At about 7:30 p.m. last Saturday, Jean-Rene Gougeon, the preeminent French harness racing driver, was standing in the paddock at New York's Roosevelt Raceway. Gougeon, known in France as "Le Pape" because he supposedly resembles Pope Paul, would soon be driving Une de Mai, the millionaire mare, against eight of the world's best trotters in the $125,000 International Trot, but now he was more concerned with cleaning off his driving goggles. A late-afternoon rain had left a slick coating of mud on the track's artificial surface. In warmups Gougeon's goggles had been splattered, as had his white driving helmet and the front of his pale blue silks.
"Bah," said Gougeon good-naturedly to an American bystander. "Sloppy."
The American nodded, and through an interpreter asked about Une de Mai, the big copper-colored 7-year-old whose earnings going into the International were $1,238,355—a world record for a harness horse.
"Ah," said the 43-year-old Gougeon, smiling as he wiped his goggles, breathed on them again and wiped some more. "My horse has never been better than she is right now. Formidable."
That should have been clue enough. While Gougeon is self-assured, he does not bluff. American fans learned this in 1969 when he brought Une de Mai to Roosevelt to face America's vaunted Nevele Pride in the International. "I think my mare will win," Gougeon said then to an amused and unbelieving American press. And win she did, the hard way, by racing outside for the entire mile and a quarter.
This time Une de Mai's main competition was not Nevele Pride, long since retired to stud, but another mare—Canada's Fresh Yankee. Fresh Yankee had won last year's International (Une de Mai finished a disappointing fourth on that occasion), and going into Saturday night's race her career earnings were $976,780—more than any trotter in North America and third (behind Une de Mai and the retired New Zealand pacer Cardigan Bay) on harness racing's alltime list. Her trainer-driver, Joe O'Brien, 54, is just as reticent as Gougeon is ebullient, and Joe was in a typically unchatty mood as he stood in the paddock barn, his arms crossed and an enigmatic smile on his lips.
Q: "How's your mare?"
A: "She's all right."
Q: "How do you think you'll do?"
A: "As well as I can."