The language varied from Swedish to German to several shades of English, but the question was always the same: could anyone hope to beat Nevele Pride, that formidable Cadillac of American harness racing? Nevele Pride, as everyone knows, is a well-established winner, on the trail to becoming the first trotter ever to earn $1 million. He had beaten about all the best horses on this side of the Atlantic, but now he faced a special sort of challenge—a worldly field assembled at Roosevelt Raceway in New York for the 11th edition of the $100,000 International Trot. If speculation about such a meeting seemed natural, it also seemed natural that there was one man among the drivers who had no doubts about the outcome.
Jean-Ren� Gougeon is an ebullient Frenchman with a superb nose and a well-documented winning touch with harness horses. And the mere idea of anybody prematurely picking Nevele Pride was enough to set him stamping around, shaking his head and mumbling darkly.
"Nevele Pride is the best trotter you have ever had in America," Gougeon said when he showed up at Roosevelt's special International barn. "But the main thing is, perhaps he has no opposition in the U.S. Also, he is not bred and trained for the longer distances like our horses in France." He paused and smiled. "I think we can win, or else I would not have come."
This sort of talk would not have been surprising had Gougeon returned with Roqu�pine, often called the queen of French trotting, the horse he had driven when she won her second straight International victory last year. But Roquepine has retired and Gougeon's mare last week was a big, muscular 5-year-old newcomer named Une de Mai (One of May). Owned by Meat Packer Count Pierre de Montesson of Bouc�, Normandy, Une de Mai had been trotting up a storm at tracks around France and Italy but was still an unknown factor in this country. The significant thing seemed to be that, while the International's mile and a quarter is considered a bit long for American trotters, most of Une de Mai's races had been at least a mile and a sixteenth—including a victory over Roqu�pine last June 6 at the Enghien course in France.
"I think Une de Mai may trot better than Roqu�pine," Gougeon told a skeptical American press. "She has more speed, she can leave faster. Now it will be interesting to compare Une de Mai with Nevele Pride."
The race originally had been scheduled a week earlier but was set back when three of the European trotters—Une de Mai and her French partner, Thetis IV, and Agaunar of Italy—were stranded in Europe because of an airlines strike. All the drivers were concerned that their horses might lose some sharpness, and for Stanley Dancer, the quiet, 42-year-old millionaire who trains and drives Nevele Pride, there was still another concern. All year long Dancer has aimed at two important goals before Nevele Pride is retired to stud late this fall by a syndicate that bought him for $3.2 million. First goal, and the most important to Dancer, is breaking Greyhound's world mile record of 1:55� set in 1938. The other is having the first trotter—and only the second harness horse, the other being Dancer's Cardigan Bay—ever to win a million dollars. The idle weekend cost Nevele Pride at least $40,000 in purse money, according to Dancer's estimate—not to mention a rare chance to break Greyhound's record on the fast mile track at DuQuoin, Ill. this week. "Now," said Dancer, "we will have to go for the record at one of the other mile tracks out there—either Indianapolis or Lexington."
The postponement also had its international incident: West Germany's True Friend—not an apt name under the circumstances—leaned over and nipped Mrs. Matilde Lonnqvist, the wife of one of the owners of Sweden's entry, Kentucky Fibber. But these things happen; stitches were taken and relations were mended.
Despite the problems, when the eight International starters were lined up last Saturday night, only one of the original field was missing—the Italian, Agaunar, who had been scratched after what his owner deemed a miserable tune-up race in Montecatini. As a replacement, Roosevelt officials tried to get New Zealand's Markalan but, learning that the horse was still recovering from an illness, they settled for an American fossil, the 9-year-old gelding Earl Laird, driven by Jimmy Cruise.
Shortly before race time, Dancer took a long look at Une de Mai.
"She's a nice-looking mare," he said. "But my horse is in fine shape, real good. He's the best horse I've ever had, better than Su Mac Lad. The record speaks for itself. I don't know much about these other trotters, but I do know that nobody in this country has done what Nevele Pride has done."