Jean-Michel Bazire driving Belina Josselyn (12) home last yearJean-Michel Bazire driving Belina Josselyn (12) home last year (AFP Photo/Geoffroy VAN DER HASSELT)
Paris (AFP) - The Prix d'Amerique, founded as a tribute to the American soldiers who fought in World War I, celebrates its centenary on Sunday with last year's winner Belina Josselyn facing 17 rivals in pursuit of trotting's most prestigious prize.
The 2,700m showpiece worth 900,000 euros ($1 million) is trotting's undisputed world heavyweight championship, drawing an annual crowd of 40,000 with bets of over 40 million euros wagered.
First run in 1920 at Vincennes, the hippodrome on the east of Paris, the Prix d'Amerique is trotting's equivalent to flat racing's Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, staged across the French capital at Longchamp every autumn.
It has been held every year apart from in 1940 and 1941 when it fell victim to World War II.
Despite its raison d'etre, American trainers account for only three victories.
Walter Dear won in 1934, then Delmonica Hanover ended a four-decade wait for their second in 1974 with Moni Maker in 1999 the last time Vincennes's rafters reverberated to the sound of the Star-Spangled Banner.
Moni Maker supplied Jean-Michel Bazire with the first of his four Prix d'Ameriques, and the driver who lost a kidney at 13 and suffered a stroke in a race in 2012 could well hold the key to Sunday's special renewal.
Affectionately known as trotting's answer to Zinedine Zidane the 48-year-old is a 20-time 'Sulky d'Or', the title awarded to the driver with the most victories in a season.
The winner of over 6,000 races Bazire followed up Moni Maker with Kesaco Phedo in 2004, Up and Quick in 2015 and Belina Josselyn 12 months ago.
"The mare is going well, she's supple, alert, and bouncing," says Bazire, her driver-trainer.
He also trains Davidson du Pont, with Franck Ouvrie in the sulky, and has a slight preference for the chance of last year's fourth.
"Davidson is perfect, he's gained condition, he's at his best, he's so regular, he's not going to fold!"
- Lazy King -
He also has another serious contender for the coveted crown in Looking Superb, runner-up in 2019.
"He leaves his heart on the track, he's proven he has the ability," says Bazire.
The betting suggests a wide open contest is in prospect, with 'JMB's Belina Josselyn and Davidson du Pont sharing favouritism with Face Time Bourbon, trained by Sebastien Guarato, who also fields 2016 and 2017 champion Bold Eagle.
The five-year-old Face Time Bourbon is his pick.
"He's my best chance. He's easy to drive and never disappoints...If he runs his race he'll be in the first three."
In a rare occurence a brother and sister - Delia du Pommereux and Enino du Pommereux - are in the line-up, with Delia's driver Franck Nivard going for a record sixth victory.
The Prix d'Amerique roll of honour reads like a who's who of trotting royalty, with one name king of the castle.
Ourasi was elected the best French trotter of all time in French sports daily L'Equipe in 2006, and with good reason.
The champion in 1986 he returned to claim trotting's holy grail in 1987, 1988 and 1990 - for good measure taking second in 1989.
With his nonchalant attitude and box office charisma he quickly became known as 'the Lazy King'.
The battle for the race that owes its existence to the United States' contribution to WWI is due off at 1510GMT.