A bettor on the verge of apoplexy was hanging over the rail at Garden State Park last Thursday night, shaking his fist and screaming, "Allez, b�b�! Allez, b�b�! Maintenant! " On the track, a field of 10 horses was charging toward the wire in the March of Dimes Invitational Trot, and the leader at that moment was Ourasi, an 8-year-old French horse billed as the finest trotter in Europe. Just inside Ourasi, and barely a head behind, was 4-year-old Mack Lobell, the best trotter in the U.S. With only 30 yards to go, this long-awaited match, designed to anoint one of them, at least unofficially, as the best trotter in the world, was as exciting as everyone had hoped. "Allez b�b�! Allez b�b�! "
Oddly, the meeting of Mack and Ourasi played to a bigger crowd in Europe than it did in the U.S. Only 8,013 people showed up at Garden State, and hundreds of those were foreigners. More than 60 European print journalists and TV types had flown in to cover the race; maybe a dozen members of the American media showed up. The French beamed four hours of live television coverage to fans back home, and in Sweden four racetracks were opened at 4:00 a.m. so fans could bet and watch the race—which began at 10:45 p.m. eastern standard time—on TV monitors. And now in New Jersey the French bettor was at the peak of hysteria: "Allez! Allez! " With 20 yards to go, Ourasi and Mack were eyeball to eyeball, when..."Merde!"
On the outside, along came Sugarcane Hanover to spoil the party. A 5-year-old American bred owned by a Norwegian construction executive, Sugarcane shot past the two favorites to win the mile race by a neck in 1:55 Vs. Ourasi held on for second, and Mack Lobell was third by a half length. Ten minutes later the winner's circle was filled with hordes of happy, flag-waving Norwegians, who spontaneously broke into song. "Victory is ours," they warbled in their native tongue. Said one, "Tonight we drink champagne—just like the French."
It was an unexpected ending to a long-anticipated but star-crossed confrontation. That anticipation began to build in May, when Mack Lobell's owner, Lou Guida, accepted an invitation to race Mack (at the time the winner of 27 of 40 starts and nearly $2 million) against Europe's best trotters in Sweden's prestigious Elitlopp, where Guida hoped Mack would meet Ourasi. But the owners of Ourasi, the three-time winner of France's Prix d'Am�rique, declined the invitation to race in Sweden. Mack went on to win the Elitlopp, and Guida issued a challenge to the owners of Ourasi: "If you won't take your horse out of France and meet all challengers anywhere in. the world, then don't call your horse the greatest in the world. We'll meet you anytime, anywhere."
The French remained silent until last July, when Ourasi's syndicator, Fr�d�ric Sauque, challenged Mack to a $500,000 winner-take-all match race in the U.S. in October. "I accept," Guida replied. But when the French syndicate backed out again, an outraged Guida shot off a letter to Sauque and began referring to Ourasi as he Poltron Fran�ais, the French coward.
When Garden State Park arranged to host the March of Dimes Invitational, the French finally agreed to race in New Jersey. Upon Ourasi's arrival at New York's JFK airport, Sauque sent out the word: "Tell Mr. Guida the poltron is here, and we're ready to meet Mack."
The day before the race both camps were optimistic but cautious. John Erik Magnusson, a breeder from Sweden who had paid $6 million for three-quarters interest in Mack this spring, said, "Tomorrow, some other horse besides Ourasi or Mack Lobell can win the race." Indeed. The next night, Mack went straight to the lead and held it until the top of the stretch, when Ourasi put his head in front only to be bushwhacked by Sugarcane Hanover.
After the race Guida joined the winner's circle to congratulate the victors. "We had no excuses," he said. "It was a tough race, but Mack tired. He's a better horse than that." Then he shrugged and added, "That's horse racing." Or as the French would say, C'est la vie.