It was the scent of riches that lured the French mare Une de Mai, the leading money-winner in harness-racing history, to Long Island's Roosevelt Raceway last Saturday night, and it was the same unmistakable aroma that whipped her handlers into a Gallic rage when she was in effect evicted from that track's prestigious International Trot. The abrupt banishment left a bitter aftertaste, but the sport's big-money horses had a full weekend in New York State all the same. Right there in the International, for example, the Canadian-owned mare Fresh Yankee, second on the alltime money list, further enriched her owner by finishing runner-up to America's Speedy Crown. Meanwhile, in the upstate resort town of Saratoga Springs, the 4-year-old pacer Albatross won a purse just large enough to make him both a millionaire and, easy as that, the third richest harness horse ever.
The sophisticates who frequent Roosevelt's betting windows can probably deduce from this—and it may even have occurred to a few of the shirt-sleeved tourists at Saratoga—that harness horses are becoming ever more proficient at converting oats into dollars. Although 10 U.S. thoroughbreds have reached the $1 million mark, headed by Kelso at $1,977,896, none is still running. By comparison, only five trotters or pacers have won $1 million, but the Big Three among them are all active. After the final hoof-beat sounded last week, the earnings report read: Une de Mai $1,545,740, Fresh Yankee $1,251,502 and Albatross $1,001,868.
The trio's financial status reflects not only improving purses—witness the International's $125,000—but the sturdy disposition of harness horses. "There's just less wear and tear on our animals," says Trainer-Driver Billy Haughton. This makes for longer and busier careers—it is not unusual for top trotters to have 30 or more starts a year—and it helps explain why Une de Mai and Fresh Yankee have enjoyed successes that no thoroughbred mare can rival.
Until Speedy Crown triumphed in what Roosevelt calls harness racing's "summit gathering," the International had been won by mares six straight years, and by foreign horses seven straight. Une de Mai had played a spectacular role in both these streaks, having taken two of the last three Internationals, and that partly explained the commotion the 8-year-old bay caused following her arrival from Paris. A bizarre chain of circumstances began with a mixup over documents that resulted in the horse being quarantined in New Jersey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for 48 hours instead of the usual 24. Getting little exercise during that period, she arrived at Roosevelt with her hind-quarter muscles so tightened up that Jean-Ren� Gougeon, her driver-trainer, crinkled his sloping forehead and, utterly exhausting his English, proclaimed, "No good, no race."
No sooner did the headlines UNE DE MAI DOUBTFUL STARTER begin appearing than her owner, Count Pierre de Montesson, arrived from France. Inspecting his mare late Friday afternoon—it was Bastille Day—he pronounced her condition "100% better" and resolved to race her. Montesson, a frozen-meat mogul in Normandy, is a swart man with droopy hound dog features, and what followed did nothing to unburden his expression. Though relieved that Une de Mai apparently would be racing after all, Roosevelt nonetheless barred betting on her because of what a track spokesman called "her dubious physical nature." It was the rationale that was dubious, as a group of rival drivers firmly pointed out to the New York Harness Racing Commission barely two hours before the race.
The protesters included Howard Beissinger, who bred Speedy Crown and has continued to train and drive the 4-year-old bay even though he sold him to the Lana Lobell Farms just two weeks ago. Beissinger, a folksy sort with a fondness for rodeo, drove Speedy Crown to victory in last year's Hambletonian and brought his trotter into the Roosevelt with five straight wins. It no doubt helped Beissinger's confidence that the last U.S. horse to win the International was Speedy Crown's sire, Speedy Scot, in 1964. "He's as good as any horse here," said Beissinger of Speedy Crown.
He included Une de Mai in that assessment, but this did not prevent him from arguing, correctly, that harness horses are customarily barred from betting because they are prohibitive favorites—not because of a possible indisposition. "If she's not sound to bet on, she's not sound to race," he insisted. The commission belatedly agreed.
When the announcement that Une de Mai had been ordered scratched came over Roosevelt's P.A. system, Gougeon was already in the paddock preparing to race. "This would never have happened at home," he fumed. For his part, Montesson inveighed against U.S. racing officials and turf writers, lumping them together as les petites gens—the little people.
So poor Une de Mai, wrapped in a blue blanket, stood forlornly in a paddock stall as the reduced field of six went into motion on the synthetic Roosevelt track. The race developed into a two-horse affair between Speedy Crown and the 9-year-old Fresh Yankee, sometimes called "the Cinderella mare" because Nova Scotia lumberman Duncan MacDonald bought her as a yearling for a mere $900. Speedy Crown took the lead at the quarter pole, with Fresh Yankee, driven by the veteran Joe O'Brien, tucking in behind, and it quickly became obvious that both respected the 1�-mile distance, a slightly longer race than U.S. horses are used to.
Beissinger had not intended to go to the front so soon, for fear of tiring Speedy Crown, but had reluctantly done so when the early leader, a Belgian 5-year-old named Fideel, cut a slow pace. "Nobody else moved, so I had to," Beissinger explained later. O'Brien was conserving Fresh Yankee for the stretch, waiting in vain for somebody else to challenge Speedy Crown. When nobody did, the Canadian mare finally made a move coming out of the last turn, briefly exciting the crowd of 36,000, but Speedy Crown held her off to win by three-quarters of a length in a relatively pokey 2:35[1/5].