Outside New York's Roosevelt Raceway last week, a marquee encouraged passersby to see the INTERNATIONAL ROT. That wasn't actually what the people in charge had in mind, though in view of the eventual results of the 18th International Trot, Americans could agree fully with the sign's sentiment. Track management was unable to explain the case of the missing T, but said that it should be excused since it was close to being correct. "Close," of course, is what racing is all about, the racetrack being the principal forum for excuse-making about what would have been, could have been, or should have been.
Indeed, the race itself—this country's premier international trotting competition and second in importance in trotting circles only to the Hambletonian—offered plenty of excuses for everyone. Beginning with the mile-and-a-quarter distance. For the two U.S. horses, Meadow Bright and Savoir, and the Canadian entry, Snegem Flight, that was a bit long, the mile being the standard distance here. For the two French horses, the two Italian entrants and the Swedish hope, however, the distance was a trifle short. They would have preferred something on the order of a mile and 5/16ths. France's Bellino II, the big betting choice at 3 to 5, would have especially liked that distance. Bellino's idea of a really fun time would be to trot from New York to North Dakota and back.
The second French horse in the race had a less grandiose scheme for amusing himself, but most of the 33,929 fans who crammed themselves into Roosevelt on a perfect summer evening were not aware of it. In fact, most of them had never heard of Equileo, who had never run on this continent before. Too bad. For this unsung beast went off at 19 to 1, never got close to the rail—where everyone knows a horse must trot to win—was ignored by the track announcer as he was back in fourth and fifth for most of the way, and at the finish was, of course, first. That ended a stretch of four straight International wins by American horses.
All of which was way too much for Equileo's by then jubilant trainer and part owner, Pierre Désiré Allaire, who had insisted before the race, "I tell you, I will be very, very disappointed if Equileo doesn't win. Believe me." Because people in polite circles at important races do not snicker at other human beings, listeners were obliged to turn their backs and smother their laughter in handkerchiefs. For reasons too many to count.
July 18, 1976
First, and the main consideration, according to those who claimed to know, was that Driver Bernard Froger was inexperienced on the shorter oval. The International was, in fact, Froger's first drive ever in the U.S. Plus, in 17 previous races against Bellino, Equileo had managed to lose every time. Plus, well, Equileo just wasn't that much of a horse (his best mile rate this year was 2:03.1, slowest in the field) and he might have slipped into complete oblivion had it not been for the other part owner, actor Alain Delon, France's answer to Robert Red-ford. Nevertheless, Froger had a statement before the race: "My horse is just as good as anybody else's." Time to hit the handkerchiefs again.
At which time Allaire strolled to a betting window and plunked down $1,000 to win and $1,000 to place on the critter he purchased five years ago for $4,500. Later he tried not to gloat as he collected his $24,000. For the more timid, a $2 win ticket on Equileo paid $40.60. Only three other horses went off with more betting disrespect than Equileo, and none of them returned a cent.
This year's big disappointment was Bellino II, whom horsemen like to hyperbolize as the greatest French export since Bardot. Last year he won 12 of 18 races, this year 11 of 13 (his other finishes were a second and a third). He has lifetime earnings of $1,530,965 and, before the International, was only $129,662 short of the alltime money record set by another French marvel, Une de Mai.
Admittedly, there were reasons to wonder about Bellino. He was not in his best form. But, experts said, he was in plenty good enough shape to win. In fact, Bellino's people gave the feeling that they thought it was kind of cute that Equileo had been doing little for three months but training for this race on a special half-mile track.
One potential problem was that Bellino is so big he does not perform well on the tight corners of half-mile American tracks. To remedy that, tracksiders speculated he would operate somewhere in the middle of the track, which would add to the distance he had to cover (he could cope with that) but allow him to negotiate the turns more easily. That problem disposed of, everyone fell to telling Bellino stories, such as how he supposedly had a fear of flying before it was a dirty book and how, sad to tell, word was out that Bellino might have more affection for his male friends than for lady visitors.
