A Legendary Team: Idle Dice and Rodney Jenkins

Photo courtesy of Bernie and Cait Traurig.

BY ANN JAMIESON

He was the first horse inducted into the Show Jumping Hall of Fame.

His principal rider was the most successful show jumper in history, a member of 16 Nations’ Cup teams and ten World Championships, winning over 70 Grand Prix in his career. In 1987 he was the AGA Rider of the Year, AHSA Horseman of the Year, and took two Silver Medals at the Pan Am Games.

Together Idle Dice and Rodney Jenkins formed a bond that led to unprecedented success in American show jumping history, winning Grand Prix, Speed, and Puissance classes, often all at the same show.

The Beginning

Bred by J. L. Martin, Idle Dice was foaled in 1962 in Oklahoma and christened Jonlyle. By Hay Hook out of DK Dor, his undistinguished racing career gave no indication that a star had been born. Finishing fourth in his best race, Jonlyle never set foot in the winner’s circle. The colt was claimed by Jack Kenny at Waterford Park (now known as Mountaineer Racetrack) in Chester, West Virginia.

Jonlyle’s failure at the track was not for lack of speed, which he would later prove so well in the show jumping arena. He failed, because he was more interested in the crowd than in racing. Instead of flattening out his body and extending his neck for a win, he would raise his head in the stretch and observe the fans.

Becoming a Hunter

In the fall of 1968, renowned judge and horseman Daniel Lenehan asked Bernie Traurig to come take a look at a jumper named Intrepid. The horse wasn’t too far from where Bernie lived in Pennsylvania, and Bernie felt pretty confident that he would be bringing him home, so he took his six-horse Imperator van and traveled to Danny’s place for a look.

Intrepid, however, failed to impress Bernie, and he planned to leave with an empty van when Danny suggested that perhaps he “should take a look at a big dark brown four-year-old Thoroughbred whose owner Elizabeth (Libby) Slaughter was hilltopping.” Libby had purchased the horse off of Jack Kenny, but he proved to be too much horse for foxhunting.

Intrigued by the horse’s good looks and athletic build, Bernie asked Danny’s daughter Sheila to ride him. Bernie remembers, “It only took two jumps over a crossrail where he seemed unencumbered by gravity to encourage me to get in the tack. Fifteen minutes later I was jumping a double about 3’3″ and he was still jumping as high and easy as he did over the crossrail. Danny stopped me and said Libby had not seen this before and I had better stop before she changes her mind. I asked Danny the price.”

When Bernie learned that the price was $3500 he didn’t waste a second. Riding Jonlyle to his van, Bernie loaded him still tacked up, handed Danny a check for $3500 along with his bridle and saddle, and then “hightailed it out of there as fast as I could.”

“My dad named him Idle Dice,” says Bernie, “and I must say he was the easiest horse to transform into a show horse I ever had. He was brave, smart, sane, cooperative, and he took to jumping like a fish to water.”

Photo courtesy of Bernie and Cait Traurig.

Around the barn, Idle Dice became known as “Ike.”

Bernie began showing Ike in the spring of 1969 in the First Year Greens in local Pennsylvania shows. The height proved so easy for the horse that Bernie added four foot working classes to his repertoire mid-season. Idle Dice was champion in the First Year Greens at Fairfield that spring, catching the attention of both George Morris and Conrad Homfeld.

For weeks Bernie tried to convince Rodney Jenkins to try Idle Dice as a jumper, “literally begging him,” confesses Bernie.

“Finally, at the Branchville show (Sussex) I convinced him.” At daybreak the following morning Rodney was on Idle Dice jumping him in the schooling ring…at the top of the standards.

“He couldn’t wait to give me a check for his sponsor Harry Gill,” recalls Bernie, who couldn’t sleep the night before thinking of the profit he and his wife Tiff would make from their investment with such a big sale as $12,000.

“Rodney,” says Bernie, “was so nervous he refused to take a commission, stating Harry had never paid this much money for a horse before.”

Rodney

Rodney’s first thought when he rode Idle Dice that morning was, “Everything he did was balanced. He walked balanced, he trotted balanced, he galloped and cantered balanced, and when he jumped he never ever jumped off his forehand. He always jumped off his hocks.”

