For the first time in years, thanks to the highly articulate announcing of Victor Hugo-Vidal Jr. (a new man at the public-address microphone), spectators at the National Horse Show knew exactly what was going on at all times. And there was plenty going on. The best National in-years climaxed its eight days at New York's Madison Square Garden with a sizzling competition that well displayed the extraordinary talents of two superb horsemen, professional trainer Ben O'Meara and the U.S. Equestrian Team's Bill Steinkraus. In separate divisions each had to win the last event in order to win the championship, and both, after jump-offs of a completely different nature, succeeded.
The 26-year-old O'Meara, who blazed onto the scene like the Ikeya-Seki Comet about four years ago when his gelding Jacks or Better was a standout, has dominated the open class at the National for the last three years. In 1963 O'Meara's Untouchable (now owned by Patrick Butler and on loan to the USET) was champion. Last year O'Meara won again with The Hood (now owned by Gail Ross of the Canadian Equestrian Team).
As this year's National approached, Ben found himself on foot. He hastily purchased some jumpers. One was Gray Lady, a mare with an undistinguished past who, when the show got under way, did not appear destined for a more inspiring future. She finished sixth in her first class. But, chasing his competitors like Aesop's tortoise, O'Meara kept his unpromising mare steadily in the money throughout the week, and when the stake started she was tied with Chance Hill Farm's Sure Thing for third place. In first was Patrick Butler's In My Cap, a green jumper that Butler purchased this summer on the advice of the USET's Kathy Kusner. Second was Danny Lopez' Australis, who already had won the PHA Championship, an honor awarded on points accumulated at shows throughout the year. But O'Meara, in that final and decisive class, had one big thing going for him: he was riding last; and—given no faults—time would be the deciding factor in the second jump-off.
Australis went first. She covered the course in a blistering 36.5 seconds but pulled down a pole. The next horse was slower and also knocked a rail down. Sure Thing, another contender for the honors, had a rail down as well as a refusal. All Benny had to do was go clean. Taking an all-or-nothing chance, he ignored the clock and started the course slowly, riding wide turns and setting the mare up carefully for each fence. At one point Gray Lady rapped a pole hard, and it rattled in its cups but did not drop. Benny lifted his mare coolly over the last fences and into first place in a deliberate 68.3 seconds. Stake winner and champion at last, she had narrowly defeated Australis. Patrick Butler was hardly disconsolate—for a green horse his In My Cap had put on quite a performance.
Another green horse who had a spectacular week was Snowbound, ridden by Bill Steinkraus. Snowbound's performance made him stand out as prominently among the U.S. riders as the U.S. team did over its competition.
Actually the U.S. had little international competition. There may have been a valid excuse for this on the part of Argentina, whose horses were in far from prime form after spending 30 days at sea and missing the Pennsylvania National at Harrisburg. The other foreign teams had no such handy alibi. Their lack, however, was more than made up for by the spirited American intrateam battle. Frank Chapot, on Mrs. John A. T. Galvin's San Lucas, tied the 1963 Puissance record set by Tommy Gay ford on Blue Beau at a towering 7 feet 1 inch. Steinkraus and Snowbound were in turn tied with Chapot, but Steinkraus withdrew his gelding from the final jump-off that night. Both were members of the same team and using horses belonging to the same family (Snowbound is on loan from the Princess de la Tour d'Auvergne—nee Patricia Galvin); but Steinkraus was more interested in saving his horse than winning. "I'm not going to take on San Lucas and maybe get Snowbound hurt," he said. "At the moment Snowbound doesn't know there is anything he can't do. I don't want to get him in a bad wreck and shake his confidence. Right now he's jumping like a kitten, flexible and relaxed. He hasn't learned the precision of a cat."
On the show's final night, however, Snowbound behaved more like a tiger than either a cat or a kitten, and critics who have claimed that Bill Steinkraus is more of an intellectual rider than a do-or-die competitor had to revise their opinions. Only the four U.S. riders were involved in the jump-off, and the first two, Mary and Frank Chapot, had knockdowns. The course was extremely tight, with sharp turns and angled fences. Kathy Kusner, an all-out competitor who was tied with Steinkraus for individual honors, had a clean trip and a good time of 41.2 seconds. So it was up to Bill, against a clean round and the clock.
From the second he passed through the timer it was apparent he was going all out. Snowbound skidded slightly but recovered and cleared the fence, then went into a sharp turn, his hind quarters slipping completely from under him. Billy went out of the saddle, lost his hat and almost lost his horse. But rider and horse recovered in a split second, angled into the next fence and were clean the rest of the way. They finished nearly three seconds ahead of Kathy.
"You know," one expert observer remarked later, "even without his stirrups and making that wild ride Billy still looked just like Billy. Absolutely the calm, picture rider."