No way to treat a lady
How Jean-Louis Lévesque’s great filly La Prévoyante was ridden into the ground
I first met Jean-Louis Lévesque face-to-face on June 9, 1973— mark the day well, it may turn out to be the most significant date in North American racing history, but not for Jean-Louis Lévesque. We met in the Trustees’ Room at Belmont Racetrack, half an hour out of Manhattan. Monsieur Lévesque is short, rather squat, sober looking, someone you might see in his shirtsleeves going over a set of books. He speaks quietly, with the wonderful “Oh yes” and “No no” characteristic of people from Quebec whose first language is French. I hadn’t been with him five minutes before he whipped a picture out of his pocket, of a horse, his filly, La Prévoyante, a beautiful animal with a unique white abstract lip imprint high between her eyes. In apple-green and white, Lévesque’s racing colors, the rest of the card touted La Prévoyante and her alive-and-kicking, though not necessarily running, stablemates.
Under the heading Chevaux à l’entraînement — Horses in Training, subheaded Three-Year-Olds — was Jean-Louis Lévesque’s filly, his wonder horse, his champion La Prévoyante.
Twelve times La Prévoyante went to the races as a twoyear-old in 1972, and 12 times she won. Filly of the year as a two-year-old, she, in any other twelvemonth, might well, with that record, also have been chosen horse of the year. But that honor fell to a colt Jean-Louis Lévesque and I had come to Belmont this June 9 to see run in the Belmont Stakes.
Whoa! to any horse foaled in 1970, the year a mare named Somethingroyal produced a colt sired by Bold Ruler. A grown man called Sigmund Sommer, who owned a stakes winner and record breaker called Sham, broke down and wept later that June 9 afternoon. He was only the latest, but not the last, to experience humiliation from what press agents might call The Canadian Conspiracy — trainer Lucien Laurin of Quebec, jockey Ron Turcotte of New Brunswick. With amazement and unbelief Jean-Louis Lévesque and I watched the conspirators’ colt, Secretariat, win the Belmont Stakes — and racing’s Triple Crown! — by the unheard of margin of 31 lengths. Sigmund Sommer’s horse raced head and head with Secretariat at the beginning of that one, till Turcotte barely shook up his horse, and ran poor Sham right into the ground.
But Jean-Louis Lévesque was not there as just a horseman witness to the first Triple Crown winner since Citation did it in 1948.
He was, in his way, part of the larger Secretariat Conspiracy, masterminded by Mrs. Penny Tweedy, owner of Meadow Stable, who had syndicated Secretariat for more than six million dollars — the highest syndication for any horse anywhere in the world: Jean-Louis Lévesque sat watching as a thoroughly interested party: he held one of the 32 shares Secretariat’s stud services had been parceled out at. His dream of dreams was to bring together the horse of the year 1972, Secretariat, and the filly of the year, La Prévoyante, in what might turn out to be the greatest mating in the history of racing. Veteran breeders advised against breeding a three-year-old colt with a three-year-old filly, but the fabulous records set by Secretariat and La Prévoyante created a great wonder in horsemen. What, indeed, might such a union turn out?
To the great Bold Ruler and the dam Somethingroyal would be added La Prévoyante’s lineage, Buckpasser, one of the most exciting horses North American racing ever saw, and Arctic Dancer, full sister to the great Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner, the E. P. Taylor bred Northern Dancer, winner of the Queen’s Plate in 1964.
“You have to understand what luck can do in racing, eh?” Lévesque said to me, his finger on “Foals of 1972” and its top line showing once again Buckpasser as sire and his own great filly of 1970, Fanfreluche, as dam: “Mrs. Tweedy, she lost the toss of a coin, and that’s how she got Secretariat. Eighteen months ago she was worse than flat broke. Now look — Riva Ridge, Secretariat . . .”
Talking racing, going over horse lines, discussing winnings, purses, prospects, Lévesque was a businessman, but not when he spoke of La Prévoyante. Perhaps it is easier to become sentimental about an animal that has won almost half a million bucks, mostly in filly races as a two-year-old, but Lévesque, clearly, doesn’t need La Prévoyante’s dot. His love for La Prévoyante seemed quite independent of her money.