Rodney has never taken a formal lesson in his life. Instead he learned by watching others, listening to his horses tell him how they wanted to be ridden, and absorbing his father Enis’ boundless well of knowledge. “He was all the lessons I needed. Anytime you messed up, he would tell you,” laughs Rodney. “He was probably the best horseman I ever met.”

As Enis (whom everyone knew as “Chief”) was a huntsman for a local pack, Rodney’s early riding experiences were as a whipper-in on the hunt field. Wanting to horse show, but initially being denied the opportunity, Rodney would go out into the woods at home behind his father’s barn and create courses out of branches and logs that he found to play horse show.

When he went to horse shows, “I watched the people who won. I’d see their style and try to integrate it into the way I rode.”

Rodney’s innate sense of pace, infallible eye for a distance, and ability to bring out the best in every horse he rode, prompted Conrad Homfeld to say he considers Rodney “the most natural talent I have ever seen.”

Elizabeth Busche Burke called Rodney “magic on a horse, pure magic.”

Photo courtesy of Bernie and Cait Traurig.

Some of Rodney’s most astounding accomplishments include winning 90 of 92 classes he competed in on the Detroit Circuit (Detroit and Motor City) in 1968, and at Harrisburg in 1971 taking championships in the First Year Green Hunter, Second Year Green Hunter, the Green Conformation Hunter, the Working Hunter, a Reserve Championship in the Open Jumper, and the Leading Open Jumper Rider title.

Rodney’s ability to turn notorious horses into stars was nothing short of remarkable. Nanticoke, bred by his neighbor Mrs. Marion du Pont Scott, was a talented steeplechaser who won his first outing by 30 lengths before being ruled off the track at Belmont Park for bad behavior in the saddling paddock.

Rodney and Chief tackled him together. Chief would ride him in a cattle pen to distract him from his obsession for throwing his rider, while Rodney started him at the shows. At one show, not only did Nanticoke escape from his van, but his saddle as well, mysteriously managing to leave it in the truck with both ends of the girth still attached. Since Nanticoke was so difficult to mount, Rodney would stay on him until his classes were finished, often eating his lunch while mounted.

Nanticoke won his first class at the Garden, was Open Jumper Champion there in 1966 and 1967, and produced Rodney’s first Grand Prix win at Oakbrook in 1967.

Other rogues that Rodney brought around included Sloopy, who took the Olympic Bronze Medal in 1972, and Balbuco, the 1980 World Cup winner.

Equally at home on a hunter or a jumper, Rodney feels that “to ride a jumper well you have to ride a hunter too. You have to have that flow. If you just ride jumpers, you end up taking back too much. In the hunters, everything is a forward flow.”

A Perfect Match

While several other top riders rode and did very well with Idle Dice, it was the partnership with Rodney that brought out the best in Ike. Rodney’s philosophy with Ike was “stay out of his way and he would do his job. And his job was winning. The rider doesn’t make the horse, the horse makes the rider. The rider manages and directs the horse.”

With Ike, Rodney says, “I didn’t do a lot to train him. He was what he was; he was unique. A lot of horses you can train to be good. He didn’t have to be trained. You just left him alone and he’d take care of the rest.

“He was different. He wasn’t a horse that wanted a friend. Everything he did was his way but it was always ‘I’ll do it the best I can for you.’”

While many trainers would have attempted to force Ike into their own molds, Rodney’s ability to let him be who he was allowed Idle Dice to be the best that he could be.

Idle Dice’s high head carriage prompted Rodney to try a standing martingale on him. It was a disaster. Idle Dice registered his complaint by refusing to jump a single fence.

“He was very careful. I tried a standing martingale on him at first. Every time he would touch that standing martingale he would stop. So finally I said ‘What the heck’ and I just took it off. The rest was history.”

The famous rope noseband that Ike usually showed in was more of a good luck charm than an effective piece of equipment. “I found it in a trunk, and decided to try it,” remembers Rodney. “He seemed to go well in it, so I kept it on. He won the Grand Prix so it seemed like good luck. I just always put it on after that.”

Photo courtesy of Bernie and Cait Traurig.

One of their first shows together was at the Piping Rock Club on Long Island’s Gold Coast. Rodney entered him in the Green Jumper division where they won two classes. One was a rub class (riders are penalized one fault for each rub). With numerous jump-offs, it went on until late into the afternoon. By the time Rodney and Idle Dice claimed victory and the beautiful gold “Blitz Cup,” they had jumped over 60 jumps…without a single rub.