Driver Jean-René Gougeon flew into town shortly before the race, patted Bellino (he hadn't sat behind him for more than two weeks, which caused another trainer to sniff, "If Bellino wins, I say it will be in spite of his management") and pronounced everything fine. When the horse came in second he changed his view. "For the last month he is just not the same horse as before," he said.
Which could be said about the American horse, Savoir, who won the International last year, whipping Bellino, and is one of only four trotters to have won $1 million. In his first outing this year in early June, the 8-year-old brown gelding did a snappy 1:59.2 mile. But, inexplicably, in his last four trips he has finished no better than fourth (he was sixth in the International) and definitely has lost his trot. There are those who think he popped his cork in that June excursion. But extensive blood tests in the days before the International failed to disclose any malady. Driver Billy Haughton insisted, "There's nothing wrong with him." Clearly, however, there is, and although Haughton came away from the race grumbling that Italian Driver Sergio Brighenti, behind Delfo, had run into him and nearly knocked Savoir over, Billy confessed, "Savoir really has lost a shade off his old self." Bettors who sent him off at 5 to 1 had to be putting their money on him for old times' sake and past favors.
The other American entry, the 4-year-old mare Meadow Bright, had a big chance and finished third, even though her troubles run from chronic arthritis to bad tendon trouble to the fact she is in foal. Now known as the Trotting Mama, she was a sentimental choice at 5 to 1. Who wouldn't enjoy seeing a pregnant lady defeat a man at anything? Never mind that Meadow Bright has a miserable disposition, which prompted her groom, Ted Gawrin, to remark, "She just hates people." Biting and kicking are her most developed character traits. Delvin Miller gave her a good trip, but she ended up boxed in behind Bellino, unable to move even if she had had more move in her.
Miller bred the horse, sold her a year ago for $175,000 and now estimates her worth—thanks to several key wins, like the American Trotting Championship—at $500,000. Said Miller, "I'm tickled to death the mare did so well." Maybe, but after his hopes had been so high, the experience did leave him leaning over a rail spitting in the dirt.
No doubt Miller will remember the outing, for as the eight horses started their quest for a share of the $200,000 purse (Equileo got $100,000, Bellino $50,000 and Meadow Bright $24,000), Mama was on top and led through the first quarter-mile. Then Bellino took the lead, setting a leisurely pace, with Meadow Bright hanging close.
Added excitement was provided by Snegem Flight, whom the fans had pegged at 9 to 2, apparently bemused by the fact that he comes from absolutely undistinguished parentage in a sport where breeding is considered nearly everything—although Bellino has other-side-of-the-tracks breeding, too, coming from a sire and a dam in their 20s (old for horses), neither of whom had raced seriously. Snegem Owner-Trainer-Driver William Megens (now you see how the horse got his name) admits his horse's ability is a fluke, but he is having a high old time, because he remembers the days when he was working as a groom for $30 a week, sending $25 of it home to help his folks and using the remaining funds to live on Rice Krispies and milk. Says Megens, "A man doesn't have to make a lot of money, but he's a lot happier if he at least gets a shot at it."
Snegem appeared at the three-quarter mark in the second spot, fell back, apparently spent, then showed up second again at the top of the stretch. But the company was too classy. Equileo began his move and was readily identifiable by the blur as he stepped past Meadow Bright and then Snegem, who ultimately finished fifth. Froger got out the whip and caught Bellino, too, winning by half a length in 2:33.3, more than two seconds off the world record.
Duke Iran from Sweden (33 to 1) was fourth (excuse: average horse who feuds with starting gate); one Italian horse, Delfo (excuse: late arriving and had to endure quarantine in New Jersey), was seventh, and the other, Patroclo (excuse: terrible workouts), did not finish. Said Haughton: "What we learned was, Equileo was the best—tonight." True, for Equileo had perhaps more excuses than anyone. Now he gets to save them.