Peter Leone: A Lifelong Passion

Photo courtesy of Peter Leone

by Ann Jamieson

Jumpers

Peter stepped up to the jumpers with the Thoroughbred Catch the Win, a small bay gelding formerly ridden by Rodney Jenkins. “He was very brave. You could ride the biggest course any designer could build on this horse. I could ride him the same way I rode my hunters and equitation horses as a junior. Thanks to him my introduction to jumping big tracks was with total confidence because he could jump anything I pointed him at and would never stop. Even better, because he was a Thoroughbred and had tons of scope, I never had to push or override him over the biggest Grand Prix courses.”

Riding with George Morris gave the brothers not only coaching but access to great horses. Three months after Peter began riding Catch the Win, he also partnered with Semi-Pro, a temperamental Thoroughbred Jimmy Kohn had been showing for Michele McAvoy (Grubb). A great match for Peter, the horse became his first big-time mount. They started competing together Peter’s last junior year at what then comprised the “indoor circuit”: Harrisburg, Washington, and New York. An immediate success at the International level in the jumpers, they placed in the Grand Prix at Harrisburg and Washington’s President’s Cup. 

At the Garden the following week, Semi and Peter won the World Cup Grand Prix of N.Y. Saturday night. Sunday morning, Peter was up at the crack of dawn to be one of the first riders competing in the Maclay Finals.  

As a junior rider, Peter had the opportunity to ride for numerous professionals, including Bernie Traurig, Ronnie Beard and Winter Place Farm, Don Stewart, Tom Hardy, John Barker, and Jerry Baker. 

It was Jerry that arranged for Peter to be the young rider behind Michael Matz at F. Eugene Dixon’s Erdenheim Farm. Jerry taught Peter the importance of classical flatwork for successful jumping. He trained alongside Michael, with whom he would later ride on many U.S. Teams including the 1982 World Championships and the 1996 Olympic Games. 

Jerry Baker and Gene Mische were the visionaries who brought American open jumping (which originally tended more towards rub and Puissance classes) more in line with European style Grand Prix competitions.

“He was an amazing horseman and visionary to whom I am grateful for all he did for me,” Peter states.

In Florida that year, and then into the summer season, Peter and Semi-Pro continued their success in Grand Prix competition. This led to an invitation to ride for the U.S. Team at the Washington International Horse Show. He and Semi contributed to winning the Nations’ Cup along with teammates Melanie Smith on Calypso, Michael Matz on Jet Run, and Norman Dello Joio on Allegro.

“It was so incredible to be able to ride with show jumping legends competing for the U.S.A. I was hooked!” exclaims Peter.

School was always very important to the Leone family. Once out of high school Peter attended Drew University, located near Gladstone, N.J. from 1979 through 1985. He was invited to train with USET coach Bert de Nemethy. His days started early with Bert and finished late attending classes. 

“It was a tremendous opportunity,” states Peter. Bert was the Chef D’Equipe for the U.S. Team from the late 1950’s until he retired in 1982. Peter was “so fortunate to be one of the last riders educated by Bert. He used to call me his ‘rock’ as it was said in the Bible. Bert would say, ‘Peter, you are the rock upon which I will build my church.'”

At only 20 years old, Peter won one of the most challenging events in North America, the International Jumping Derby in Newport, Rhode Island. Jumping Derbies was close to home for the Leone brothers because it was more like playing a contact sport such as lacrosse, hockey or football, all of which the boys excelled at and enjoyed. The brothers felt that riding veered “a little in the direction of dance class.” 

Derbies were different. “Ditches, banks, waters, liverpools, grobs, that was right up our alley. I always loved the Derby! They’re great, great, fun. 

“That particular year, 1980, I was clear on two horses, Semi-Pro and Vautrait. Armand was clear on Wallenstein, and Melanie Smith was clear on Calypso.” Peter placed first and third that year and has won many Derbies around the world including Spruce Meadows, Dinard, Valkensward, Monterrey, Hampton Classic, and Kentucky to name a few.

Peter was always known for being strong but soft.

Peter always uses the pronoun “we” when talking about how he and his mount performed in competition. Again, it was all about the team. Peter and his horse are a team, so the pronoun “we” is correct when describing a round. 

