French Invaders Making a Splash

You can trace back the pipeline of overseas horses competing in American harness racing for decades. All the way back to the 1960’s, there has been a stream of horses coming from New Zealand and Australia to the States. Harness racing is huge in Australia where they have 91 tracks down under for standardbreds. New Zealand has featured harness racing for over 150 years and has, logically, produced some top-flight talent. There has been a long line of talented imports coming from both “down under” countries and the influx has been ratcheted up of late. In recent years, there has been a host of mostly pacers coming from that pipeline and it seems as if there are certain connections which acquire these invaders at a high percentage. For example, looking at the upper tier horses that compete from the Kim Asher-Larry Stalbaum stable and for local trainer Jose Godinez, the great majority of them have an ‘N’ or ‘A’ as the last part of their name. For those unfamiliar, when you see that letter at the end of a horse’s name, it indicates that he/she was bred and raised in New Zealand or Australia, respectively. More and more high-quality horses are coming to the US via this pipeline and it isn’t because they invaders aren’t having success!

It is very apparent when looking at your race program when a horse is new to his connections from “down under.” The charts look very different and oftentimes, a horse only has a qualifier or two on his resume after shipping to the States. In recent weeks, we have seen a couple of horses that fit the blueprint of one of the foreign invaders from abroad but at closer inspection in the program, there was no ‘N’. There was no ‘A’. In fact, the tracks listed in these horses past performances showed ‘FR’. The FR stands for France. France? Yes. A couple of French trotters debuted at Saratoga in July. Was it coincidental that we had never seen one of these French horses before and now two pop up at essentially the same time? Well, no coincidence indeed and in fact when I looked into why these French trotters invaded the Spa during the same period of time, the reason was intriguing.

Yonkers Raceway (Empire City) has been simulcasting its races to France on Sundays for the past couple of years. The relationship has grown between Yonkers and the French and when some of the people in Yonkers management came up with the thought of potentially bringing some French horses to the US to compete, the idea quickly evolved. The thought was basically to drum up some more interest in their product from French bettors who may take a look and recognize some familiar horses. The idea of importing horses from France didn’t come out of nowhere however. Thoroughbred trainers have been shipping horses here from France for quite awhile now to compete in Grade 1’s and Grade 2’s on the turf and have enjoyed success. Thoroughbreds don’t race on the dirt in France so the French imports are strictly turf runners.

A group comprised of Yonkers administration and some of the sport’s top veteran horsemen including driver Michel Lachance and trainers Ray Schnittker and Ron Burke went to France to “scout.” The French put a list together of 50 or 60 horses that would be eligible for American trainers to purchase. The price on each horse would be $25,000. The US connections got to inspect and even train these horses and after they did so, assembled a group of 24 trotters that would be draft eligible. At that point, the trainers (and their owners) who agreed to take part in this had a lottery to determine which of the horses they would acquire. These horses then shipped to the States and began competing for their new connections. The French American Trotting Club Series was started at Yonkers for the French invaders and would consist of three legs each going for a $35,000 purse concluding with a $100,000 Final for top point-getters. Leg one of this series, that will conclude during the first week of September, took place on Sunday afternoon at Yonkers.

Two of the trainers who took part in this France-USA exchange are those that compete at Saratoga. Paul Kelley and Rene Allard are certainly familiar names to fans of the Spa and each of them acquired one of these $25,000 French-breds. The first one we saw compete at Saratoga was Allard’s Alpha D’urzy. Following two qualifiers, Alpha D’urzy made his first American start on July 15that the Spa and circled the field to prevail by four lengths in 1:57.1. After winning the following week in a start at Pocono Downs, it was back to town for Alpha D’urzy who faced his toughest test since coming to the US. Starting from post seven in a nine-horse field, Alpha D’urzy once again came from the back of the pack before swooping the group to win in 1:56.3. Alpha D’urzy headed into Sunday’s series undefeated for his new connections.

Akhenaton debuted out of the Paul Kelley on July 25thand was the public’s top choice in the wagering with Hall of Famer Wally Hennessey in the sulky. Hennessey moved Akhenaton out to the early lead and he covered the mile in 1:57.2 while drawing away late to win by more than three lengths. When I talked to Kelley about his newest acquisition, he discussed some of the differences between the French trotters and those we race here in the US. “Horses are trained much differently over there,” Kelley told me. “First of all, they don’t race as two year olds so by the time they do compete, they are more fully developed. They only race only a few times per year so they’re pretty fresh. The French races are much longer, though, so these horses are trained to go longer distances. They seem to kind of be grinders and after the mile is over, they think there’s more left to come. Our horses tend to know where the finish line is and kind of ease up after the wire. Wally said Akhenaton just kept going after the mile was complete because he’s used to going further in his races in France.” Kelley acknowledges that it can be quite an adjustment for the horses coming to the States as trotting hopples are not used in France and lasix is not allowed. They even race some of their races going in the other direction in France. The American connections are no doubt still learning about their new French friends and will certainly adjust accordingly as the Series continues at Yonkers. Could this start a new wave of invaders and perhaps open a pipeline from France to the US just like the one that was started in Australia and New Zealand decades ago? It’s possible. If these French imports continue to have success in America, this recent invasion could serve as a precursor for things to come. Unlike “down under,” though, the French only race trotters so there will be no pacing-breds headed here from France. These imports could open a new doorway to different racing jurisdictions and help expand the game globally. It happened over fifty years ago with the New Zealanders and Australians, and who knows, this new wave of French invaders could serve as the beginning of what’s to come.

Live racing takes place every Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday evening this summer at Saratoga with 7:05pm first posts each night. Until next week, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you the best of luck and we’ll see YOU at the finish line!

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