10/05/2015 10:55AM

Bergman: International Trot drawing near

Yonkers Raceway Photo
His Majesty won the last International Trot in 1995.

There is plenty of history surrounding the International Trot, a race that will be renewed on Saturday afternoon at Yonkers Raceway with a cool $1 million purse. Born in the late 50’s at Roosevelt Raceway on Long Island the race was an instant hit with the Roosevelt publicity machine making the most of every nuance they could find in the International trotters arriving from Europe and beyond.

The race was carded at a distance of one and one-quarter miles and returns the same way on Saturday. The concept couldn’t be better to help attract horses from Europe who are more comfortable racing at a distance longer than one mile.

For a handicapper the International was the most challenging race of the year when it was first held at Roosevelt Raceway. Basically there were no past performances and you had to accept on face value something that didn’t have much of a face. Routinely over the years you could expect that horses arriving from France were the cream of the crop. The foundation was laid in the early years when champion mares Roquepine and Une De Mai traveled to North America and did the impossible.

The impossible to those fans that witnessed our style of racing was a different dynamic brought by the European drivers. Unlike those we were accustomed to seeing the Europeans loved to race on the outside parked without cover. To every handicapper I knew that was the one trip you never wanted your horse to have. Yet year-in-year-out the French trotters would stay outside for the entire added distance and then shift into gear the final quarter and prove superior.

As difficult as it is to believe the International Trot’s distance gave the foreign horses a bit of an edge that two and a half laps around the track didn’t make impossible.

The American horses always looked faster on paper and in past performances and entering Saturday’s contest they still do.

The International slated for Saturday as it turns out will have a similar mystery as in yesteryear primarily due to French entrant Timoko. Unlike the rest of the group of 10 that comprise the field Timoko hasn’t had a competitive race since June. Historically he’s been a premier performer in France and Europe including a victory in 2014 in the Elitlopp.

Whilst there is a lack of performances visually there are a few things we have learned over the years that are perhaps even more meaningful than some black lines on a white sheet of paper.

Most notably the French have enormous pride and they wouldn’t be putting a standardbred or thoroughbred on a plane to cross the Atlantic without the significant belief that they could beat the competition. While our memory is long enough to recall that horses from past Internationals were paid forms of an appearance fee and that may have meant the trip to the U.S. was more social than competitive to some. Yet witnessing the French in action there was never the belief that anything short of a trip to the winner’s circle left them satisfied after the International was complete.

As difficult as it always seems for those in North America to get a reading on horses coming over from Europe, historically it appears as if the Europeans always knew just how strong or weak horses racing in the States actually were. While it is hard to believe that this year’s edition includes as many horses from Italy as it does from the United States we hope that isn’t an indicator of how weak our aged horses are.

Could the Italians really be a force in the renewal of this race?

Or are they necessary to help spread simulcast wagering throughout Europe in the years to come.

You see at the core of this International revival is not the hope of attracting a record crowd. Hosting the race on a Saturday afternoon in October while baseball playoffs are in action locally and college football is being played nationally guarantees that no matter how hard we might try to pull people away from their normal activities we’re not going to succeed in a major way. It also coincides with the Kentucky Futurity being contested on the same afternoon at The Red Mile but given the early post time for the International those two races won’t collide and those watching at simulcast sites should have little trouble catching and wagering on both.

The date was set up primarily for the French with Yonkers and its horsemen looking to expand the wagering market and eventually look to co-mingle funds bet overseas with those bet in North America.

Thankfully the horsemen didn’t lose sight of the North American market. Their effort to seed the Pick-5 wager with $25,000 of “their own” money suggests they are finally serious about reviving the handle at a track that was once amongst the top two handling harness tracks in North America.

It’s always hard to recreate the past. Roquepine defeating Stanley Dancer’s great Nevele Pride set the wheels in motion and forever had us questioning whether the U.S.-breds were in fact superior as we all thought they were.

I can recall many conversations on International nights with foreign reporters discussing that very subject. “You’re only seeing the best when they come over here,” I would often hear from a writer. “You have no idea what the others look like and some of them can’t trot at all.”

When the writers were being nice after the French won another International or whether they were telling the truth I’ll never know. What I do know is that the marriage of horses from overseas with those in North America still brings with it incredible hope. The world has become a smaller place thanks to the digital evolution.

It’s hard to say whether Saturday’s 10-horse field represents the best 10 trotters in the world or not. Major race scheduling in North America and Europe could make that impossible now and for years to come.

At the same time ushering in a $1 million trotting race that will be held annually at Yonkers Raceway could help change the habits of owners and trainers around the world…and hopefully plenty of handicappers.

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Emmanuel Roussel More than 1 year ago
Nice piece, thanks Jay ! We also look forward to the draw and the rest of it. French horsemen and writers were right at the time, I think. Since then however, we imported standardbred blood and our breed greatly benefited, as the Swedes and the Italians will tell you, no doubt. At the same time, French horsemen have become more conservative because the purses have gone up the roof in the last 20 years, and many of them are now used to race in France. We need the International Trot to do its magic again, because what the race has to achieve is no less than turn the tide of ignorance and beat inertia. It reminds me of the Inside Out film. Well, Yonkers has to be Joy. Not easy, uh ?
Frank More than 1 year ago
Not sure why Harness racing still uses 1/2 mile tracks - I hate betting on races run on 1/2 track -- to much human factor (and to easy to cheat) - its all about track position -- the best/fastest horses dont always win. Mile tracks are the only way to bet harness....