Outside New York's Roosevelt Raceway last week, a marquee encouraged passersby to see the INTERNATIONAL ROT. That wasn't actually what the people in charge had in mind, though in view of the eventual results of the 18th International Trot, Americans could agree fully with the sign's sentiment. Track management was unable to explain the case of the missing T, but said that it should be excused since it was close to being correct. "Close," of course, is what racing is all about, the racetrack being the principal forum for excuse-making about what would have been, could have been, or should have been.
Indeed, the race itself—this country's premier international trotting competition and second in importance in trotting circles only to the Hambletonian—offered plenty of excuses for everyone. Beginning with the mile-and-a-quarter distance. For the two U.S. horses, Meadow Bright and Savoir, and the Canadian entry, Snegem Flight, that was a bit long, the mile being the standard distance here. For the two French horses, the two Italian entrants and the Swedish hope, however, the distance was a trifle short. They would have preferred something on the order of a mile and 5/16ths. France's Bellino II, the big betting choice at 3 to 5, would have especially liked that distance. Bellino's idea of a really fun time would be to trot from New York to North Dakota and back.
The second French horse in the race had a less grandiose scheme for amusing himself, but most of the 33,929 fans who crammed themselves into Roosevelt on a perfect summer evening were not aware of it. In fact, most of them had never heard of Equileo, who had never run on this continent before. Too bad. For this unsung beast went off at 19 to 1, never got close to the rail—where everyone knows a horse must trot to win—was ignored by the track announcer as he was back in fourth and fifth for most of the way, and at the finish was, of course, first. That ended a stretch of four straight International wins by American horses.
All of which was way too much for Equileo's by then jubilant trainer and part owner, Pierre D�sir� Allaire, who had insisted before the race, "I tell you, I will be very, very disappointed if Equileo doesn't win. Believe me." Because people in polite circles at important races do not snicker at other human beings, listeners were obliged to turn their backs and smother their laughter in handkerchiefs. For reasons too many to count.
First, and the main consideration, according to those who claimed to know, was that Driver Bernard Froger was inexperienced on the shorter oval. The International was, in fact, Froger's first drive ever in the U.S. Plus, in 17 previous races against Bellino, Equileo had managed to lose every time. Plus, well, Equileo just wasn't that much of a horse (his best mile rate this year was 2:03.1, slowest in the field) and he might have slipped into complete oblivion had it not been for the other part owner, actor Alain Delon, France's answer to Robert Red-ford. Nevertheless, Froger had a statement before the race: "My horse is just as good as anybody else's." Time to hit the handkerchiefs again.
At which time Allaire strolled to a betting window and plunked down $1,000 to win and $1,000 to place on the critter he purchased five years ago for $4,500. Later he tried not to gloat as he collected his $24,000. For the more timid, a $2 win ticket on Equileo paid $40.60. Only three other horses went off with more betting disrespect than Equileo, and none of them returned a cent.
This year's big disappointment was Bellino II, whom horsemen like to hyperbolize as the greatest French export since Bardot. Last year he won 12 of 18 races, this year 11 of 13 (his other finishes were a second and a third). He has lifetime earnings of $1,530,965 and, before the International, was only $129,662 short of the alltime money record set by another French marvel, Une de Mai.
Admittedly, there were reasons to wonder about Bellino. He was not in his best form. But, experts said, he was in plenty good enough shape to win. In fact, Bellino's people gave the feeling that they thought it was kind of cute that Equileo had been doing little for three months but training for this race on a special half-mile track.
One potential problem was that Bellino is so big he does not perform well on the tight corners of half-mile American tracks. To remedy that, tracksiders speculated he would operate somewhere in the middle of the track, which would add to the distance he had to cover (he could cope with that) but allow him to negotiate the turns more easily. That problem disposed of, everyone fell to telling Bellino stories, such as how he supposedly had a fear of flying before it was a dirty book and how, sad to tell, word was out that Bellino might have more affection for his male friends than for lady visitors.
Driver Jean-Ren� Gougeon flew into town shortly before the race, patted Bellino (he hadn't sat behind him for more than two weeks, which caused another trainer to sniff, "If Bellino wins, I say it will be in spite of his management") and pronounced everything fine. When the horse came in second he changed his view. "For the last month he is just not the same horse as before," he said.