare on the outside was in trouble, too."
She almost was. But "after the turn," said Gougeon, "when I got into her again and came back, I knew I was the winner."
Through the last few painful yards Dancer was bouncing around in his sulky, belting Nevele Pride with the whip as best he could, all to no avail. While a roar of surprise rolled through the crowd, Une de Mai swept past and won, with room to spare, by 1¾ lengths, in the time of 2:33.2. Another tired mare, Fresh Yankee, hung on to get third.
"She was tough," Dancer said after leading Nevele Pride back to the paddock. "I didn't think that mare would hang on the outside and beat me."
How did it happen? Why did possibly the best trotter America has ever produced lose by such a margin to a good, if not yet great, French mare?
"Nevele Pride went a helluva race," said Joe O'Brien, who had driven Fresh Yankee, "but that mare is used to long distances. That's the way they breed them and train them over there. That's the difference. That is as tough a mare as I've ever seen."
"This was more than just a race of two horses," Gougeon said. "This was the French technique against the American. It's a question of breeding and training."
To be fair, the result of the International did not prove that one technique was better than the other; it only served to underscore the differences. On this particular night Une de Mai was the living ideal of what the French think a trotter should be: muscular, durable, mature, able to trot great distances without working up a sweat. On another night, another distance—or if heat races had been involved—Nevele Pride would have shown the advantages of a smaller, speedier, younger trotter.
The French have now won three Internationals in a row. Gougeon was so delighted that he threw flowers from his victory garland over the fence to the crowd, and then he looked at his mare. "I would like to jump out of the sulky," he said, "and kiss her on both cheeks." It would have been a fine French gesture, at that.
Gougeon plans to race Une de Mai once more at Roosevelt, in the Challenge Cup over a mile and a half. But there seemed no prospect of revenge for Nevele Pride. "No, I don't think so," said Dancer. "I don't want to race him that far if he's not ready. So I'm going to take him back to the farm and let him get over this one."