More than one incongruous note was struck last week in Madison Square Garden during the 91st National Horse Show. For instance, a dashing Puerto Rican rider named Juan Rieckehoff won the Grand Prix of New York City, an international jumping event, on a chestnut gelding named Don Juan. How can a gelding be named Don Juan?
But if such a thing as that has happened before, here is an undeniable first. A United States Equestrian Team made up of rookies won the Nations Cup—again. They did it last month in Washington, too, and are pretty clearly shaping up as the best international jumping team on this continent. Of course, U.S.E.T. Captain Frank Chapot is not exactly a rookie, being, among other things, an alumnus of five Olympic Games, but none of his teammates this year had competed in the class for even six months. And though Chapot rode Good Twist and the U.S.E.T.'s best horse, Main Spring, it was the new boys who racked up the points that beat Great Britain, with its individual point champion, David Broome, 82 to 78. Thom Hardy had ridden in only two international shows and has now helped to win two Nations Cups. Buddy Brown was only 18, barely out of the junior division. And there was Dennis Murphy, most interesting of all, whose first experience with horses was watching his father having trouble plowing a straight line.
A public-relations man for the show has said the international Jumping Class is what makes the New York subway rider pay nine dollars for a ticket. "It's the kids on our block against the kids on their block," he says, and for the New York Rolls-Royce riders it is practically the kids in our family against the kids in their family. Besides, it's exciting.
Chapot and the team's coach of 19 years, Bertalan de Nemethy, are at present quite excited, though one could be misled by the way the former tends to express himself. "That performance bodes well for the future of our team," he intoned after the victory. "Winning with the roster we had makes everyone who follows the progress of our team very happy." Especially Coach de Nemethy, because he has two more years to train these winners for the Olympics. (Rodney Jenkins may be the best U.S. rider, and he gave his subway fans at least $8.50's worth on the last night at the Garden when he finished second by [3/10] of a second to Michele McEvoy of the U.S. in the Open Jumper Stake. The second place was enough to keep his leading Open Jumper Rider status intact, but as a professional Jenkins cannot compete in the Olympics, which is why de Nemethy's mind is on his rookies.)
But a few more words about the horse show itself. The National has been designated by the FEI as a CHIO. That means that the F�d�ration Equestre Internationale, the official governing body of jumping, has adjudged it a Concours Hippique International Officiel, and that gives it the highest status a show can achieve (although Huddie Ledbetter, in The Midnight Special, has already told us how important jumping is: "Well jumping little Judy/She was a mighty fine girl/She brought jumping/To the whole round world").
At the horse show you see people running around dressed like Mrs. Astor, or the Beefeater, or Marshal Foch or Mandrake the Magician. Ads in the horse show program don't say:
DOMES' FEED STORE
Get Your Oats
From Joe C. Doates
They say, "Enter the World of Gucci." There are contests in which men wearing gray tweed double-vented jackets and strange little black snap-brim hats cause their sleek, ripply mounts to mince and jig around like courtiers at a royal ball with weak refreshments. There are dressage events in which horses actually seem to be shuffling off to Buffalo. Between events Meyer Davis music is piped in, you can buy a subscription to Sidesaddle News and, "If anyone has found a gold moneyclip..." began at least one public-address-system announcement last week. Some very lively-sounding names pop up in the course of the show, too, such as that of Mrs. Bunny St. Charles Jeffery, of Reno, Nev., who judged the Saddle Seat, or Good Hands, event. It is refreshing to watch the horses that are supposed to be standing at attention during awards ceremonies start dancing to the various national anthems. And the scene below, in the stalls area, just off the competition floor, is not effete. You may see a girl and a horse taking alternate bites out of an apple, or a rider having feverish drags on a cigarette while mounted and waiting to go on, or a fine hearty chestnut shifting his feet restively as he seems to glare at a sign that says, "No Horse Can Leave This Building Without a Release From the Horse Show Office."
Furthermore, the various jumping contests are rousers. Fences get kicked over, people fall off horses and horses land on their (the horses') heads. Any jumping rider appears from the rear, as he goes over an obstacle, to have been hoisted by a comic explosion, or jerked up like the ditchdiggers Hung skyward by the police motorcycles chasing W.C. Fields' car in The Bank Dick. The horses themselves snort as loudly in their exertions as any NFL tackle. So the international jumping is not something rookie Dennis Murphy has to be embarrassed about having lent his presence to the next time he visits the boys in the Birmingham garage he used to work in.
Three of the four U.S.E.T. riders at the Garden this year may have been rookies, but Murphy is special. "One year after every Olympic Games," says de Nemethy, a former Hungarian cavalry instructor who looks like the proprietor of a nice French restaurant, "we are advertising in the newspaper and bulletin that we will have trials on the East Coast, in Florida, the Midwest, California. We are making screening trials!" Open as it sounds, this invitation to be trained for an Olympic riding team is apt to draw people with good horses, and Dennis Murphy, 30 years old, born the son of an Alabama sharecropper, still cannot afford to own a good horse.