Among the indoor pleasures available to the frostbitten people of Paris last week was a French film called Lucky Luke. It deals with a cowboy hero and his scrapes with a most unusual Dalton Gang consisting of four brothers: Joe, William, Jack and, yep, Averell. One day Joe, the smallest and meanest Dalton, bellies up to a bar in a Western town and growls for whiskey. He takes a swallow and, as a look of contentment spreads over his ugly mug, he utters words heard nowhere on earth but in the French Far West: "Pas mal." At this, a couple of Americans munching Esquimaux Pies in an uptown Paris theater were convulsed with laughter, although a French friend couldn't see anything funny about it.
Parisians were equally serious about another kind of horse opera in their town last week, and there they were more at home. This was the $140,000 Prix d'Amérique—the biggest trotting race in Europe and, to Frenchmen, in the world.
The racetrack at Vincennes, on the eastern side of the city, is unique, with enough dips and accents to make an American trotter seasick. The French way of looking at horses is something special, too. Horses are discussed not merely as animals with a certain form and breeding but as individuals with subtle human qualities. This year the talk was heated, for the Prix d'Amérique promised to be a duel between the best and richest pair of trotters in Europe. One, Tidalium Pélo, is a 9-year-old stallion; the other, Une de Mai, an 8-year-old mare. In Paris you just don't refer to these beloved old folks as the Three Horse and the Nine Horse, New York style. A certain refinement, a sweet concern, is indicated.
So it was fitting that in his final story in Le Journal du Dimanche the morning of the race, Newsman Maurice Bernardet confessed to a "grande perplexité." It seems that Bernardet's heart went out to Une de Mai because she had won $1.44 million and just about all the world's great races (including two U.S. Internationals), but she had failed to win the hometown classic. But Bernardet's pick in the Prix d'Amérique was Tidalium Pélo, the defending champion and winner of $743,250. Tidalium was at the "apogée" of his form. He also had a better post position, No. 3, in the nine-horse field; Une de Mai had drawn the extreme outside. A starting gate would be used, a novelty at Vincennes where walk-up starts are traditional, and this made post positions considerably more important than usual.
February 14, 1972
At Grosbois, the lush training establishment near Paris, the drivers of the superhorses had glowing words to say about them. Jean Mary, Tidalium's man, is short and blocky with a Dick Tracy jaw and smiling eyes. Showing off Tidalium—a tall horse, entirely black except for a small star on the forehead, calm and glistening—Mary said, "Here he looks like a 50-year-old man, but on the track he has the spirit of a 20-year-old." As Mary's wife Chantal served brandied coffee against the morning's chill, he thought a moment and then tried to put into words the depth of his affection: "This horse is un seigneur. He is a lord."
And what of Une de Mai? Down the way at his compound, Jean-René Gougeon, the man who makes the mare go, spoke of her vivacity, her frolicsome nature. And, indeed, in her stall the leggy chestnut made a move as if to bite the hand that patted her. Gougeon, who had color in his cheeks from working horses that icy morning, sipped Scotch neat and spoke of his "little miss" and the hope in his heart that she would win the Prix at last.
Waxing eloquent for the newspaper France-Soir, Gougeon "in a tender voice" saluted Une de Mai's fidélité and douceur. He recalled that he had driven Roquépine, the champion mare of another generation. Roquépine, he said, was like a grande coquette, fiery, explosive. "In sum," he went on, "in the two we have Mademoiselle de la Valli√®re and Madame de Montespan." For horseplayers who might be confused, both these ladies were mistresses of Louis XIV.
On race day it snowed through the morning and into early afternoon, giving the track a Christmasy look and the 30,000 spectators cold feet. Refuge in the second-best restaurant at the track (No. 1 had been booked for weeks) proved to be pleasant but expensive. "If I could eat at only one restaurant in Paris and had a purseful of money," the author of a famous cookbook had said, "it would be Lasserre." Tip to travelers: Vincennes is no Lasserre, but take a purseful, anyway. At, shall we say, Avis, the track's No. 2 dining room, the curried chicken with wine cost $20 a head. Le bon Dieu knows what the bill would have been at Hertz. By post time the snow had stopped, harrows had dragged the track, and its normal cinder color returned. Vincennes' single concession to pomp was to parade the starters in front of the stands. One could see where they would race but, without something like the telescope of Mt. Palomar, not very clearly. The course began near Reims or thereabouts and rose on a line perpendicular to the stands, swung left and down past the stands, then headed in the direction of Strasbourg, curved, went uphill along the backstretch, turned again and rejoined the route past the stands. The distance was said to be the traditional 2,600 meters (a little over 1½ miles), but to eyes accustomed to bandbox U.S. raceways, it seemed twice that. All the starters were French except for one—Italian-owned, American-bred, Keystone Spartan, who had an early moment on the lead but faltered and eventually finished last.
It was nice of Jean Mary to put white bandages on Tidalium Pélo's forelegs because they made him visible to the naked, straining eye. He trotted easily behind the leaders down around the "clubhouse" turn and up the backstretch. Une de Mai was being saved for the final effort and was racing in midfield.
Suddenly, in the last turn, Gougeon and Une de Mai were hit with a perplexity grander than anything in Maurice Bernardet's lexicon. From the stands all that could be seen was Tidalium shooting ahead as if from a cannon, while Une de Mai and a horse named Vismie took back as if they had been gunned down by Les Daltons. Tidalium went on to win by four lengths, the mare finishing seventh.
As Gougeon jogged Une de Mai back up the stretch the spectators booed him, not knowing that in the fatal turn Vismie, trotting on the rail in the lead with Une de Mai just behind and a bit outside, had gone into a break. When Driver Fran√ßois Balli√®re pulled back to settle down Vismie, she swerved to the right. Gougeon reined in Une de Mai sharply to avoid hooking wheels with Vismie's sulky, and that was that. Tidalium Pélo, scot-free on the outside, laughed it home. The champion mare had missed the big one once again.
Mary wore a huge grin as they draped a tricolor blanket over his horse, while spectators cheered "Tee-dal-yum-Tee-dal-yum."
In the drivers' room Gougeon sadly ran a hand through his thinning gray hair and said, "Je suis désolé." A sentimental American was feeling a little desolate, too, but was consoled by the thought that he probably would see Une de Mai once more in the International at New York's Roosevelt Raceway come July. And if the track restaurant there charges $20 for corned beef and cabbage, he'll eat his hat instead.