In the Belmont Trustees’ Room Lévesque looked anything but at home. Conversation around us was about yachting, cruising, flying, basking, and everybody — male or female — seemed to be named Chickey, Buffie, Biffie, Sissie, or Hedge, Regis, Crawf, Paisley. Lévesque’s familiar name, in case I neglected to tell you, is Louie. The place-names that dropped out of the Belmont mouths were Antibes, Lucerne, Tahiti, etc. Points were deducted, I think, for mentioning any spot in North America. One conversation went something like this: “Oh, Wendy sweetheart, I haven’t seen you in —” “Hedge, love, do you know my husband, Castle?” “Hedge,” says Castle, “it’s about time — I’ve been looking at that boat of yours for years; put down in Nice next time you’re there —”
“I just have to get rid of that boat, Wendy, we’re spending
more and more of our time in the Bahamas —”
“Dear God, Hedge, sell that boat? It’s the most magnificent thing on the entire Med!”
“I’ll try not to, Wend.”
Instant Scott Fitzgerald, right? and here’s Lévesque, not tuned in to even the most obvious code words. When one learns of his background, one has no trouble seeing where the gentleness comes from — no matter how tough a guy he is in financial and business matters. Lévesque is, next to E. P. Taylor, the foremost breeder in Canadian racing of the postWorld War II period. But Taylor it was who walked with Queen Elizabeth II over the almost-red carpet after the Queen’s Plate La Prévoyante was supposed to win easily. Taylor could have joined Hedge and Shmedge and Biffie and Buffie in yacht talk that day at Belmont. Taylor is Woodbine, Taylor is — no matter his official residence — Canadian racing. Lévesque, though he never says so, is as much an outsider to the social side of racing in Ontario as he is to the class-upmanship we heard practised the day of the Belmont Stakes.
His own breeding lines show a sleeper was bom April 13, 1911, on the Gaspé coast. Thirty miles away 11 years later a distant relative, another Lévesque was
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bom, René, one of the first leaders of the separatist movement Jean-Louis rejects, fears, and wants no part of. In 1970, the day before Fanfreluche ran in the Queen’s Plate, Jean-Louis Lévesque’s house was bombed by so-called “extremists,” usually designated, for purposes of police neatness, the FLQ, a movement quite different from René Lévesque’s tepid, conservative, evolutionary party. That day Jean-Louis Lévesque göt back from Moncton, and could very well have been in or near the garage when the bomb went off. Six additional sticks of unexploded dynamite were found, enough to blow the house and all its inhabitants to bits.
Far from being a separatist, Lévesque not only likes being a Canadian, he also pointed La Prévoyante to the Queen’s Plate, rather than to other lucrative North American races, because Lévesque knew the Queen herself would be present at the 114th mnning of Canada’s great race — North America’s oldest continuously run — to turn over to the winning owner, one Jean-Louis Lévesque, the odds said, the 50 guineas that went with the trophy and the $80,000 first-place share of the gross value $124,150 purse. That was the scenario he and I talked about on the phone early this year. Lévesque wasn’t passing up the Triple Crown races for fillies — the Acorn, the Mother Goose, and the challenging lVi-mile Coaching Club American Oaks — just for love of Canadian racing, however. A tough racing man would know that Buckpasser was a great sprint champion though, on occasion, the horse could go a distance: a hard-nosed owner would see that his spectacular filly had done her best racing at distances shorter than 1-1/16 miles, though, on one historic occasion, at Laurel in Maryland on October 28, 1972, she won by 14 lengths at 1-1/16 on a sloppy track: there were two stakes races at Laurel that day, each at more than $100,000, one for fillies — which La Prévoyante won handily — and one for colts — which Secretariat won almost as handily. Ever the scene-stealer and delusion-killer, Secretariat’s time that day was four seconds faster than La Prévoyante^.
That Gaspé coast beginning is the key, I think, to almost everything about Lévesque. He doesn’t kid himself about most things financial or statistical. His mother ran a kind of credit union when he was born, his father had a cooperative dealing in hay and oats. Lévesque was, and still is, basically a Gaspé coast person. He had all his schooling there till he was 15, then spent six years at Gaspé College, finishing with a BA from St. Dunstan’s (then affiliated with Laval). In 1934, he says shyly, he received his BA at the age of 23 — to him rather
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late. But while he was doing BA work he was also learning English. The Gaspé accent is quite evident in his French, and just as evident in his English. He drove taxis to help himself through his education, sold everything, he says, “from tombstones to punchboards.” When he had his degree, he joined the Provincial Bank in Moncton.
