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The World According To Dean: French trotting is the lion in winter

Published: October 25, 2008 6:00 am ET

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They are the coldest and arguably the ugliest months of the year. November through February is certainly not my favorite time of year and I suspect you feel the same way.

People who live in Canada and the northern U.S. with the money and time head to places like Florida and Arizona. People who live in northern Europe, head to Spain, Italy, even the Caribbean. For many, it's just too bloody cold.

These months, however, are the hottest in the year for trotting in France. It's the season for the 81-day Vincennes winter meeting when many of the best horses in Europe head to Paris seeking fame and fortune.

France has the strongest harness racing program in the world and it must be seen to be believed. It's hardly a niche sport, as it is in North America. It's part of French culture, just like wine and cheese. When I was in Paris earlier this year for the Prix d'Amerique, the streets along the Seine were lined with posters promoting the Prix d'Amerique. I even saw one Prix d'Amerique billboard that was six stories high on the side of a suburban office building.

Sweden's major races are over until next spring. Trotting is on hold in Italy as racing's interests hold out for more money. Purses in Italy dropped from 126 million Euros ($203 million) in 2006 to just 86 million Euros ($138 million) last year.

That puts the focus on France and Vincennes. Purses worth 37.2 million Euros ($60 million) will be up for grabs at this mammoth track in the coming months.

The grand prize in French trotting is the Prix d'Amerique, contested on the final Sunday in January. It's the greatest spectacle in harness racing, but it is hardly the only megabucks event to lure the best horses in the coming months.

Some of the biggest races are reserved for French horses only, but the international races are what bring the greatest crowds. Horses qualify for the Prix d'Amerique in a series of four "B" races, called that because they all begin with the letter B.

They are the Prix de Bretagne on Nov. 15, Prix du Bourbonnais on Dec. 6, the Prix de Bourgogne on Dec. 28, and the Prix de Belgique on Jan. 11. The shortest of these races is 2,100 meters while two are contested over 2,850 meters. The Prix d'Amerique is raced over 2,700.

Races more than a mile are quite the norm in France and some of these races, including the Prix d'Amerique, are started without a mobile gate.

Offshore Dream is gearing up to for a possible "three-peat" in the Prix d'Amerique. He's not the imposing individual we often associate with French trotters, but instead a smaller, quick---but obviously strong----trotter. His dam is inbred to Speedy Crown and the mare Somolli through the brother-sister team of Speedy Somolli and Seascape Lobell. The dam of Offshore Dream is a granddaughter of Speedy Somolli while her second dam is Seascape Lobell, a sister to Speedy Somolli.

The names of the sires of trotters in France aren't likely to be familiar to most of us. The most recent list of leading sires for 2008 that I've seen shows Ganymede on top, followed by Coktail Jet, Love You, Goetmals Wood, and Viking's Way. Peek beneath the surface of their pedigrees, however, and you're going to find some North American trotting blood.

If you ever have reason to be in France during the winter and want to see some exciting trotting action, make your way to the Vincennes track in Paris. It's a wonderful setting and you'll see a spectacular side of harness racing that has made France the envy of the world of trotting.

Dean Hoffman, one of North America's most prolific harness racing journalists and member of the U.S. Harness Racing Hall of Fame, offers SC website readers his weekly look at international standardbred racing through his eyes.

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