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Original Issue

Bet O'Brien if he twinkles

One of the Frenchmen was sure to win the International Trot, but Joe O'Brien's eyes sparkled before the race. He knew his mare was ready

God save the Queen, Prime Minister Trudeau and a neat little Canadian named Joe O'Brien who drives harness horses. Especially Joe, because he did some saving himself last Saturday night to accomplish what nearly everybody thought was impossible—he beat the formidable French and kept them from winning their fourth International Trot in a row at Roosevelt Raceway.

All week long track guards, grooms, kitchen help—even some of the other drivers—had been saying the French horses were unbeatable in this mile-and-a-quarter race. Une de Mai, the big bay mare who had won last year's International, was in excellent form. Her traveling companion, Tidalium Pelo, an enormous (a good 17 hands) black stallion who had beaten Une de Mai three times in Europe, was equally impressive, though he had not raced since February. And the French drivers—handsome, salt-and-pepper-haired Jean-René Gougeon, winner of the past two Internationals, and flamboyant, gesturing Jean Mary—inspired confidence in the most doubtful. If not the French, said the very few skeptics, then surely the U.S. hopeful, Dayan, would win. Billy Myer had qualified the horse the previous Saturday by easily winning the American Trotting Championship.

But Joe O'Brien wasn't capitulating; in fact, he wasn't even there until the afternoon of the race. His stepson Stanley had come to Roosevelt with Fresh Yankee, a 7-year-old Maryland-bred mare who has won more money for her owner, Duncan MacDonald, than any runner or trotter in Canadian history. Stanley worked out Fresh Yankee on Monday and Thursday, and reported laconically that she was "just fine."

Joe, who doesn't spend much time sitting unless he is in a sulky or driving his car from track to track or flying to Europe to race, had obligations elsewhere. Early in the week he was in Buffalo for the Grand Circuit meeting; on Friday he hopped down to Atlantic City to win his two races there and then stayed to qualify a couple of young horses Saturday morning. It is a busy time for O'Brien; he won't get home to Shafter, Calif. (he is a naturalized American citizen) until mid-December.

As hectic as his schedule is, O'Brien probably had more quiet moments during the week than anybody at Roosevelt. As usual before an International, there were incidents every minute, some genuine and some inspired by publicity men. The Swedish horse, Lyon, went off to a nearby shopping center to eat some apples and pears for the Foods of All Nations people who were sponsoring one of the feature races during the week. The French contingent hustled into Manhattan for sightseeing and a Bastille Day celebration at Proof of the Pudding, an In restaurant on the swinging East Side. "Actually, we wanted to go to Maxwell's Plum, just across the street," said Alex Ignatieff, a French journalist and the interpreter for the group, "but it was an hour and a half wait for the table. Too long. Never."

The drawing for post positions had gone well for the French that day, with Tidalium Pelo getting the No. 1 spot and Une de Mai No. 3. Stanley and Fresh Yankee didn't do badly, either They got the two spot. The lineup for the rest of the field had the Italian Barbabl√π in No. 4; Lyon, No. 5; Dayan, 6; New Zealand's Stylish Major, 7; and the U.S.'s Noccalula, a 5-year-old mare named after a waterfall in Alabama, 8.

All continued to go well for the French until Wednesday morning, when most of the horses had their final workouts. "Ah! Pa poom, pa poom," cried Gougeon as he watched Myer taking Dayan around a turn. "Pa poom. Pa poom." He shook his head and spoke excitedly to his friend Ignatieff. Alex explained that Jean-René meant the American trotter's gait was most uneven. "He wouldn't even be allowed to race in France with that gait," said Alex. Well, that started a fuss. Somebody told two of Dayan's owners, Kirk Kirstein and his son Eric, that the French were criticizing their trotter, and Eric said he didn't think Une de Mai's gait was all that terrific either. Billy Myer, who may be the quietest man in all harness racing, rubbed his ear with his glove and said maybe Dayan's gait was "a little uneven" because he hits his left hind leg with his front hoof, but he "certainly wouldn't be disqualified anywhere for that."

The story of the exchange grew, and by the next morning Gougeon was supposed to have said that Dayan had five legs. Gougeon was furious, insisting he had been misquoted. Then he and Eric agreed they hadn't said anything about anybody's horse. Through an interpreter, Gougeon had the last word: "I do not criticize. Dayan is a good horse. If he is the best, I am sure he will win." Spoken like a diplomat.

Back in the barn area, Track Guard Boris Butleroff was singing the praises of Une de Mai, calling her the "gentle one" and swearing that if he had the time he could teach her ballet. Butleroff has been teaching people ballet on East 84th Street for 20 years and doubles as a guard only because he "loves the horses." He did a little dance step here and there in front of the stalls and said it was a cheval, which he described as the horse step in ballet. Tidalium's groom, a red-cheeked boy who has been with the stallion since 1964, fed his charge some honey and told onlookers that it made the horse strong and was good for his throat. The Italians conferred in conspiratorial whispers about their Barbabl√π, which translates into English as Bluebeard, and the Swedes smiled at everyone who passed by. Their driver, Olle Elfstrand, already had said he thought Une de Mai would win but that he would try his best anyway. Down the row, Billy Hudson, who was to drive his first International, grinned nervously and said his horse, Stylish Major, a 9-year-old gelding, was "better than we thought." Apparently Racing Secretary Larry Mallar thought so, too; for future U.S. appearances he gave the trotter an AA speed rating, the highest ever for a New Zealand entry. In the stall next to Major stood Fresh Yankee, quietly waiting for Saturday and Joe O'Brien.

"One thing I like about my mare," said O'Brien when he arrived in the paddock Saturday night, "is that she's always right there. Every now and then some horse comes along and beats her, but she usually gets 'em back." O'Brien limits his cheery expressions in public to the outline of a smile, but he had an odd twinkle in his eyes that made some people think he knew something he wasn't saying. Not that he ever says a whole lot anyway.

In the background the French were all dressed up like oldtime jockeys in white jodhpurs and high black boots, chattering and laughing. Gougeon mimicked Tidalium, who was stamping and whinnying in his stall. Nearby was Sanders Russell, who had been so impressed by Fresh Yankee as a yearling at Harrisburg that he told MacDonald to buy her. The Canadian lumberman did, for $900. Sanders, who has been around trotters for most of his 70 years, trains and drives Noccalula, a good mare but out of her class in this barn. Some of the Dayan group up in the stands had put on black eye patches just like Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, and Billy Myer looked as if he wished he had two of them. "He's not himself," mumbled Myer as he inspected his horse. "He's just not himself."

Billy was right. He and Dayan started out sixth and wound up there. As the gates swung away the two French entries rushed to the lead—Mary and Tidalium on the rail, Gougeon and Une de Mai outside. Patiently sitting in the three spot were O'Brien and Fresh Yankee. That's where they stayed through a surprisingly slow pace for the mile. But up the backstretch, in the final quarter, O'Brien backed up "just a little bit" and moved out to challenge.

Joe was jiggling around in his sulky the way he does in a hard drive, and when he got through he and Fresh Yankee were a neck ahead of Tidalium. Une de Mai had faded to fourth. Third in the dust were Stylish Major and Billy Hudson.

"We were fighting each other so hard we helped O'Brien," said Jean Mary about his and Gougeon's rides. When he heard that, O'Brien got that twinkle again. "Hmm. Well, I'll take all the help I can get, anytime," he said. MacDonald agreed with his trainer and ordered three cases of French champagne. "Vive le Canada!" somebody said.