BY JESS CLAWSON
The hallways of the hunter/jumper sport are lined with champions, and one of the greatest on the wall is the Thoroughbred mare, Touch of Class.
Touch of Class (1973-2001) was everything she wasn’t supposed to be in order to make it in the sport of show jumping. She’d had a brief career at the track (under her Jockey Club name Stillaspill) that fizzled out after six unsuccessful starts. For an elite show jumper, she was tiny at only 16 hands. She was hot. She seemed to cross-canter more often than not. A lot of professionals passed on her. Until Joe Fargis.
Fargis understood the mare and could see past her height. He’s a very sensitive rider and could give her exactly the quiet, composed ride she needed to do her job well. And for that, he was rewarded with individual and team gold in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, beating his long-time friend Conrad Homfeld on Abdullah in the individual competition. You can watch Homfeld and Fargis’s rounds here. Their team also included Melanie Smith with Calypso and Leslie Burr with Albany.
Touch of Class made history by being the first horse to post double-clear rounds at the Olympics and secured the first ever gold medals for the US show jumping team. Of the 91 jumps she faced at the Olympics, she cleared 90 of them without a rail. After her extraordinary performance, she was named the first non-human US Olympic Committee Female Equestrian Athlete of the Year. The legendary Bill Steinkraus commentated the Olympics, and said her name was apt: “She has class all the way down to her hoofprints.”
Fargis, who stands 6’2”, made the fine-boned mare look even smaller, especially set against the enormous jumps. The two appeared severely over-matched by the five foot high, seven foot wide oxers, but they were nothing compared to the mare’s eagerness to go.
Fargis and Touch of Class captivated their audience at the Olympics. “She has a lot of heart and a lot of talent,” Fargis told The New York Times just after the team competition wrapped up. Most of his horses at the time were Thoroughbreds off the track. “They may have been too slow for there,” he said, “but they’re still good movers, light on their feet and intelligent.”
Kitty, as she was known around the barn, was definitely a hothead who gave her riders a run for their money, but Fargis knew quality when he saw it. Before he got her, she had been passed from owner to owner, never selling for more than $15,000. Early in her career, Fargis and Homfeld recommended Kitty to a client, Debi Connor. Connor competed the mare successfully through the intermediate jumpers until Connor was injured in a fall that put her out of commission in 1981.
A junior rider who trained with Fargis and was looking for an upper level mount tried her next, but Kitty didn’t pass a pre-purchase exam. By then, Fargis knew Kitty was special and convened a syndicate to buy her, pre-purchase failure and all. If ever there was an incredible instinct for a horse, Fargis had it for Kitty.
In 1982, he moved her up to the Grand Prix level. Fargis was injured coming off a different horse, but Homfeld successfully took the ride until Fargis was back in action. Homfeld and Kitty qualified for the 1983 World Cup Finals in Vienna. Even though Fargis was back to riding by the time the Finals rolled around, he let Homfeld have the ride, because it was he who qualified her–a classy move, if you will. Homfeld and Kitty finished fourth, and Fargis went on to have a tremendous international year with her, culminating in their Olympic golds in 1984.
After the Olympics, she competed successfully but sparingly until 1988, when she pulled a check ligament. In addition to her Olympic victory, she won six major grand prixes (a nice triumph over her six losses at the race track); placed second or third in another 14; and was on six medal winning national teams. After her retirement, she went on to have a successful breeding career. In 2000, she was inducted into the Show Jumping Hall of Fame. She passed away in 2001.
There are many lessons to learn from Touch of Class. A horse does not have to have whatever “the look” of the moment is. A sensitive and skillful rider can bring out the best in a horse, even if they don’t physically fit together perfectly. A tiny, hot mare might be the best thing that ever happened to you. Most of all, if you can give a tough horse the ride they need to be successful, you might have a world-beater on your hands.
- Touch of Class: 1984 Double Gold Medal Winner and Show Jumping Hall of Fame Inductee
- Looking back: Top class off-track Thoroughbreds of yesteryear
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About the Author: Jess is a professional historian and educator who lives in northwestern Virginia. They completed their undergraduate degree in English at William & Mary, and did their masters and doctoral work at the University of Florida. Jess is an event rider with a passion for thoroughbreds, and has extensive experience in community organizing around queer identities, racial marginalization, and labor.
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