Of France and the French

by Alan Leavitt

I recently read an interview with Jean Etienne Dubois, son of the great horseman Jean Pierre Dubois, and a top horseman in his own right.

Jean Etienne ripped the French Trotting Association for keeping its book closed down though the years to this very day, with only one brief exception in the early ‘80s. What that means for the French breeders is a closed game in which they are the only players.

I can understand their reluctance to let in the competition the outside world would bring. Although, actually right now the French have a world class sire in Love You.

When the French stud book was briefly opened in, I believe, 1982, the only breeder who took advantage of it was Jean Etienne’s father, J.P. Dubois. I was peripherally involved because J.P. booked several of his mares to Speedy Crown, which I stood at Lana Lobell Farms.

My friendship with J.P. started when he came to The Meadowlands with a top French free-for-all trotter. Having taken French by the direct method at Andover — meaning only the language studied could be spoken in class — I was a fearless speaker of a frequently garbled French. Yet, it was still good enough for us to communicate okay.

Still digressing about J.P, my wife, Meg and I spent a delightful day in France with J.P. some years ago as he showed us all of his considerable holdings, which took all day to drive around to. The day started with breakfast in a little café in the village where we three met up, and as we dunked our croissants in our coffee, a parrot kept up a constant monologue, in French, advising us to “Sortez de la ville!,” meaning get out of town.

On the subject of French harness racing, which is only trotters, they have something that would be great here in North America, but will never happen.

That is Monte Racing, or racing under saddle. For starters, you can easily fit 12 horses under saddle behind a 10 horse starting gate, and the bigger the field, the bigger the handle.

I was involved in staging several under saddle races some years ago, and they generated a lot of interest. Unfortunately, there could be no betting because the thoroughbred people have written into every state’s pari-mutuel rules that only thoroughbreds can be raced under saddle in betting races.

It’s possible that the Jockey Club might have a heart and give us a waiver so we could bet our Monte Races, but that’s far from a sure thing. We could make a plausible argument that the runners have nothing to fear because the scope of Monte Racing would be so limited for the foreseeable future, but it’s still a long shot.

The leading exponent of Monte Racing in North America is the lovely Helene Gregory, wife of driver/trainer Jeff Gregory. She competed successfully in the races we were able to put on, and she has studied all of the nuances of riding a trotter in a race, and listed with the USTA all the equipment you need to wear.

One important point is that every horse must wear an over-check. It’s a necessity because a horse under saddle without his head checked up could duck under the starting gate, with disastrous consequences for the rider.

Helene also taught me that the rider will gain two or three seconds by sitting to the trot instead of posting. Here, my fellow friends who formerly were in the show horse world, i.e. Art and Leah Zubrod, will know what I’m talking about.

Finally, my thoughts go back to the magical day Meg and I spent with J.P. Dubois, touring his holdings. Late in the afternoon, it had started to rain lightly. We came to a big paddock in which there was a round bale of hay under a little shed that just covered it.

Standing there in the rain, and nibbling on the hay was a beautiful stallion, the great racehorse and sire, Coktail Jet.

Pointing to the little shed that covered the round bale, with Coktail Jet munching at it, J.P. said, in proud English, “Self serve!”

It was the perfect ending to a nearly perfect day, which is as close as we’ll ever get.