New York's National Horse Show, the country's oldest indoor event, is generally accorded the respect due great age, even though a certain hardening of the arteries has long been apparent. Some of its classes have been continued despite a marked lack of public or participant interest. It has made only the feeblest attempts to attract new fans, and the regulars have been so shabbily treated by a slow, draggy schedule that many drifted away. One critic has suggested that if the committee members had more starch in their backbones and less in their shirts, the show would benefit greatly.
This year, happily, there will be new pep in the old affair, thanks to the efforts of James A. Thomas Jr., youngest president in the National's history and once a double winner in the show's equitation class. Thomas, a 38-year-old lawyer, is putting so much zip in the show, which opens Oct. 30, that it may well become a financial as well as an artistic success.
There will be some nontraditional features in the ring, innovations for the National, anyway. Cowgirl barrel racing and pony roadsters are the most surprising, but the most significant involve the pacing and scheduling of events. Thomas has vowed that spectators at evening performances will see the full program and still get home at a respectable hour. Countless thousands who have become bored-stiff and sitting-stiff in the past will be grateful if Thomas is right. He plans to send a note on this to all boxholders, implying that if they linger over after dinner drinks, they will miss the best events of the evening.
Thomas has also attacked Madison Square Garden's utilitarian but unimpressive lobby, cluttered during the show by food, drink and other concessions that contributed a sleazy, midway atmosphere not helpful to the National's dignity or bank balance. Those concessions have been banished to less prominent areas of the Garden by Thomas' designer, Jack Foley, whose normal occupation is sprucing up Macy's windows. Foley toyed with the thought of wallpapering the lobby—a staggering project—but settled for a predominantly red color theme, with white and gold and touches of pink and black—thus killing without a qualm the traditional National colors of orange and black. There will be a lavish backdrop and elaborate lighting—in baroque style, according to Foley—for the display of products of those companies sponsoring classes in the show. (There was a small murmur of protest from a beermaker who did not fancy his product in a baroque setting, but when it was pointed out to him that the colors of his beer can also were red, white and gold the murmur subsided.)
This practice of commercial sponsorship, followed successfully by other major horse shows for years, was always considered beneath their dignity by National promoters. Thomas thinks otherwise. Because he does, this year's National is offering more than $50,000 in prize money, plus some extraordinarily lavish trophies. One of them cost nearly $4,000. To the outraged cries of the displaced concessionaires, Thomas says, "If they can talk the same kind of money to me as our sponsors, I'll let them do business from my box seat!"
The show ring itself will present a different look: everything will be done in black and white so as not to divert attention from the horses. The top attraction of the show will still be the safely traditional international competitions, and this year they surely merit their star billing. There will be representatives from Ireland, Canada and Mexico and, of course, the U.S. team, which finished second to the Germans in the 1960 Olympics. Coming alone for the individual events is England's David Barker, the present European champion, with a reject horse from Dublin named Mister Softee.
The open jumpers, who last year outperformed the international horses, will again be represented by the top talent. At Thomas' instigation the English are sending three hunters just to check themselves out against the American fox chasers. They are from the Duke of Beaufort's hunt, the premier group in Britain.
With this kind of a cast and his own ideas for promotion and publicity, Jim Thomas should have a success in his debut.