Frank Chapot: It’s All About the Team and the Country

BY ANN JAMIESON

Early Life

Born in Camden, New Jersey, in 1932, Frank Chapot began a life centered around horses with a small pony which he drove around a local park, selling soft drinks. One might never have guessed that this young boy selling soda would grow to become one of the most influential riders in U.S. history. 

Frank grew up in Westfield, N.J., and his family kept the pony in Watchung. His dad took up riding, although not as a serious pursuit. Frank, however, discovered it was his passion. Mainly self-taught, and gifted with enormous natural talent, he began stepping into the show ring with great success. He apparently did have some schooling from his good friend Dr. Bob Rost, as well as other friends who helped him out as well. But, from what she understands, Mary Chapot “doesn’t think he had any paid lessons.”

In time the family moved to Wallpack, N.J. Frank won the Maclay Finals in 1946 riding Chado and graduated from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in 1955. Frank and his father began selling wallets for Buxton in New Jersey. Frank would ride early in the morning, and then get out on the road, selling wallets to shops all over the state.

Mary grew up in California, so she and Frank didn’t meet when they were younger. In fact, it wasn’t until the screening trials in 1961 that they were initially introduced. 

Competition

At the first of Frank’s astounding six Olympic Games, the 1956 Olympics in Stockholm, he was the youngest rider on the United States Equestrian Team. He rode Bellaire, a horse with only one eye, and was coached by the legendary Bert de Nemethy. At the time Frank was also in the Air Force, somehow balancing his time between active duty and competing for his country. 

The 1956 Olympics took place in Stockholm solely for the equestrian events. Due to a quarantine in Australia for horses, the equestrians were forced to compete separately from their fellow athletes. Stockholm was chosen as the site, and the riders had to forego all the joys of watching their fellow athletes compete, and being a part of the Olympic experience and pageantry. They weren’t separated merely by distance, but in time as well. The equestrian events took place in June, while other sports were held in November.

In 1964 at the Olympics in Tokyo Frank achieved another first when he and Mary Mairs Chapot became the first husband and wife team to ride for the U.S. Frank was riding San Lucas at the time. Mary describes San Lucas as “a lovely horse owned by John Galvin who loaned a lot of horses to the team. He wasn’t very fast so the time allowed always haunted Frank. “He was very tall, but not heavy built, and it took him a while to become a superstar. He was a bit of a clutz to start!” Another horse Mary recalls Frank riding for the team was Diamant, a German bred horse. “He was tough. Frank loved the Thoroughbreds, and this horse was far from a Thoroughbred.”

Frank’s six Olympics spanned from 1956 through 1976. In Rome in 1960 (on Trail Guide along with George Morris on Sinjon and William Steinkraus on Ksar D’Esprit) and in Munich in 1972 (on White Lightning, who was bred by Mary’s mother,  along with Kathy Kusner on Fleet Apple, Neal Shapiro on Sloopy, and William Steinkraus on Main Spring), they scored team silver medals. With San Lucas Frank took a 7th place in Tokyo and a 4th in 1968 in Mexico City. In addition he participated in an astounding 46 winning Nations Cup teams, three Pan American Games, and scored victories in events such as the Presidents’ Cup, the Grand Prix of New York, and London’s prestigious King George V Gold Cup.

Frank had a great string of horses including San Lucas, Good Twist, and Manon,  owned by Cheeca Farm and Carl Twitchell, when Mary joined the team. Competing with Frank and Bill Steinkraus was wonderful, recalls Mary. “They were so supportive of Kathy and I. We were a team, we weren’t competing against one another, we were all for each other. We were very, very lucky.” Frank and Mary initially competed out of Frank’s father’s farm, before buying their own Chado Farm in Neshanic Station, New Jersey.

Mary remembers “Bert would select five or six people who would go to Europe for a few months to train and compete. As there was nobody ‘waiting in the wings’ to come over to be part of the next team, they were able to be very supportive of one another.”

Although Mary loved “nothing better than to go faster than anyone else,” when she and Frank were married she says it got even better, because “then it was like having two chances to win!”

While Frank loved riding, he joked that “the only reason he coached people riding his horses was to save his horses.” Although coaching wasn’t his first love, he enjoyed it when he was working with people who really tried, and wanted to improve. 

“Competition in general, but especially the Nations’ Cup, was very important to Frank,” states Mary. “The Nations’ Cup meant everything to him. Back then the Grand Prix didn’t offer a lot of money; there are so many more big money classes today.”

Since sometimes the scoring could be hard to understand, Frank appreciated the older, more experienced announcers like Peter Doubleday who were able to explain the Nations’ Cup scoring system well. When the audience didn’t understand it, they could lose interest. It was different from a Puissance class where the winner was clearly the horse and rider team who cleared the biggest fence.  Class conditions were different then as well. “Back then horses had to deal with horrible footing, mud flying. We didn’t know any better because there wasn’t any better.”

Frank and Mary got their start in an era when there weren’t a lot of big money classes. Things have changed markedly since. “The most prestigious thing you could do back then was to lend your horse to the team,” recalls Mary. “Now we have a lot of really good riders who don’t have the financial backing to get great horses,” and they often are unable to have a horse loaned to them.

While the Nations’ Cup formerly was the main event at a horse show, now big shows have both Nations’ Cup and Grand Prix classes, which, states Mary, is “too much for your good horse.” Mary remembers when she and Frank were allowed to take two or three horses to compete at the big International events. The situation back then was so different from today. “People have to decide whether to put their big horse in the Nations’ Cup or Grand Prix, and Frank couldn’t understand that, to him, the Nations’ Cup was the jewel of the competition.”