Few tales are more boring than Horatio Alger success stories, few tales more filled with mystique, signs, omens, and variegated drivel. On the morning line in 1934 Lévesque would have been quoted as roughly 1,000,000-1 to have a horse like La Prévoyante running the North American racetracks in 1972-73. The story is clean and neat: he worked in the brokerage department of the Provincial Bank for several years, learned the brokerage game thoroughly, which, as those who see the state of the market in 1973 have to be reminded, was once a shoo-in race for anybody in the run for money. His holding companies — FIC Fund Inc. (Finance, Industry, Commerce), and Interprovincial Credit, as well as Lévesque-Beaubien — have all worked out well: La Prévoyante, as almost everybody in Quebec knows, is named after La Prévoyance Cie d’Assurances (Provident Assurance Company), one of Lévesque’s more successful enterprises.
It was all set up, then: avoid running against colts like Secretariat, stick to filly races at around a mile, bring La Prévoyante around slowly in 1973. Only one mishap befell La Prévoyante, she kicked herself at Keeneland in Kentucky and cut herself badly. According to Lévesque, when the filly was examined, they looked in front only and neglected to check out the back. The leg swelled badly and the horse had to be put on antibiotics, which killed her appetite, and made her all listless. By June of this year, though, the horse was her old peppy self, eating like a — horse, and full of spunk.
“Once she start to eat,” Lévesque told me, “she come back, and now she’s better than ever.”
But the nicked leg wasn’t the only bad omen for La Prévoyante. Lévesque, who is terribly superstitious, in spite of being bom on the thirteenth himself, had a feeling something might happen in La Prévoyante’s thirteenth race, her first as a three-year-old. The distance couldn’t have been more suited to the filly — six furlongs; the competition couldn’t have been fairer — all fillies; the track conditions couldn’t have been better — fast. Only one factor raised any question at all: La Prévoyante hadn’t raced in almost four months. Just as Lévesque feared, that day, March 5, 1973, at Gulfstream Park in Florida, La Prévoyante lost her first and thirteenth racé by three lengths to an excellent horse, Bold
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Memory, who covered the distance in the astonishing time of 1.08 4/5. Next time out, April 7, back in her best form, La Prévoyante won a six-furlong race on a sloppy track easily. Again, on April 28, she won at Churchill Downs, on a fast track, but by only a head. After almost every race I spoke with Lévesque, and after almost every race he assured me things were going according to plan — his plan and his trainer, Yonnie Starr’s plan. The jockey in all of La Prévoyante^ races was the same man, John LeBlanc. He, Starr and Lévesque must have had visions of themselves as Lucien Laurin and Ron Turcotte’s rivals.
But on May 4, a day before the Kentucky Derby, in the Kentucky Oaks, a 1-1/16-mile race for fillies, Lévesque saw his horse take a four-length lead into the stretch and then lose by five lengths to Bag of Tunes. The next day, of course, the wonder horse that was a wonder horse, Secretariat, broke the stakes record in winning the Kentucky Derby.
Defeat isn’t anything a horseman likes. Defeat isn’t anything Jean-Louis Lévesque likes. La Prévoyante wasn’t just any horse in his stable. This was the horse, the magic, wonderful horse he still speaks of with excitement, intimacy, out-and-out preference: if anyone asks him if La Prévoyante is the greatest horse he has ever owned, Lévesque pauses to think, mentions Fanfreluche, and others. But direct questions about La Prévoyante are of a different order, and so are Lévesque’s answers. A horse like that losing was personal, and painful. I think that in spite of the horseman’s cliché which says even the best of horses has to lose sometimes — witness Secretariat’s inexplicable loss in the Wood Memorial prior to the Kentucky Derby — Lévesque in some ways thought he had the perfect animal. More significantly, LeBlanc started to think that too, and perhaps, at some point late in 1972, Trainer Starr had that illusion.
The year 1972 could easily create hubris in an owner of a horse that won 12 straight. I began following La Prévoyante long ago it seems now, when she characteristically broke on top of the pack and left all her filly rivals fighting for second spot. In 1972 it was easy to get into a frame of mind that recognized the miracle of two wonder horses appearing in the one racing year. But La Prévoyante^ loss in the Kentucky Oaks soured the legend instantly. Horse racing, as I pointed out in a Maclean’s article on Ron Turcotte last year, is a game of blaming. Only one horse wins a given race, and only one set of those-who-figured-it-right emerges: all others are involved in blame — owners blame trainers and trainers blame jockeys.
