At about 7:30 p.m. last Saturday, Jean-Rene Gougeon, the preeminent French harness racing driver, was standing in the paddock at New York's Roosevelt Raceway. Gougeon, known in France as "Le Pape" because he supposedly resembles Pope Paul, would soon be driving Une de Mai, the millionaire mare, against eight of the world's best trotters in the $125,000 International Trot, but now he was more concerned with cleaning off his driving goggles. A late-afternoon rain had left a slick coating of mud on the track's artificial surface. In warmups Gougeon's goggles had been splattered, as had his white driving helmet and the front of his pale blue silks.
"Bah," said Gougeon good-naturedly to an American bystander. "Sloppy."
The American nodded, and through an interpreter asked about Une de Mai, the big copper-colored 7-year-old whose earnings going into the International were $1,238,355—a world record for a harness horse.
"Ah," said the 43-year-old Gougeon, smiling as he wiped his goggles, breathed on them again and wiped some more. "My horse has never been better than she is right now. Formidable."
That should have been clue enough. While Gougeon is self-assured, he does not bluff. American fans learned this in 1969 when he brought Une de Mai to Roosevelt to face America's vaunted Nevele Pride in the International. "I think my mare will win," Gougeon said then to an amused and unbelieving American press. And win she did, the hard way, by racing outside for the entire mile and a quarter.
This time Une de Mai's main competition was not Nevele Pride, long since retired to stud, but another mare—Canada's Fresh Yankee. Fresh Yankee had won last year's International (Une de Mai finished a disappointing fourth on that occasion), and going into Saturday night's race her career earnings were $976,780—more than any trotter in North America and third (behind Une de Mai and the retired New Zealand pacer Cardigan Bay) on harness racing's alltime list. Her trainer-driver, Joe O'Brien, 54, is just as reticent as Gougeon is ebullient, and Joe was in a typically unchatty mood as he stood in the paddock barn, his arms crossed and an enigmatic smile on his lips.
Q: "How's your mare?"
A: "She's all right."
Q: "How do you think you'll do?"
A: "As well as I can."
Perhaps neither Gougeon nor O'Brien quite expected what was to come—the closest, most exciting finish in the International's 13-year history. Before a screaming crowd of 39,247 Gougeon and Une de Mai rushed up on the far outside to beat O'Brien and Fresh Yankee by a nostril in the final stride. "I thought I had won, but I wasn't sure," said Gougeon through his interpreter. "I asked O'Brien after we crossed the finish line and he didn't know, either."
For a race that turned out so beautifully, this year's International had more than its share of troubles. The owners of Barbablu, the Italian champion, declined to come because they felt they could make more money racing in Europe. Harper Arrow, a fine Swedish horse who had finished ahead of Une de Mai in one heat of the Elitlopp on May 31 at Stockholm, injured his right front leg and had to undergo an operation. Vaisonnais D., a French horse who was to represent Monaco, had his invitation withdrawn after a blood test revealed the presence of piroplasmosis, a highly infectious disease more commonly known as swamp fever. And then the owners of Henri Buitenzorg, a trotter from The Netherlands, declined an invitation for fear of exposing their horse to the VEE epidemic in America (SI, Aug. 16).
As unsettling as this list of dropouts was, the track officials and their European agent, French journalist Alex Ignatieff, managed to compensate. In short order Italy's Agaunar, West Germany's Ginster, America's Dayan and New Zealand's Stylish Major were recruited to fill the vacancies. But a serious crisis remained, and it involved the French. In mid-July the government barred North and South American horses from entering France because of the VEE epidemic. It also declared that French horses competing in America would have to stay in quarantine for 60 days when they returned. An enforced 60-day vacation was unthinkable to Gougeon and Jean Mary, the trainer-driver of Tidalium Pelo, because their horses already were scheduled to race in several lucrative European stakes this fall. Unless their animals got an exemption from that long quarantine, the horsemen said, they could not afford to take them to the International.
For the next three weeks Alex Ignatieff tried to work out something with the French government, but to no avail. "It was delay, delay, delay," he said, frowning as he recalled his bouts with bureaucracy. As of the morning of Aug. 10 the French horses still had not received their exemption, and Roosevelt was on the brink of scratching the International. In Paris, Ignatieff had been getting nowhere—the government's chief veterinarian was on vacation—but fortunately he found an assistant veterinarian who was also an old friend, Dr. Alexander Karpoucko. Ignatieff agreed to a compromise that would require Gougeon and Mary to keep their horses in quarantine for 10 days, and Karpoucko signed the exemption. "If I had not met him," says Ignatieff, "we would have had no chance because there was no one else there with authority to sign the papers."
With horses duly present, the rain had stopped by the time the International went off. The track was rated good, although it was still so sticky that all the drivers were splattered with mud from head to toe. The horses were spotlighted, introduced, serenaded with It's a Small World and, of course, bet upon, and the race got underway.
Almost as soon as the mobile starting gate moved, America's Dart Hanover broke for the lead. At the quarter he was in command, followed by Fresh Yankee and Crain Hanover, both Canadians. Tidalium Pelo was fourth, followed on the outside by Une de Mai, who had started from the No. 8 post.
By the half mile Crain Hanover had fallen back to fourth. "He's a game horse, but he was in over his head," said Herve Filion, his trainer-driver—but Dart Hanover still held onto first place with Fresh Yankee in tight on the rail behind him, saving ground. Now Tidalium Pelo, on the outside and followed by Une de Mai, moved up to second.
As the field went into the final turn of the 1-mile race, Tidalium Pelo faltered and appeared ready to break stride, so Gougeon deftly took Une de Mai three wide to the outside. In the stretch. Dart Hanover still led, but the sagging Tidalium Pelo fell back, opening a hole between himself and Dart Hanover, and O'Brien quickly moved Fresh Yankee through and into the clear. "I wanted to move at the beginning of that last turn," said O'Brien, "but I couldn't get my bike through. Tidalium Pelo was bearing in just enough to keep his wheel in front of mine."
Meanwhile, on the far outside, Gougeon's vision of Fresh Yankee was blocked by the hulking black form of Tidalium. "Suddenly I saw Fresh Yankee's head shoot out," said Gougeon, "so I took off after her."
With O'Brien whipping, cajoling and jiggling for all he was worth, Fresh Yankee slipped past the faltering Dart Hanover late in the stretch, and looked like a winner only yards from the finish, but Une de Mai blurred past her in the last split second. "Juste au poteau (right at the wire)," exulted Gougeon later. Once again he had kept Une de Mai on the outside the entire race—a tactic that is anathema in America—and once again he had won the International.
The loss was not complete disaster for Fresh Yankee. Her second-place money of $31,250 made her the sport's third millionaire. The first, Une de Mai, increased her bankroll by $62,500, which is a lot of francs even in today's money market.
Gougeon already is talking about coming to next year's International with Vanina B., a 6-year-old mare who is said to be next in line to Une de Mai as the latter was the successor to Roquepine. This is assuming, of course, that Une de Mai will be retired by next year, and that may be assuming too much. French horses and drivers, like some wines, seem to improve with age.