As the show circuit ebbed in the northeast, Rodney had Ike shipped to Ocala for the winter show season. Rodney drove down himself the following day. When he arrived Idle Dice was nowhere to be seen.

“There was a racetrack there. I didn’t get down there until the day after I shipped him. I was walking around the barn looking for him and I asked my head person ‘Where is that horse Idle Dice?’

“She said, ‘He’s in that stall you just passed.’

“I said, ‘I don’t think so.’

“And sure enough I looked in the stall and he was way down there.” Idle Dice was in the stall…about four feet lower than the original base. He was so nervous about being at the track again that in his anxiety he had burrowed himself into a deep hole.

“I couldn’t believe it. I said ‘I think we might need some help to get him out.’ I opened the door and he jumped right out of the stall.

“And all week long he was nervous there. He had remembered something he didn’t like and I think it was racing.”

In 1969 the American Horse Shows Association introduced new jumper classifications: Preliminary, Intermediate, and Open Divisions, which were based on money won. Competing in Florida, Ike and Rodney won 10 out of 14 Preliminary classes, progressing into the Intermediate Jumpers and then the Open Division, before the year was half over. At the Garden that fall, seven-year-old Idle Dice won the Jumper Championship.

Rodney says, “He could do the Speed, do the Grand Prix (they called them Jumper Stakes then), the Puissance. He would jump just about seven feet every time in a Puissance. In speed classes he was better than the horses that were strictly speed horses. He was an all-around horse. Not many horses could do that, but he could do all of those things very well. If he rubbed a fence just with his hoof he wouldn’t touch another fence for another five shows.

“Ike was no wise guy; he was dead serious about what he did. He was never mean, never put his ears back. He was a trooper. He was just the kind of guy who went to the office every day, did his job and came home.”

Harry Gill’s wife, Sherry Robertson, recalls Ike. “He was very smart, very careful. He didn’t like to touch a thing.

“Luke Raglin, his groom, was his buddy. He didn’t like strangers to fuss with him, but that horse loved Luke.”

Rodney concurs. “That horse when he got nervous, Luke was the only guy who could calm him down. That horse absolutely loved that guy.

When the FEI changed the rules so that professionals could compete in non-Olympic events, Rodney and Ike were invited to join the USET for the indoor circuit in 1973, becoming the first professional to do so. Coach Bert de Nemethy said adding Ike to the team was “like adding Secretariat to your racing stable.”

Yet when Rodney first joined the team, people told Bert, “You and Rodney just won’t make it.”

They were wrong.

“Bert,” says Rodney, “was the nicest man that ever lived. He and I got along so well. When we were in Europe he asked me ‘Do you mind if I ride your horses in the morning?’ I said, ‘You can ride them every morning.’ He kind of looked at me and grinned. Then he got on them. He came back and he said, ‘These horses are broke better than any of the other horses.’”

Photo courtesy of Bernie and Cait Traurig.

That fall Ike and Rodney had six clear rounds in Nations Cup classes and six victories. Between 1973 and 1975 Rodney won 24 of the 38 International classes held during the fall indoor circuit. Over the next decade, Rodney was on 14 Nations Cup teams; ten of them were winners.

Sherry rode Ike a few times herself. “He was very comfortable, had a light mouth. He was lovely to ride. Ike was an incredible athlete. Rodney would trot him to a 4′ to 4’6″ fence in the schooling area, and everyone would watch.”

The first year Rodney rode as part of the USET team, Sherry says, “was an exciting year for Ike and Rodney. Hans Winkler and David Broome were watching Rodney and Ike school. They couldn’t take their eyes off of Rodney and Ike, jumping those huge fences at a trot.”

Rodney and Idle Dice won the qualifying Eisenhower Cup, and continued on to the President’s Cup where they faced Hans and David as well as future World Champion German rider Hartwig Steenken and his talented mare, Simona.

Rodney had encountered the Germans earlier in Europe and felt that they were a little too high on themselves. He knew Ike was scopier than Hartwig’s mare. Simona went first, and delivered what many spectators thought was an unbeatable clear round.

Rodney knew better. “In the tight arena at Washington I knew there was no way that mare could beat Ike.” Rodney and Idle Dice went last, stunning the crowd and his fellow competitors by beating Hartwig’s time by an incredible five seconds.

