by Trey Nosrac
Before the French/American war’s final conflict of 2020, my pal David and I needed to reload his supply of beer. As I backed out of his driveway, David slapped his passenger-side dashboard and groaned, “How did I get into this mess?”
“Let this be a lesson. Never invite a high-maintenance French woman that you just met on a cruise for a visit on the cusp of a pandemic. That’s simple dating 101.”
“She thrives on confrontation.”
I nodded, “Monique does seem a tad argumentative.”
“A tad, did you hear her? She rattles off a string of expensive French wines that we are supposed to find in a StopNGo in rural Ohio.”
I smiled and said, “Relax, when we get back to your place, I’ll nudge her toward the exit. Making girlfriends disappear is one of my superpowers.”
We planned to sit on socially-distanced chairs in his living room and watch a program of harness races streamed onto his flatscreen. Monique would offer additional comparisons between harness racing in America and France. When we returned without a bottle of Chateau de snob, she heaved a theatrical sigh.
I warmed up by asking her a simple question, “Make any plans to return to Paris? “
She arched a lovely, un-plucked eyebrow, “Am I an imposition?”
“Not for me. I’m squirreled up in by double-wide 20 minutes from here.” I followed up with, “Were you ever married?”
“Twice — first to an art thief, then to a prominent trotting horse trainer. And you?”
“Twice — a schoolteacher and a she-devil.”
She didn’t bite on she-devil, which irked me because I rehearsed a spontaneous reply.
Before I could ask her a follow-up question, the bugle sounded from the flat screen. A string of trotters paraded onto the track.
Right away, she started, “In France, ugly trotting hobbles are forbidden.”
I pounced, “Forbidden? Do you want to know what I say? Forbidden fruit is good on waffles.”
She gave a half-smile, “I don’t believe anyone normal would say that, but I must admit Trey would enjoy a French cafe. Our humor often mocks people. We often rely on wordplay, puns, irony, and sarcasm.”
“Sarcasm is one of the many services that are part of the Trey package.”
She got back on track, “Breaking rules for trotting horses are strict and quite complex in France. More than 15 strides will disqualify a horse.”
“Then they need to requalify?
“Non, we do not have qualifiers in France. We do not race non-competitive horses.”
“I’d be out of luck. My specialty is wagering on non-competitive trotting horses. Hey, what was the name of the famous racetrack in France?”
“The most renowned trotting racecourse in Europe is Hippodrome de Vincennes, on Paris’s eastern side.”
“Is that close to an airport?” I asked.
“Why?” she inquired.
“Just asking. I watched a few races from Europe on my laptop during the quarantine. They do some weird racing stuff over there. Race day is quite the circus.”
She jutted her chin at the flatscreen and said, “American circuses are boring. The Cirque du Soleil is marvelous. And races from America are quite boring, always the same start, always the same direction, always the same distance. American racing is, as you say, groundhog day with harness horses.”
“Did you say another direction?”
“Oui. Vincennes races counter-clockwise like North America. However, many races are clockwise in France and Europe.”
“In France, we are not boring.” She pointed at the trotters approaching the starting gate and said, “Sometimes we use the mobile starting car. We refer to this as the AutoStart, with two tiers of horses behind the gate. However, many of us prefer la volte to begin the race.”
“La volte is translated into the flip.”
“Many races at Vincennes are flips. The horses emerge from a gathering area parallel to the starting stripe. When every horse is on the track surface, they turn and start the race.”
“What if a driver jumps the gun?”
She gave another eye arch, “My dear Trey, we frown on guns in France. If a horse turns too fast or breaks a laser beam before the actual start of the race, a false start is declared.”
“Monique, that seems like a mess. Lots of horses, every driver looking for an edge, and then they just step onto the track and go. That sounds like a factory parking lot at five o’clock on a Friday.”
“We find these false starts and regathering of trotters exciting. Post position or racing or racing from the front is far less critical in France. In the la volte, with longer races, post positions do not automatically create impossible races for some trotters.”
“Well, if you find Cirque du Soleil entertaining, we are on different tracks. I caught a show in Vegas. The tickets cost two hundred dollars to see a guy in blue tights wearing a mask head somersault with a hula hoop. My pals at the O Yeah Bar would somersault for a free beer. Besides, that random volte start would put a crimp in reading the charted lines on a race program.”
“Our races are listed in Paris-Turf where they show only the lifetime record and earnings, results of the most recent three races, and the classification. The listing shows if the race is attele or monte and the equivalent kilometer rate.”
“Do you French folks race claimers?”
“Very few and,” She nodded at the screen, “and to us, racing two-and three-year-old trotters is ridiculous; they are still growing.”
I asked, “What about wagering, and… be franc.”
“My dear Trey, a noble effort at a pun. Alas, it is outdated. You know, of course, that the French franc ceased to be legal tender 20 years ago.”
“Of course,” I lied.
“Our wagering is similar with different names. The couple is much like your exacta, but you can pick 2 of the top 3 finishers. The trio is like your trifecta box. The tierce is a straight trifecta. Should Trey ever visit France, he will find many ways to lose his Euros on Equidia.”
“Equidia? What’s that, a slow trotter?”
“Equidia are horse racing channels. It is live racing from morning to mid-evening — trotting, gallop, and obstacle races. Le Pari Mutuel Urbain coordinates the starting times of the races. Our system is marvelous. I miss the excitement.”
I sighed, “Everything in France is complicated, the language, the politics, and the food. You even screw up simple stuff like the circus and horse racing.”
She cracked a smile, “We know others consider the French complicated; we consider ourselves to be complicated. We tend to argue about everything. Arguing is close to trotting racing as a national sport.
I asked, “How is the travel situation for returning to France?”
“Terrible, the virus restrictions are still in effect and show no signs of easing up. Which reminds me, I have some sad news to share with you gentlemen,” She paused, “I have made arrangements to relocate to New York City where I will stay with an acquaintance who owns an art gallery.”
“How sad, we will miss you,” I said. Surprisingly, I sort of meant it.
Standing out of her vision, David made the sign of the cross.