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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 1980 Smith realized her dream of being selected to represent the U.S. at the Olympic Games, but then, of course, the U.S. didn't participate in Moscow. Instead the team competed in Rotterdam, Calypso's home turf, at the alternate Olympics, and once again fate almost cost Smith the chance to ride for her country.

It was the morning of the final day of competition. A rookie groom was mucking out Calypso's stall, unaware that Calypso didn't have the good-natured personality of his stablemate, Val de Loire. Calypso has a strong sense of privacy; he doesn't care for strangers in his stall and can make that perfectly clear in a few seconds. Calypso is often bluffing, but when he made a move toward the groom in Rotterdam, ears menacingly slicked back against his head, the groom panicked and accidentally rammed a pitchfork tine into the corner of the mouth of America's best hope for a medal.

"Calypso was bleeding all over the place," Smith recalls with a grimace. "We alternated icing and heating the wound, but he was so sore I couldn't put a bit in his mouth. I had to work him with a halter." A few hours later Smith and Calypso went into the ring and emerged with a bronze medal. Typically, Smith gives her horse the credit. "He really rises to the occasion," she says, no pun presumably intended. "He seems to know when an event is really important."

Unfortunately, back home, matters were not going so well at Stillmeadow Farm. Smith's once close relationship with the owners had deteriorated to the point where she was no longer living there; she was expected just to show up before a competition to ride the horses. In a sport in which the rider is also the trainer, the arrangement was at best counterproductive. Horses require a daily training program. Smith was not permitted to control their regimen, and a distinct falling-off was observed in their performance.

To this day Smith refuses to comment on the details of what led to her final break with Stillmeadow, but about the time the relationship went sour, a successful young entrepreneur named Marc St. James was looking for a new investment. St. James is a spectacular example of the workaholic; his idea of fun is a 20-hour business day. At 36 he was the owner of several privately held companies engaged in a variety of business activities, but he wanted something different that would appreciate in value, produce revenue and provide a tax shelter. Horses, he found, filled the bill. "The thoroughbred market was fully developed," says St. James, "so I hired people to do original research on show jumpers." What he discovered was that jumpers outperformed stocks, bonds, gold, diamonds and real estate, so in October 1979 he purchased a rundown 25-acre farm in the small northwestern Connecticut community of Morris. He named it Windrush after the winds that sweep over its hillsides the year around. He rid the barn of hundreds of rats, removed 28 tons of manure from the show ring, built some stalls and began looking for a top trainer and rider for the horses he planned to purchase.

The timing was almost perfect. The previous month St. James had taken his wife, Joyce, to the American Jumping Derby in Portsmouth, R.I., where Smith and Calypso won the first leg of show jumping's Triple Crown. In 1981 the pair won the second leg at the American Gold Cup in Devon, and in 1982 Smith and Calypso polished off the third leg with their win at the American Invitational in Tampa. This marked the first time these events had been won by the same horse and rider. In fact, no horse or rider had ever won all three, much less the same horse-and-rider combination.

After seeing Smith's performance on Calypso at the American Jumping Derby St. James approached her with an offer she found hard to refuse, but she held on as long as possible to the arrangement with Stillmeadow, because they owned Calypso. When the final rupture came, in June of 1981, it was a heartbreaking moment: She was going to have to start from scratch with new, untrained horses.

But she got lucky. On July 1, she heard that Calypso was up for sale and tried to buy him for St. James. Stillmeadow, obviously not wanting Smith to have the horse, insisted Calypso was not for sale, but Smith learned that a friend had an option to purchase him, and after several months of tense, complicated negotiations. Windrush Farm succeeded in buying Calypso for $535,000.

"The man who had the option knew Calypso was the best jumper in the world," says St. James. "Fortunately he wanted to keep the horse in America and make sure it was in the right hands, and the right hands were clearly Melanie's. She had found the horse, trained him and won with him. He truly belonged to her."

It was late on the night of Sept. 1 when the van finally pulled up to the stable in Morris with Calypso safely on board. Smith had not seen him in nearly three months, and as he was led down the ramp she, the St. Jameses and a dozen farm employees greeted him with cheers, tears and champagne.

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