Let me tell you what this game is like," said D. Jerry Baker, trainer of Jet Run, winner of this year's American Jumping Derby. "When you have to wrestle 1,500 pounds of animal over 24 jumps with a 150-pound body, it's like having a whale at the end of a fly rod."
The second annual American Jumping Derby took place two weeks ago at Glen Farm, a magnificent 230-acre tract studded with giant oaks and ancient stone barns in Portsmouth, R.I., just a short beat from Newport. Newspaper ads for the event promised "speed, danger and the breathtaking excitement of horse and rider challenging gravity and the clock" while "competing for the richest purse offered anywhere in the world."
Certainly the AJD is not just another horse show. It does not involve dozens of classes or depend for excitement on subtle equine distinctions incomprehensible to the outsider. There are just the horse and rider, facing 10 to 30 varied jumps, from four to 5� feet high, over a course up to a mile long. The beauty of the derby, and what differentiates it from the puissance—the pure jumping event in a horse show—and from stadium jumping, is that the obstacles are fixed and occur much as they would in the field, rather than crammed into some smoky arena like Madison Square Garden. "They are the kinds of things horses have been jumping over forever," says Frank Chapot, a six-time Olympian and designer of the derby course. "There are railroad gates, ditches, banks, logs, road crossings and fences." There is also a replica of England's famed Hickstead Bank, a precipice that rises nine feet, then descends at a 75-degree angle, with a rail and fence often placed at the bottom. There is also the treacherous Pulvermann's Grob, in which a horse must jump one fence, run down a ditch, clear another fence at the bottom and one more at the top. The jump was named for a German rider named Pulvermann, who designed it and was killed trying to jump it.
At Portsmouth the idea is to get over all these obstacles forward, backward, or doing the hustle. The rider who knocks down the fewest fences wins; ties are broken by fastest time. Simple. "And to simplify the objective even further," observed one aficionado, "what we have here is a bunch of Evel Knievels on horseback." And sure enough, the $73,000 AJD pretty much delivered what had been promised. In the tense climax, F. Eugene Dixon Jr.'s Jet Run, a marvelous 9-year-old brown gelding, was the only one of 31 horses to complete a perfect round, winning the astronomical sum—for this sport—of $12,000.
The concept of an American Jumping Derby first came to Mason Phelps Jr., the 29-year-old co-manager (with Carl Knee) of the event, when, as a U.S. Equestrian Team and Olympic rider in the late '60s, he visited the great European derbies at Aachen, West Germany, La Baule, France and Hickstead, England. In England, he was amazed to find show jumping the second most popular spectator sport. The crowds were large, the television audiences enormous. There, riders like David Broome and Harvey Smith are the Bruce Jenners and Kenny Stablers, making big money and getting their pictures on cereal boxes and into magazine ads. " America has racetracks for racehorses and stadiums for football, but no facility for horse jumping," Phelps says he thought at the time. And he had the spot all picked out—Glen Farm, dimly remembered from childhood visits.
Glen Farm was once a flourishing 750-acre spread, put together around 1900 by Phelps' great-grandfather, Moses Taylor, a New York banker who made his fortune by financing Cyrus Field's fifth attempt to lay the transatlantic cable. It seemed a bad risk, the cable having broken the four previous times. Since the death of Taylor's widow in 1959, the farm had been abandoned except for a small herd of Charolais cattle.
Phelps may have been to the manner born, but his family was not prepared to underwrite the derby. He began petitioning his wealthy friends back home in Southern California, then worked his way eastward, beaming a rakish and beguiling charm at such sporty and solvent types as Mrs. Raymond Firestone, Mrs. Theodora Gaston (formerly Getty) and F. Eugene (Fitz) Dixon, who owns two stables of jumpers—one of horses, called Erdenheim Farm, and another known as the Philadelphia 76ers. With a bankroll of about $250,000 and a few tireless comrades, Phelps rented space at the farm from his grandfather, R. B. Taylor, in 1974, built a permanent outdoor ring, an indoor ring, fixed up the abandoned barns and started himself a jumping derby that he believes can be right up there with the Kentucky Derby, the Indianapolis 500 and the Stanley Cup.
Indeed, the danger factor is the hook that the AJD people hope will eventually snare the hockey and auto-racing crowds, not to mention the television networks. The horses, which are worth, on the average, $150,000 or so each, suffer fewer injuries than their riders. At Portsmouth, several horses were heard to mutter "Not me, chump," as they stopped dead in front of a fence and sent their riders on their way' like acrobats launched from a teeterboard. Wilhelmina McEwan, thus flung from Mr. Dennis, sprained an ankle, and Karin Reid was tossed face first into a clump of blue spruce. She surfaced with the look of someone fresh from a passionate interlude with a porcupine. The worst casualty was a toy wooden duck, rudely decapitated while minding its own business at the water jump.
But with the carnage comes glamour, especially with this year's Newport crowd on hand: a duPont here, an Auchincloss there—at $250 for a table of eight—sipping martinis, nibbling quiche and sounding like a thicket of crickets with their "click, click, click" encouragement to the horses. The less affluent came in at $5 per carload and sat in open bleachers.
More than one bleacherite wondered aloud whether little Linda Blair, of Exorcist fame, who was brought in to present the trophies, had also brought the weather, which was clearly ordered up from Hades. Two days of the foulest, and two of middling bad, New England nor'easters made a cold, muddy mess of things, kept most of the 6,000 bleacher seats empty, and forced some of the parties and clambakes under cover.