At the Kentucky filly race all three — Lévesque, Starr, LeBlanc — looked to La Prévoyante for explanation, and La
Prévoyante obliged. The giddy days of 1972 were clearly over. La Prévoyante could be had: it wasn’t yet established how she would be had — by track conditions; by the distance of a race; by the quality of the opposition; by having to race, in the big Canadian stakes, against colts as well as against fillies.
For more than three weeks, between Churchill Downs and her first run in an allowance race at Blue Bonnets in Montreal, La Prévoyante took it rather easy. She won that Montreal race like the La Prévoyante of old, by eight lengths on a fast track, in the unstartling
time for six furlongs of 1.10-4/5 (almost two seconds slower, remember, than in her loss to Bold Memory the last time she had gone six furlongs). That race was only a prep for the real target, the Quebec Derby, in which La Prévoyante would take on both colts and fillies at a distance of IVs miles. The track came up sloppy — even soupy — and La Prévoyante breezed home first over Victorian Prince, a colt, by 2Vi lengths.
The following week, seven calendar days later — La Prévoyante was out at Woodbine to pick up what looked like a
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gift purse, the Canadian Oaks. The distance was the same as the Quebec Derby, l Vs miles, the opposition pitiful — a bunch of fillies who, combined, hadn’t earned in 1972 what La Prévoyante earned in any racing month. Remember now: just two weeks earlier, the great Secretariat had won the Belmont and the Triple Crown by 31 lengths. In the Oaks at Woodbine, doing the first six furlongs in 1.09-2/5, a fantastic pace if the race were only a mile long — and leading by, at one point, 19 lengths, tnough the official chart shows a lead of 12 when the call was made — La
Prévoyante, close to the track record at a mile, faltered, stopped badly, and, for the first time in her life, finished as far back as third. In the Oaks she went off the favorite at the overwhelming odds of 1-20 — something Secretariat, at that point, had not done. She was beaten by two fillies whose racing credentials hardly equipped them to be La Prévoyante’s lead horse onto the track.
Something, clearly, had gone wrong. Were those John LeBlanc’s racing instructions or did he, remembering Secretariat’s 31-length win, reach beyond La Prévoyante’s strength that day to
come up with a smashing victory everyone would compare with Secretariat’s in the Belmont? Hubris, it’s called, when you tempt the fates, right? And hubris, in case you’ve forgotten those savage Greek moralities, says that those who overreach themselves have to be shafted — and good. Lightning didn’t strike John LeBlanc or Yonnie Starr: but Louie Lévesque’s wonderful filly was suddenly run right into the ground.
Racing, more, I think, than any other sport, is afflicted with explainers, a terrible breed who wait for disaster with the avidity and patience of jackals, and, when it strikes, plunge hungrily into the record books to come up with it, the guilty corpse. When Secretariat lost the Wood Memorial reams and reams of utter nonsense were written to explain how Bold Ruler horses just aren’t bred to go the distance; when Secretariat won the Triple Crown I don’t recall one track explainer taking back the rap he had put on Bold Ruler only weeks before. When La Prévoyante lost the Kentucky Oaks, the flack began, but the target now was La Prévoyante’s daddy, Buckpasser: as an afterthought, the turf wits put a little heat on La Prévoyante’s mummy, Arctic Dancer. Winning the Quebec Derby at 1 Vs miles quieted the rumble for a week. But when La Prévoyante lost the Canadian Oaks the song picked up again—incredibly! A horse in a L/s-mile race does six furlongs in 1.09-2/5 and the explainers want to blame the horse’s pappa.
It was okay for Ron Turcotte to let Secretariat go in the Belmont because Secretariat had killed off Sham, and the rest of the field was laboring just to keep Secretariat in sight. If La Prévoyante had won over the Canadian Oaks field by 31 lengths John LeBlanc would have proved nothing.
Even worse, look at the killing schedule set for La Prévoyante:
June 16 The Quebec Derby l1/* miles
June 23 The Canadian Oaks VA miles
June 30 The Queen’s Plate VÁ miles
In 15 days a three-year-old filly was
being asked to run a total of 3'/2 miles! The day before the Queen’s Plate, Yonnie Starr admitted that he wasn’t happy about the fatiguing round Lévesque’s filly had been put through.
“We thought she would have an easy race in the Oaks. It didn’t work out that way, and now my position is much the same as Lucien Laurin, after Secretariat’s disappointing race in the Wood Memorial.”
