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A Jump Ahead Of Everyone Else
Demmie Stathoplos
October 04, 1982
Melanie Smith and her show jumper, Calypso, are world-beaters, even if no one in her native land seems to know it
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October 04, 1982

A Jump Ahead Of Everyone Else

Melanie Smith and her show jumper, Calypso, are world-beaters, even if no one in her native land seems to know it

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In show jumping, these natural obstacles are simulated by a course designer, who arranges a variety of jumps and fences, and it doesn't matter how the horse gets over them, but whether or not it can go "clean," i.e., finish the course without knocking a fence rail down, refusing a jump or throwing the rider. The point is to finish the course in the fastest time with the least number of faults, and there are a set number of penalty points assigned to each infraction: For instance, each rail down equals four faults.

On the grand prix level, the highest level of international competition, the courses are more difficult and the fences higher (up to six feet) and wider. There are times when the horse brings down not only the fence, but the rider and himself as well—to "crash and burn," as Smith puts it—and years of experience don't always insure against such occurrences. In May at Hickstead, England, a member of the U.S. Equestrian Team broke his leg in just such a fall, and one of England's top horses crashed into a fence and shattered a leg. He had to be destroyed on the course.

Hickstead was a preliminary event to the World Show-Jumping Championships in Dublin in June, where the U.S. finished a disappointing fourth. Yet it was the only nation to have all four riders on its team in the top 20, underscoring a key problem for the Americans. The U.S. has many of the world's top riders but lacks a similar depth in its string of horses. One reason for this is that the best jumpers are bred in the countries where show jumping is important. Smith found Calypso, the best American horse, in Holland in 1978. The fact that she still has him is something of a miracle, and a review of her career points up why.

The Smiths weren't wealthy, but like so many parents of promising amateur athletes they were willing to make sacrifices to help their child achieve a goal. As a girl Melanie had modest successes in Mid-South horse shows, but to advance any further she needed expert coaching and top horses. That would cost money. A lot of money. The Smiths chose another route. In 1968 George Morris, a 1960 Olympian and the premier U.S. jumping coach, held a clinic in Knoxville, and Melanie, then 19, and Rachael double-teamed him. "George was recovering from hepatitis, and he was mean as hell," says Rachael of this first meeting. "But I walked right up to him. He said, 'What do you want?' He was thinking, 'Oh, God, here comes another idiot mother.' I said, 'I want the Olympic team.' "

"Can you imagine," moans Smith, "this little country stranger telling George Morris she wants her daughter on the Olympic team?" Morris told the Smiths flatly that Melanie was too old to begin serious training and didn't have a good enough horse or sufficient money. But Melanie tackled him again the following year. This time Morris agreed to coach her during the six-event Florida circuit in the winter of 1970. She became champion in the amateur-owner jumper division and won the national title in that category later that year. Then Morris asked her to work with him, although he had never before taken on working students. She has been with him 12 years now, longer than any other student.

Smith's relationship with Morris became her entree to the all-important "A" show-jumping circuit. In exchange for her grooming and braiding horses, Morris coached her and, as she says, "gave me organizational and technical knowledge. I found out that the things I had been doing all along had names."

She continued to chalk up a string of impressive victories until, in 1974, she got a sponsor, Stillmeadow Farm in Connecticut. Sponsorship is the only way most riders are able to compete over the long term, because it can cost more than $100,000 a year for a top-level rider and horse to stay on the circuit. Smith's arrangement was like most: Stillmeadow picked up the tab for keeping her on the circuit; in return, she trained and showed their horses in competition. To preserve her amateur status, required for the Pan-Am and Olympic games, Smith can accept none of the money or gifts won in competition. Those go to the owner of her horse.

Later that year Smith won her first grand prix event, on a bay gelding named Radnor II. (In 1976 Radnor II was the leading money-winner, and Smith was chosen as an alternate to the Olympic Games but did not get the chance to ride.)

In 1977, Stillmeadow purchased another horse, a 12-year-old French gelding with a weakness for Life Savers named Val de Loire. Val de Loire became Smith's regular mount, and she rode him to an unprecedented five grand prix wins in 1978. Val de Loire was Horse of the Year, Smith was Rider of the Year and between them they won $36,800 for Stillmeadow, a lot of money for the sport at that time.

Nineteen seventy-eight turned out to be the pivotal year for Smith in another way: She found her one-in-a-million horse in Holland. She bought Calypso, then five years old, for Stillmeadow for $40,000, a price that was to prove decidedly bargain basement. She began training him, and soon they emerged as a team that was to set show jumping on its ear.

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