Rodney knew he and Ike didn’t need such a blistering round to win. But he wanted to put the Germans in their place a little bit, to send them home a little chastened. It was one of Rodney’s sweetest victories.

After the devastating defeat at Washington, and with the Montreal Olympics approaching, the Germans wanted Idle Dice on their team. The German Federation offered Harry Gill one million dollars for the horse. He turned them down.

Ike would compete in the fall at indoors and then go back to the Gill’s farm in Chester Springs, Pennsylvania for a break over the winter. Then he would rejoin Rodney in Florida to compete again. “Probably a reason he was still jumping Grand Prix at 19,” states Sherry.

One year he won the Puissance at Harrisburg, Philadelphia, Washington, and Toronto, winning 15 other classes along the way. At Harrisburg and Toronto Ike jumped 7′, at Washington 7’2″, and at Philadelphia 7’2 ¾”.

“Ike liked competition,” says Sherry understatedly.

While jumping the massive Puissance walls, Ike would break the tree of the Hermes saddles that Rodney preferred. As he left the ring each time, Rodney would turn to Sherry and announce, “Harry owes me another saddle.”

To Rodney, “Harry was like a second father to me, very supportive. He always liked to win, that’s for sure. But he was nice to me; I couldn’t have had a better time. He was really good to my family; it made showing easy.

“I was very fortunate; I had a lot of great horses and great owners. You’re no better than what you ride. They do the work and we take the credit, right?

“I had Idle Dice from about five to 18. I had horses that I showed that I was closer to as a horse but there was nothing like the power and determination of that horse.

“He had a lot of fire to him; you had to be careful. When you rode Idle Dice you kind of felt like you were sitting on something that was ready to go off. You had to pay attention, you really did. But he gave you such a feeling of strength. He was just overpowering. He was that way to the last time I rode him.”

Some of their incredible achievements included winning the Grand Prix at New York, Devon, Detroit, and Cleveland, competing for the USET for five years and on eight winning Nations Cup teams, including competing in the World Championships in Europe in 1974, winning the inaugural American Invitational in 1973, the American Gold Cup in three consecutive years (1973-1975), winning the President’s Cup in consecutive years (the only horse to ever do that) in 1971 and 1972, in 1977 winning the Grand Prix Horse of the Year, and being inducted into the Show Jumping Hall of Fame. In 1975, with both Idle Dice and Number One Spy, Rodney won 12 of the 16 International classes on the fall indoor circuit.

Rodney was leading Open Jumper Rider at Devon for six years running (1969-1975) and retired the Leading Open Jumper Trophy at the Garden after winning it from its inception in 1969 to 1971.

These accomplishments didn’t come easily. “No one knows how hard Rodney worked,” says Sherry. “I helped him ‘set the saddle,’ on all the horses he rode one day. We started at 6:30 a.m. Rodney told me to bring a notebook so I could keep track of how many times he rode in order to be paid. By the end of the day, I could barely lift the saddle (a Hermes, which weighed only six or seven pounds). I counted the number of rides he had; it was 120!

“He was a genius. And he was a perfectionist, an absolute perfectionist. You didn’t take a horse to the ring unless it was impeccably turned out.”

Always a fan of the Thoroughbred horse, Rodney (who now trains racehorses) loves their natural speed, athleticism, and sensitivity. “Thoroughbreds are naturally quicker. When you watch two horses go for time, the Thoroughbred will always move faster in the jump off. A Thoroughbred you’ve got to be very sensitive to ride; warmbloods are easier to train.”

Rodney would be happy to see more Thoroughbreds return to the show ring.

Idle Dice won over $400,000 (the equivalent today of about $1,700,000). He formally retired at the age of 21 in 1986 at the American Gold Cup to the Gill’s farm in Pennsylvania. In his last year of showing he won three Grand Prix.

“He was the best horse I ever showed, the best one,” declared Rodney. “He was one that everyone expected a lot from and that was a lot of pressure. I had some really good other horses but they kind of got overlooked because of him. The Natural, Number One Spy, Playback, if it wasn’t for Idle Dice they would have been my best horse.

“It was great to be part of his life and I hope he thought the same thing about me.”


Thank you to Rodney Jenkins, Sherry Robertson, Bernie Traurig, Nick Ellis, and Wendy Matthews for all their help in telling Ike’s story.