In December of 1981, Peter headed to Europe to see Francois Mathy on a search for horses. Peter saw two impressive six-year-olds, but they were younger than what he wanted: one, later renamed Arbitrage won the Puissance at the Garden with Rodney Jenkins as well as many other Grand Prix, and Chef, who was purchased by Mr. Dixon for Michael Matz and went on to medal in the World Championships at Aachen.

The other horse was a mare that was exactly what Peter was looking for. She was jumping at the top level for Holland with Rob Ehrens. Peter’s mother, who named all the ponies and horses, christened the mare Ardennes, after Peter’s grandfather who was a member of the Lost Battalion in the Ardennes Forest during World War II. 

Peter recalls watching Ardennes jump with Rob. “She went around a lot like a hunter and reminded me of Rainforest,” his top junior hunter/equitation horse. She arrived in the U.S. in February 1982. In Tampa’s American Invitational the pair placed fourth. Two weeks later at the World Cup Finals in Gothenberg, Sweden they placed fifth individually—in Peter’s first World Cup Finals.

The great success of this team from the start was what prompted Coach DeNemethy to ask Peter to ride on the 1982 World Championship Tour that summer in Europe.

Photo courtesy of Peter Leone

A Historic Nations’ Cup

What matters most to each country’s equestrian team is jumping in team competition: the Nations’ Cup. No other win is more coveted in any international show, especially major ones like the Olympics or World Championships. If an individual wins a Gold Medal, it means the country has one phenomenal rider and horse. If a country wins a Team Medal at a Championship, it proves that it has the most depth in great riders and horses, as well as the top training program.

Initially, riders for the team were chosen subjectively by Bert de Nemethy, while horses were donated to the team. There wasn’t much depth in horses or riders in the early years of the USET. Teams needed to be chosen “subjectively,” recalls Peter, “or we wouldn’t have been able to field a Team.” 

In May 1982 in Lucerne, Switzerland, the Leones became the first all-brother team in Nations’ Cup history. Armand rode Loecky, Mark was on Tim, and Peter on Semi-Pro. There was no fourth rider and thus no discard score. 

Photo courtesy of Peter Leone

As both Chef D’Equipe for the U.S., and a member of the ground jury, Bert De Nemethy sat up top with the rest of the jury. Bert always made sure that his riders all used a running martingale and carried a stick for International competition. The running martingale would keep the reins around the horse’s neck if a rider fell off, while the stick was necessary to make sure the riders could get around because they had to get a score for the team and not be eliminated by stopping out!

At that time, a fall was scored as eight faults rather than elimination, enabling riders to get back on and still complete the course. That rule came in handy.

Peter went first, with one rail: four faults. Mark was next, finishing on a 1/4 time fault. Armand was clean until he added at the water. Loecky made a valiant effort to clear it but went down on his knees while landing, and Armand went off. He quickly leaped back on, finishing with two rails as well as time faults in addition to the fall. While he had a high score, he did complete the round, enabling the brothers to come back for the second round of the Nations’ Cup.

Team Leone sat in last place after the initial round. Peter and Armand insisted they had to finish; they had to go back for the second round. Mark wasn’t on board. 

Bert walked down the stairs from his spot on the ground jury, and commanded in a voice that brooked no disobedience, “You must go back.” 

They did, winning the second round. Team Leone delivered a fifth place finish for the U.S. Team out of 12 countries. 

In the past (under DeNemethy) the final selection of which four riders would compete in the Olympic Team and Individual competitions from the short list of six was not selected until a few days before the event. As a result, riders were competing with each other right up to the last moment to determine who would ride on the team. 

That, in Peter’s opinion, was not a good way to go into the Olympic games! Not knowing if you were on the team or not until the last moment was a difficult system and fortunately has changed over the years. In addition, as horsemen, riders need to know whether or not they are jumping so they can prepare their horse the weeks leading up to the games so their performance can peak at the event.

Photo courtesy of Peter Leone

European Tour

In 1982 Peter was asked to jump as one of the young riders on the World Championship tour that year. The senior team was Melanie Smith on Calypso, Joe Fargis on Touch of Class, Michael Matz on Jet Run, and Bernie Traurig on Eadenvale. Two years later Joe and Touch of Class won double gold at the L.A. Olympics.

Donald Cheska on Southside (who had been Robert Ridland’s horse in the Montreal Olympic Games) and Peter on Ardennes were the two young riders on the team. The tour consisted of CSIO Hickstead, England, the World Championships in Dublin, Ireland, and then CHIO Aachen, Germany followed by CSIO in Paris. 