Starr was wrong. His position was not at all “the same” as Lucien Laurin’s after the Wood Memorial. First, Ron Turcotte at no time forced Secretariat to run at a record clip: Turcotte clearly kept his eye on the Derby and, at some point in the Wood, decided not to ride Secretariat into a state of fatigue. The other difference was that Secretariat after the Wood had two weeks, not La Prévoyante’s one, to rest up for the big race. Secretariat’s Triple Crown schedule, in contrast with La Prévoyante’s, spread over 36 days, even if the total distance of his three races was slightly longer, 3-15/16 miles.
Two days before the Queen’s Plate I had lunch with Jean-Louis Lévesque at Woodbine. The track was sloppy — La Prévoyante’s kind of going — rain was possible the night before the race. I asked him an obvious question — was he going to stick with LeBlanc. The answer was that he was sticking with Yonnie Starr, and Yonnie Starr was sticking with LeBlanc. Earlier I had spoken with Bruce Walker, the publicity director of the Ontario Jockey Club. All the eyewitnesses to the Canadian Oaks, it seems, had been shocked out of their minds by what happened to Lévesque’s superhorse in the Oaks.
On Belmont day, when Mrs. Tweedy was accepting congratulations for Secretariat’s great victory, Lévesque had invited her, her husband and Mr. and Mrs. Lucien Laurin to be his guests at the Queen’s Plate. They had all accepted. Which meant, of course, that Ron Turcotte could be lured off his usual stakes ride at Aqueduct on the Saturday of the Queen’s Plate. But shortly after Lévesque issued his invitation, television and Chicago’s Arlington Park cooked up a lVfj-mile race just to give the people in the Midwest a chance to see racing’s great Triple Crown winner. In one flick there went not only Lévesque’s planned party but Ron Turcotte — if, that is, Lévesque and Starr were to consider a drastic jockey change at so late an hour. Talking with Bruce Walker, knowing that Ron Turcotte was tied up, I thought of the solution one might suggest to Lévesque - get somebody hot, like Jacinto Vasquez, or Lafitt Pincay Jr, to fly in for the Plate, guaranteeing the rider 10% of the purse in whatever stakes races he’d be in that Queen’s Plate Saturday.
In my luncheon conversation with Lé-
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vesque I suddenly understood something quite touching about him: he would take his chances at losing the Plate rather than be what he considered disloyal to his trainer or to his trainer’s choice of jockey.
Anyone who watched the Plate knows the horror story Jean-Louis Lévesque and Queen Elizabeth II witnessed that afternoon. Because La Prévoyante had been so sadly beaten in the Oaks, the one strategy that had to be abandoned was La Prévoyante’s usual front-running race. The track was heavy with mud, dull, not splashy or sloppy. The winning time of the race, 2.08, was more than six seconds off the track record. At the three-quarter pole (six furlongs) La Prévoyante was head to head with Viscount Hardinge’s Queen’s Splendor, an ironically named 60-1 shot, their time a slogging 1.13-1/5, something La Prévoyante should be able to do backing up. And into the stretch, this wonder horse, this badly-treated misunderstood filly, not allowed to run in front, and feeling for the first time the pelting mud of claimers caught in the pack, dropped back and back and back, finishing eighth, the worst finish of her career. It was the first race in almost a year that La Prévoyante didn’t start as an odds-on favorite, going off favorite at 7-5. “We slew them,” Jack Stafford, owner of the winning Royal Chocolate, told Queen Elizabeth, and the Queen laughed. The only “them” that mattered were Lévesque and La Prévoyante.
Watching it all happen was JeanLouis Lévesque. He too had started to believe the rap being put on Buckpasser and Arctic Dancer. But no horseman — though none would let himself be quoted — who had seen the Canadian Oaks wanted to say much about La Prévoyante’s breeding. Two days before the race Lévesque had tears in his eyes talking about his filly. A horse can come to the Queen’s Plate only once in a lifetime: and the Queen’s Plate run before the Queen was the greatest honor of them all for Lévesque.
La Prévoyante lost the race badly, but many, watching, couldn’t help ask themselves if, with gentler demands on her and kinder handling, the filly might not have had a 10-length victory instead of a 10-length defeat. Many came away from the 1973 Queen’s Plate sour. Not that anyone wanted to crab about Jack Stafford’s finally coming through with a Plate victory. The story had little to do with Jack Stafford.
As I watched La Prévoyante being led away, mudsplattered and weary, I felt sad for her, and for Lévesque. The race was over, the explainers started in again on Buckpasser as a lousy dad. If the turf experts wanted to do some blaming, they could, I thought, find much more deserving targets than a horse. ■