Lessons from Bold Eagle: J-P Dubois and the Franco-American Trotter

by Dean A. Hoffman

In 2008 when I was in Lexington, I had lunch one day at The Campbell House, an iconic Bluegrass hostelry, with harness Hall of Famer Howard Beissinger and the French horsemen extraordinaire Jean-Pierre Dubois.

It was certainly not lost of me that these two men had played an incalculable role in modern trotting pedigrees. The great stallion Speedy Crown was foaled on the Ohio farm that had been in the Beissinger family for a century. He was trained and driven by Howard to victories in the Hambletonian and International Trot.

Beissinger had also trained Speedy Somolli, a Hambletonian-winning son of Speedy Crown that left an indelible imprint on trotting pedigrees on both sides of the Atlantic. He also trained the filly Ah So, who was bred to Speedy Crown in 1981, and produced Workaholic, later an influential sire in France.

Dubois also excelled as a trainer, driver and breeder. He was the visionary who saw the potential impact of American trotting blood in French pedigrees and he seized the chance to use American stallions when given the chance.

Our luncheon was not marked by easy, free-wheeling conversation. Dubois, then 68, spoke halting English, while my French was confined to such indispensable phrases as “More wine, please.” Beissinger, then 85, spoke not a word of French and had difficulty hearing.

There was, however, no mistaking the joy that Dubois felt when telling Beissinger about his first impressions of American trotting.

“When I came to America in the 1970s and saw the trotters that you drove, that Stanley Dancer, Billy Haughton, and others drove, I knew that we needed American blood in French pedigrees. Your trotters were so fast and good-gaited and natural compared to French trotters,” Dubois told Beissinger.

There was a roadblock, however. The French registry was not open to American blood. The breeders in La Belle France were producing French trotters, not some hybrid horse. The French wanted to keep their pedigrees pure.

Nevertheless In the mid-1980s, some French breeding officials traveled to America and reached an agreement with American breeders and the USTA to break the ice with a brief period of limited registration reciprocity.

While it was an historic agreement, it was largely greeted on both sides of the Atlantic with a yawn. American breeders were not interested in breeding to French stallions. French breeders were not interested in American stallions. (One prominent French breeder scoffed at the idea of introducing American blood into his breeding operation by saying, “I wouldn’t plant weeds in my garden.”)

While most French breeders were yawning, Jean-Pierre Dubois was fawning. He believed fervently that injecting American trotting genes into the French registry would be a recipe for success. As Murray Brown of Hanover Shoe Farms once famously observed, “Dubois zigged when everyone else zagged.”

History is often made by those to take the road less traveled – and for Dubois it was the road to riches. To fully illustrate his impact on French pedigrees would require a tome, but if you look at the list of leading French sires today many of them have “Made by J-P Dubois” stamped on them.

John Eades, an Ohio horseman who was affiliated with and trained for Dubois for many years, points out that Dubois noticed the success of the Franco-American blend of blood in the Italian stallion Sharif di Iesolo, a grandson of Victory Song from a French mare.

Eades recalls that when Dubois wanted to ship the offspring of his mares from the U.S. to Europe, they did their quarantine at Considine Farm in Lexington, and Eades recalls such noted horses as Buvetier D’Anou (1989 by Royal Prestige), Cezio Josselyn (1990 by Armbro Goal), and Defi dD’Anou (1991 by Armbro Goal) when they were mere babies in the Bluegrass. Each later made a significant impact on French trotting.

Jean-Pierre Dubois has been a top sire himself as his son Jean-Etienne drove Coktail Jet (by a French stallion out of a Super Bowl mare) to victory in the 1996 Prix d’Amerique and Elitlopp. Jean-Etienne is also the breeder of this year’s heralded Prix d’Amerique winner Bold Eagle.

It must be remembered that traditionally American and French trotting were as different as fry bread and fois gras. American breeders sought to produce a precocious horse with high speed at a mile at ages two and three. By contrast, French horsemen were a more patient lot, preferring to allow a trotter to mature so that it could perform for many seasons at distances well over a mile.

This was brought home to me on a trip to France in 1985 when a French colleague made a point to show me a trotter that, he predicted, “would one day be a top horse.”

I asked the horse’s age, and the Frenchman told me he was a four-year-old.

“That’s the difference between America and France,” I replied. “If he was a top horse in America, he’d be retired by the time he was a four-year-old.”

The horse’s name was Passionant and indeed he became a good horse and sire. He is the sire of Bold Eagle’s third dam.

At the end of 1988, Haras du Pin, the French National Stud which dates to the Napoleonic era, took the bold step of purchasing the young American stallion Workaholic, winner of the first Breeders Crown ever as a freshman in 1984. He didn’t develop physically as a sophomore and was a follower instead of a leader in 1985. The well-bred son of Speedy Crown had bred 304 mares in his first three seasons, but left for France before his first foals raced. He was immediately popular with French breeders, who oversubscribed his book to such an extent and bookings were awarded via a lottery system to lucky breeders.

While Workaholic’s foals never made much impact in America, his first crop hit big in France. He didn’t sustain that success, however, and is now known for the success of his daughters as broodmares. Workaholic appears twice in the pedigree of Bold Eagle, in the third generation of his sire and the second generation of his dam.

More than any other person, Jean-Pierre Dubois has created the Franco-American trotter, and that blend of blood is recognized as the epitome of excellence in Europe.