While Frank’s Olympic experience was the most meaningful competition to him, in the Nations’ Cup you represented your country as well. At that time there weren’t that many around. Most nations were only allowed one, while the United States was allowed two. Now there are a lot more of them. Back then, says Mary, “We had New York and Toronto. The President’s Cup was also a big deal and an important class to win. Frank loved to compete and loved to win. Everyone knew Frank was a fierce competitor. It was a joy to be the winner for sure.” 

Mary isn’t quite sure how Frank managed to be in the Air Force and on the show jumping team at the same time. “He’d be in the Air Force, and then go off to the horse show and then come back and they’d say ‘Well you’ve got an odd record here, there seems to be a few things missing.'” 

And he’d say “Oh yes that was my trip for the equestrian team.”

“I think he had a few friends in high places,” laughs Mary, “to be able to do the team and the Air Force.” The Air Force later fell to the wayside, as Frank focused on the horses.

Steeplechasing

Frank loved steeplechasing, but Bert de Nemethy was not wild about that particular pursuit, likely concerned that one of the anchors for his USET team would get seriously injured. Frank always said, “It was so much fun,” and he won his share. Gaining his rides through his great friends Dickie and Wendy Hendricks who bred horses for both flat racing and steeplechases, Frank would be directed to suitable horses to ride.

One horse he raced was Blue Parrot, a big bay. Competing in the Maryland Hunt Cup with him, Frank placed twice and won some cheaper races as well. Frank mainly competed in timber races, as riders in those races could be a little bit heavier than in the hurdle races. One of the horses Frank steeplechased was the Hendricks’ Keswick, with whom he won at Fair Hill a few times. The horse bowed a tendon and had to retire from racing. Yet with proper care from the Hendricks, he went on to be a top show jumper who competed at Madison Square Garden.

Course Designing and Judging

Frank enjoyed designing courses and even came bearing his own set of standards.  He was one of the first course designers who was pretty accurate with the time allowed, a testament to his always exacting work ethic. But there was, and is always a little pressure when course designing. Sometimes riders do too well with too many going clear, while at other times not enough go clear to ensure an exciting jump off. It always was and always will be a challenge to achieve just the right balance. 

Selected to design the course for the International Jumping Derby at Glen Farm in Rhode Island, Frank helped transform a former cow pasture into a challenging derby field. With 27 efforts over 18 obstacles, he incorporated “the kinds of things that horses had been jumping forever,” such as railroad gates, ditches, logs, water jumps, and railroad crossings.

He enjoyed judging and was a well-sought-after judge, holding his cards in hunters, equitation, and jumpers. Often he and Mary were hired to judge at the same shows. It was a bonus for the horse show because then they only had to pay for one hotel room! Once Frank retired from riding he particularly enjoyed judging at the Winter Equestrian Festival. Along with a busy judging schedule, he could visit his many friends who were there competing.

Good Twist

Good Twist, the foundation sire for the Chapot’s Chado Farm, was tiny by today’s standards, a mere 15.2 hands. Mary remembers showing back then when they were first starting the farm. “We jumped those horses, very big, very young. Riviera Wonder went to Madison Square Garden as a four or five year old, something we would never dream of doing. Good Twist started really young as well.”

 Neal Shapiro often had the ride on the young grey stallion. A very careful horse, Good Twist would hardly ever touch a rail. He did it all, competing in Grand Prix, speed classes, and touch classes (classes where horses were scored on whether they touched the fence, not just on knockdowns and time). 

“What a nice horse!” Mary remembers. “And a breeding stallion; we would ship him on the truck with the mares. Frank was very strict with him, very careful, there was an understanding there. He would lead him out of the barn and go one way if he was going to go down to the indoor to be bred and lead him in the other direction if he was going to be ridden. He’d spoil you, you could just gallop fast, he’d just give you whatever you wanted, and you knew you were going to get the jump. He was owned by Cheeca Farm and Carl Twitchell. That was Frank’s customer so he was stabled with us all the time. He won the Grand Prix of New York on Good Twist. He was so proud of him!” 

Mentorship

George Morris was six years younger than Frank, still a junior, when they met. He recalls seeing Frank in the early ’50s when Frank showed Chado, a top working hunter.

George started showing jumpers and they met at the 1956 Olympic trial in Tryon, North Carolina. In 1960 they were on the team together in Rome. 

“Frank was a great mentor to me on and off of the horses,” says George. He remembers his first show in Europe at Wiesbaden. “Nothing like the United States: Puissance walls, huge oxers, the jumper class went to a fourth jump off!” 

George was intimidated by the massive, and unfamiliar, fences, but Frank encouraged him. George says he was “always impressed how Frank didn’t have the best horses initially, but he did the best with what he had.” At Rome Frank rode Trail Guide, a 21-year-old former cavalry horse “a Thoroughbred, all heart and class,” and brought home the best score with that horse.

Trail Guide was inducted into the Show Jumping Hall of Fame in 1995; Frank was inducted in 1994. In addition, Frank received the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

Frank touted one of the most important maxims of show jumping, “You have to go as fast to the first fence as the last fence.”

“He was a professional’s professional who always had your back.  He was old school, he shipped his own horses, and gave hands-on care. The horse always came first.” The team that year was composed of George, Frank, Hugh Wiley, and Bill Steinkraus. Bert de Nemethy was chef d’equipe, and he did all the bookkeeping. George remembers, “After the show ended for the day, Bert would head up to his room and do all the paperwork. Bill Steinkraus would play his violin. Hugh Wiley (who rode his famous palomino Nautical) wrote letters to the aristocracy.” And Frank and George drank beer and enjoyed a good social life.

“Frank” says George, “was always a fighter, the toughest of the tough, all for the team. He brought home great scores in the most challenging of situations for six Olympic Games.” 


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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