Monsieur Bruno Saint-Palais, the spokesman for the French trotting Establishment, very deliberately made the sign of the cross over his lips. Then he leaned forward and declared intensely, "We call your American trotters little goats."
This cross-my-mustache-and-hope-to-die statement is sacred dogma with most French horsemen, and when their trotting heroine Roqu�pine starts in next week's $100,000 International at Roosevelt Raceway, the French will be—as usual—out to get our goats. They consider their trotters superior, a race apart. Since the time of Colbert, Louis XIV's finance minister, the government has been actively and expensively engaged in purifying the breed of French horses—Thoroughbreds, trotters, saddle horses and even cart horses. A royal 1665 edict ordered the finance minister to "reestablish in the kingdom stud farms ruined by wars...to build them up in such a way that his Majesty's subjects should be no longer obliged to spend money abroad."
At that time the French Government also imported a number of English stallions, because, it was explained, French horses "had not only diminished in number but in quality due to the deterioration of the breed since the 16th century." Colbert set up state studs (21 of them are functioning now) offering breeders a choice selection of stallions of every type—Thoroughbred, trotter, half-bred, Arab, Percheron, etc. By 1668 a royal commission was deciding which animals could be bred and which stallions should be castrated, at their owners' expense, because they were not of sufficient quality. Even now, 300 years later, this rigid selection process continues. A team of three men—a veterinarian, a member of the Ministry of Agriculture and a representative of the breeders' organization—must pass on a horse's conformation, quality and lineage before he can be used as a stallion. Last year some 25 trotters were barred from stud service. If the owner decides to mate such a horse anyway, the offspring will be classed as "meat" and will be unable to compete at recognized tracks.
The trotter that the French government works so hard to propagate is a tall, well-boned, robust animal. From time to time, to give these horses "nervous influx," trotting mares are crossed with Thoroughbreds, but never, never nowadays with foreign trotting stock. Until 30 years ago American trotters were accepted in the French stud book—Roqu�pine has a Yankee strain—but by 1938 the Norman horsemen who rule French trotting had decided that U.S. stallions were hurting the French strain. (There is a counterargument that what the Americans were probably hurting was not the breed so much as the Normans' pride and pocketbooks. American horses had won the Prix d'Am�rique, France's premier trotting event, five of eight times between 1931 and 1938. There are now only three races in France in which �trangers can compete. "We only want our horses to race with the best foreign horses," Saint-Palais explains.)
Whatever the actual reasons for France's equine apartheid policy, there is something unique and praiseworthy in her concern for her bloodstock. The government spends $4.4 million annually on its state studs; in 1967, $200,000 went just on the purchase of trotting stallions. That old clich�, "for the improvement of the breed," can probably only be legitimately used in France. "It is a tradition with us," Saint-Palais says. "For three centuries the important thing has been the pleasure of producing a good breed."
The well-bred flavor of French trotting is reflected in the magnificent estate of Grosbois, 11 miles southeast of Paris, where the country's best Standard-breds are trained. The horses are exercised on paths cut through forests where Louis XIII, Napoleon, Fouch� and Talleyrand hunted boar and stags. In a swale in the parkland below the 16th century ch�teau lie the stables, meticulously built and cared for. Each trainer has a private yard with a house for his family, apartments for his stablemen and 30 stalls for his stock. There are 30 of these establishments in identical neo-Norman style architecture.
The Soci�t� d'Encouragement � l'�levage du Cheval Fran�ais, the organization that administers French trotting, bought Grosbois in 1962 for around $2 million. The stable complexes cost $200,000 apiece to construct and are leased by the Soci�t� to outstanding trainers for $7,000 a year. There is also a swimming pool, a cinema and a racetrack kitchen that has a selection of fine wines and brandies. There are greenhouses to keep the wives of the horsemen supplied with flowers and even the windows of the grooms' quarters are hung with starched eyelet curtains.
It is in this genteel setting that Henri Levesque, the owner and trainer of the champion Roqu�pine and France's most successful harness horseman, lives and works. A ruddy square-faced man of 61, he is a savvy, self-made Norman and an enigma to French racing society.
Levesque was once a beef farmer in Beuzeville la-Bastille, a village four miles from Utah Beach. In 1947 he decided to give up his cattle and make his fortune with trotters. He was 40 years old, and his experience with horses had been limited to driving in a few amateur races during the war. These had been pickup affairs held in meadows, or around the streets and square of the nearby town of Carentan.
There is a story told to explain Levesque's change of profession. One night in 1942 a gypsy in a Paris cabaret is said to have read his palm and told him he would become rich and successful training racehorses. Very probably, Levesque believed the prediction. In any case, five years later he took his life in his palms, sold some cows, gave up a tripe cannery he was operating and began buying horses. Levesque would visit the neighboring farms, picking up a foal here and a yearling there. He would buy one for $500 down and $500 if the animal won, and barter for another, offering four or five cows. Levesque is a shrewd judge—"he smells a good horse with his nose," Saint-Palais says. But he also is careful to buy trotters with good bloodlines. "I was the first one to be exacting in choosing horses by their lineage," he says. "The success of the majority of Thoroughbred studs is based on the quality of their bloodlines. I thought this ought also to be true of the trotter, but no one else did."