How Henri Levesque and an American stallion improved the French trotter

The continuing story of one of the greatest trotting sires of all time: Stars Pride.

by Murray Brown

I ended last week’s story about Stars Pride (full story here)with the sentence: Henri Levesque had a dream.

Before I go to this week’s follow up I need to digress a little.

I was privileged to meet with the great person and horseman Ebby Gerry Jr at Sunshine Meadows last Saturday morning, primarily to discuss Stars Pride with him.

I had a few questions to ask about Stars Pride and his uncle Roland Harriman’s association with him.

The first was what motivated the Gerry and Harriman’s private trainer Harry Pownall to go to a sale in Indianapolis to buy a yearling by Worthy Boy.

His answer was that he didn’t recollect the exact details, but he felt it was likely that Harry was probably there racing, saw the colt and the horse caught his eye.

To his knowledge, prior to that Pownall had never had any connection to the horse, either through his sire or his dam Stardrift.

Quite simply, he saw the colt, liked him and contacted Mr. Harriman about buying him.

I asked him to compare Stars Pride to his stablemate and chief competitor Florican.

Ebby said that Stars Pride was both the better looking of the two and the better and faster racehorse. To him, there was no doubt about either.

Nevertheless, Florican was his favorite and that of all the Arden Homestead family, primarily because he was a homebred and Stars Pride an acquisition. He described Florican as a bulldog, whereas Stars Pride was extremely handsome.

On to Henri Levesque and his dream…

Before I go any further, I need to give a great deal of credit to French Trotting journalist Jacques Pauc, who furnished much of the background and data for this story and was very patient in answering my questions on various aspects of it.

To those of you who might not know of Monsieur Levesque, he was master horseman Jean Pierre Dubois before Jean Pierre reached anywhere the heights to which he was going to reach and still is accomplishing.

Henri Levesque did it all in French trotting. He bred, owned, trained and often drove his horses.

I was fortunate to meet Monsieur Levesque once.

I had been asked to participate on a panel discussion in Vincennes prior to the year’s Prix d’Ameriqué.

I really didn’t know what was to be expected or discussed.

My co-panelists gave basically a statistical analysis of what was taking place in their respective countries.

I was last to speak. I had no idea of the number of tracks operating, the number of horses being bred, the amount of purse money being distributed, etc., etc., etc.

Simply put, I hadn’t done my homework, wasn’t prepared for what was being discussed and frankly the statistical numbers didn’t interest me much.

But what would I say?

I decided to speak off the cuff about Stars Pride. I told the story of his racing career and how he happened to stand at Hanover Shoe Farms and his impact as a sire primarily in North America.

Without too much bragging on my part, I was the hit of the show.

The audience seemed much more interested in hearing about “le Roi de Trotting en Amerique” than a bunch of dry statistical numbers.

After the discussion, numerous questions were asked by the audience, all directed at me.

Apparently those folks were as much interested in the stats as was I.

On descending the podium, the organizer of the event, Lyonel Fontenay, said that there was a man in the audience who would like to speak with me.

It was Henri Levesque who was now totally blind and in what seemed like poor health.

There were tears running from his eyes. He gave me a big hug and the traditional two-cheeked kiss.

He thanked me and we reminisced about John Simpson, Lawrence Sheppard and Billy Haughton — all of whom he had known and with whom he had broken bread and sipped wine.

Levesque was the breeder, owner, trainer and sometime driver of the great mare Roquepine.

She, unquestionably, ranks among the greatest trotting mares ever.

She won the Prix d’Ameriqué in 1966, 1967 and 1968 in addition to winning the Roosevelt International twice.

She also won numerous other prestigious stakes events. She was the first of several to be called The Queen of Trotting.

M. Levesque loved training and driving, but his greatest passion was in breeding.

In his mind, the greatest results would be obtained by breeding Roquepine, the greatest trotter in the world at that time, to the greatest trotting sire in America, Stars Pride.

There was a problem with doing so. The French stud book was closed. Any foal produced by such a mating could not be registered in France, nor could it race in all but a handful of French trotting races.

The leading French breeder of that era, Albert Viel, had been quoted as saying “Breeding American blood in the French trotter would be analogous to planting weeds in one’s garden.”

M Levesque took the bit in his mouth and decided to do it anyway. He would deal with the consequences later.

Jean Pierre Dubois had the assurance that the French stud book would be open for a few years to approved American stallions when he went on his epic breeding adventure.

Henri Levesque had no such safety net.

He would leave Roquepine in America for two years and first breed her to Stars Pride and then to Stars Pride’s greatest son at the time, Ayres.

From those breedings came two lovely colts to be named Florestan and Granit.

The main problem was that Mr. Levesque had no place to race them, since neither of them were eligible for the French registry. Unless they became superstars there would be no place for Monsieur Henri to race them in France, but for a few major races.

He decided to give them to the renowned German horseman Gerhard Krueger to train and drive in Germany and Italy.

Insofar as I could discover, they were both adequate racehorses, nothing more. Granit, although described as being a little pacey in his gait, was the better of the two.

When it came time to retire both colts to the stud, a deal was reached with the French authorities.

The French stud would make their progeny eligible for registration if Mr. Levesque would sell them both to the French National stud.

Kind of ironic, wasn’t it?

The same authority that banned both horses from being registered now wanted to stand them at stud.

The deal for Florestan was that Mr. Levesque would receive the equivalent of 115,000 euros in francs, then the currency of the country. Perhaps more importantly, Mr. Levesque was also entitled to 10 free lifetime breedings to Florestan.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the details on the purchase of Granit, though he became an adequate sire whose progeny included the Grade One Criterium winner Quartz.

Florestan was destined to become perhaps the most influential French trotting sire, his only rival on that account being the great Kerjacques.

Consider this: He never had a book that wasn’t full. I believe that some sort of lottery system was adapted to determine who would be allowed to breed to the great horse.

Of the 18 starters in this year’s Prix d’Ameriqué, all but one (Billie du Monfort) traced its lineage to Stars Pride, with several having more than one branch of it.

Stars Pride’s male line is unquestionably the number one in France and arguably throughout Europe, mostly through Ready Cash, his young sons Bold Eagle, Bird Parker, Brillantissime, Charly du Noyer and also through such as Timoko, Niky, Jag de Bellouet, Real de Lou and Uriel Speed.

The great Ready Cash is undoubtedly the best trotting sire in France and perhaps throughout Europe.

His many champions include this year’s Prix d’Ameriqué winner Face Time Bourbon who, at 5 years old, was the youngest starter in the grueling race.

Ready Cash is line bred 6X5X5X6 to Stars Pride, twice through Florestan and twice through Nevele Pride’s son Kimberland.

As great a sire as Florestan was, he is generally considered to be a better sire of broodmares. His daughters led the stud book in production for many years.

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