Under swollen skies the other day at New York's JFK airport, a small band of travelers carefully loaded a dozen-odd horses and—with perceptibly less care—themselves aboard a chartered DC-8. The travelers were bound for Europe and, ultimately, the Munich Olympics. This was the U.S. show jumping team and its members planned to tune up for the Games by competing in horse shows in France, Switzerland and West Germany. For most of them the voyage meant being away from family stables, handsome residences and vast lawns. Such are the sacrifices people make just to be in the Olympics.
Of the three team members who took off aboard the KLM jetliner—two others were to fly over later—nobody was leaving behind more than Neal Shapiro, who would celebrate his 27th birthday in Europe. Shapiro had driven to the airport from his parents' ranch-style home 30 minutes away in Old Brookville, a community on Long Island's affluent North Shore. His luggage was piled high with no-iron shirts and enough socks, as Shapiro had emphasized while his wife Suzy and younger sister Jane were helping him pack, "that I'll have to do laundry just once a week." Shapiro also brought along his golf clubs. He had taken up golf only the year before, but Jane entertained no doubts that her brother would soon overtake Jack Nicklaus. "Everything Neal tries, he does so well," she said. Her voice had the ring less of sisterly allegiance than of dispassionate observation.
Other Shapiro observers included his neighbors, who had caught glimpses of him riding in the pine-ringed paddock out beyond the Shapiro swimming pool. This was always a splendid sight, both because of Shapiro's grace in the saddle and his vaguely sinister appearance, one compounded of swarthy features and deep, soulful eyes. Completing the picture was the thin allotment of hair that circumscribed Shapiro's head like—auspiciously, considering his mission at the Olympics—a laurel garland.
Until Munich beckoned, Shapiro dwelled on the four-acre spread in Old Brookville in amiable confusion with Suzy, Jane, his parents, a couple of dogs, half a dozen horses and his younger brother Steven. Leastwise he sometimes dwelled there. From this suburban beehive, he was generally buzzing off in so many directions that his mother, answering phone calls for him, pleaded helplessness. "No, I don't know where Neal is," Sylvia Shapiro would say. "I can't keep up with him. I don't even try."
Sylvia Shapiro's boy might be off one minute servicing jukeboxes for Docsy Enterprises, Inc., the vending machine business he and his father, Donald (Doc) Shapiro, operate out of office space in the family recreation room. At another time he could be at Long Island's Republic Field, preparing to take off in his twin-engine Cessna for another flight to one of his thrice-weekly workouts at the U.S. Equestrian Team's training grounds 90 miles away in New Jersey. Or he might be at work with the harness horses that he trains for the family's Hay Fever Farm and drives at New York's two tracks, Roosevelt and Yonkers. When you finally catch up with him, he could be dismounting from a jogging cart in Roosevelt's barn area, a polite, grinning fellow who, suddenly, does not seem sinister at all. "I'm happiest when I keep busy," Shapiro says. "I don't like sitting around."
Something else that claims Shapiro's energies is his electric organ. He allows few evenings to pass without running through "a couple of songs," which could mean the entire score of Hair. He plays well enough that he was asked to sit in during the regular organist's absence a couple of years ago at the big Washington International Horse Show. Clad in breeches and black boots, he played for 15 minutes and afterward, applause resounding through the D.C. Armory, went off to earn even greater ovations in the next show jumping class.
While it should be apparent by now that Shapiro is a man of many parts, it does not follow that he cultivates each equally. "The organ is something I do just for relaxation," he says. "The plane is for transportation. The harness horses are more or less of a hobby. The important thing is the show horses. Maybe it's because that's what I do best. But that's also what I've always worked for."
Shapiro has worked hard enough to rank as one of the leading, if least likely, riders in the world. In a sport that retains at least a few blueblood pretensions, he is a Jew two generations removed from the shtetls of Eastern Europe. Competing against riders who learned their horsemanship in exclusive hunt clubs, he made the U.S. Equestrian Team with no instruction other than "watching how the other riders did it." There is a further anomaly. In a sport populated by excitable horses—and people sometimes even more so—Shapiro is a fortress of calm and poise, qualities displayed last summer when he and Frenchman Marcel Rozier tied for the Grand Prix in the annual horse show at Aachen.
In 1966 Shapiro won the Aachen event, the most prestigious in show jumping, on his own horse, Jacks or Better. Last summer's triumph, which made him one of the few to win at Aachen on different mounts, was accomplished aboard Sloopy, a 7-year-old gelding owned by St. Paul sugar magnate Patrick Butler.
It would be imprudent, however, to install Shapiro—or anybody else—as a favorite at Munich. In an Olympic track event such as the 110-meter hurdles, no more than three or four contenders might have a realistic hope of victory. In show jumping, one of three Olympic equestrian events—the others are dressage and the three-day competition—the gold medal could go to any of 20 men (or women, since the equestrian events are the only ones in the Olympics in which the sexes regularly compete on equal terms). Unlike hurdlers, show jumpers clear their fences on horses, which introduces an element of unpredictability that any experienced horseplayer will find touchingly familiar.