At Hickstead, Peter was living the dream and loving every minute of it. “Wow, we’re at Hickstead!” he thought in awe, astounded at where he found himself. “The history, the incredible venue, the larger-than-life riders at the show!”

Peter had been exposed to Europe prior to competing there, taking part in a tour when Armand was on the team. He’d learned what it meant to be part of the U.S. team, competing internationally. Now he was there himself. With the World Championships two weeks away they were jumping at Hickstead as a final prep for Dublin. 

Joe was riding Second Balcony, a jumper that had been very successful with Rodney Jenkins. Joe rode with his normal “hunting” style to the first fence, but Second Balcony was used to Rodney’s ride. They ended up flipping, and Joe broke his leg. Joe and Touch of Class were out.

That meant either Donald or Peter would have to step up and ride at Dublin. Peter scored better in his classes, and at 21 found himself jumping for the U.S. in the World Championships at Dublin. He confesses, “I didn’t even know they had medals; I thought they only awarded medals at the Olympics.” 

They did “very, very well,” just missing a medal with a fourth place finish. Americans historically aren’t the best at the open water, and at that time the open water was 15′ long! With two team members incurring faults there, they narrowly missed winning a team medal.

Melanie and Peter qualified for the individual event, in which Peter jumped double clear, placing third in legendary company.

At Aachen, he was second on Opening Day, and the team placed second in the Nations’ Cup. By Aachen’s end, Bert told Peter that the Europeans felt Peter reminded them of “a young Steinkraus.” It was a welcome comparison!

Aachen, both the number one historic show jumping event, and best show jumping venue in the world, is an eye-opening event for new competitors. “Riders,” says Peter, “come out like gladiators” into the main arena to compete. At the opening and closing ceremonies each country parades around the spectator-packed stadium to the cheers of the crowds. The experience was like none Peter had ever been part of before.

New Jersey Honors Team Leone

In 1984, together with Armand, and Mark, Peter was named the 1984 Horseman of the Year by the New Jersey Equine Advisory Board. 

The Fifth Brother 

Eugene Mische founded the AGA (American Grand Prix Association) which was a series of major Grand Prixs that ended with an annual individual championship. In 1985 he decided it would be a team championship instead. The top six riders in the AGA Rider of the Year standings were chosen as captains and then picked their teams from the remaining 18 riders in the standings. Peter, as one of the top four, was a captain and picked his two brothers along with Will Simpson, who became an honorary Leone brother.

Held in Tampa (indoors) the family team dominated the competition by winning all three legs of the Championships. Team Leone scored yet another triumph. 

Threes and Sevens and Oxo

Armand was out in Arizona when he came across a Quarter Horse named Threes and Sevens. After watching him go, he called Peter. “You have to come see this horse! He has springs in his heels.” Peter flew out to Arizona to try him, and after the Grand Prix management agreed to let them school over the course.

They raised the fences from the Grand Prix, and Threes and Sevens flew right over it. They wasted no time in purchasing him and were just in the nick of time. “We were about a week ahead of Paul Schockemohle; he was next in line to try the horse,” Peter recalls. 

Peter and Three and Sevens. Photo courtesy of Peter Leone

Along with Threes and Sevens, they purchased Oxo. Peter and Oxo won four Grand Prix in a row, along with producing in multiple World Cup Finals. Peter says Oxo “was a modern type: careful, catty, like a warmblood version of Touch of Class. He was one of the best horses I ever rode, so consistent.

“I had a lot of wins on Threes and Sevens; he was a freaky talent. One memorable  Grand Prix win was over a monster course with three clears at Old Salem Farms in 1989. There were only three clear rounds. I was clear on Threes and Oxo and George Lindemann was clear on Jupiter. In the end, Threes and I won and within two weeks of that class George bought Threes and Sevens and went with him.”



About the Author: Ann Jamieson wanted to be a horse show judge since she was a child, and has now held her USEF “”r”” judge’s cards for over 30 years. She writes about both horses, and travel, (and particularly loves combining the two). Ann is the author of the “”For the Love of the Horse”” series, four volumes of amazing true stories about horses, and the proud mom of her Secretariat grandson, Fred Astaire (Tucker).
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