Dianne DeFranceaux Grod: “I Just Like All Things Horse” – Part I

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Photo courtesy of Dianne DeFranceaux Grod

by Ann Jamieson

Beginnings

Dianne De Franceaux Grod was born in Louisiana when her father, George DeFranceaux, left for World War II and her mother went home to have the baby. When her father returned from the war, they moved back to Maryland, where Dianne was raised. “My dad was a horse lover. It was always about horses. He took us for pony rides and I would always want to go again. And he loved that I loved it.” 

The family moved to a farm when Dianne was around three, and she got a pony right away, named Sugar Plum. “I got my feet wet on him and then we got these twins for my sister and I. They were Star and Blaze. We showed them. We showed everything that we had.”

Photo courtesy of Dianne DeFranceaux Grod

She and her father started a little horse business together as soon as Dianne had honed some skills. She began teaching while still in school, and has continued to teach for over 50 years. Her father “was terrible at auctions, he bought donkeys and all breeds of horses, and he was so bad. We would remake and resell them and I learned a lot from that. Dad played polo; he was a founding member of the Potomac Polo Club. He raised and raced horses, and fox hunted.” Although Dianne played polo, she couldn’t compete in the games as women were not allowed to play back then. Once, the women were permitted to play in a halftime match against younger male polo players. The women won, and were never allowed to play again! Years later, my friend Sue Sally Hale changed all that.

Many film and music stars find themselves drawn to horses, and Dianne met quite a few during her career. Sylvester Stallone’s father played polo with her dad, and Sylvester walked his dad’s hot ponies. Dianne walked her dad’s ponies at the same time. While many of Sylvester’s fans had huge crushes on him later, Dianne was never remotely attracted to him. He walked around with cigarettes rolled up in his sleeve, a move she found terribly off-putting. Her first big crush was on his father, who she saw often at polo games. He was a good friend of my Dad’s. 

One night her father, knowing she had a crush on Stallone’s dad, called her in California and said they just had dinner and watched a movie at “your boyfriend’s house” last night. Dianne asked what movie they had seen. They were watching a preview of a new movie about to come out… Rocky.

Dianne tried to do everything her dad did. “I always am thankful to my dad for everything.” He insisted she go to college and she went kicking and screaming. “I only lasted one semester. I told him this wasn’t for me, I’m not going to waste your money and he was good with that.” 

She was still in high school when she began running horse shows. “I attended Stone Ridge, a private Catholic girls’ school, and my mother and I came up with the idea of running shows on the grounds of our farm to benefit the place. It started when I was a freshman and I ran the shows till I graduated.  “I liked hiring the judges. In Maryland and Virginia there were a lot of guys who didn’t mind doing a one day horse show,” so it was never a problem to find one for the shows. “It was easy in those days. All the Kennedys attended Stone Ridge so they went to horse shows at our farm: John John, Caroline, the Robert Kennedy kids. My parents loved the Kennedys. They were great people. The Secret Service always had to be at the shows. It was fun!”

Dianne worked for Radie Evans, a horse dealer near the family farm, riding her ponies down the street to get there. Radie had “every kind” of equine, including horses and ponies, zebras, and even a water buffalo. Dianne got to ride her first zebra. “It ran away with me and bucked me off. Zebras were hard,” recalls Dianne, “they were very different from horses.” 

Radie also had a burro trained to jump from a standstill and land and stop on the other side and put his head down. He would bet with people that they couldn’t stay on…and he always won the bet. Years of working for him gave Dianne experience with many different types of horses, providing her with a foundation for future success in the horse world. Then Radie gifted her with “a beautiful but crazy Thoroughbred mare whose eyes bugged out of her head.” Dianne thought that if she bred her she “might get a brain,” so she decided to proceed with that plan. 

Al-Marah Arabians, owned by Bazy Tankersley, was down the road and happened to be offering a free breeding for the first 10 registered Thoroughbred mares to their stallion Royal Diamond. He came from the esteemed Lady Crabbet. Dianne was immediately on the phone yelling “Me! Me!” She got in with her mare. Royal Diamond was a big stallion and the mare had a lot of trouble foaling his baby. Dianne was there assisting, and the mare rejected the foal immediately, “She attacked him!”

So Dianne had to play mama to the grey colt, who became part of her family. He had to be nursed with a bottle, and Dianne recalls, “It was tough dealing with the feeding, every hour, around the clock. He would lie on my lap and get the bottle.” He tried to do that when he got a little bigger and “That didn’t work out so well.” The baby was named Almost Wasn’t (Impy) because of his slim chance for survival when he was born. Dianne began showing him when he was three simply because she didn’t know any better. She tried the hunter divisions but quit because he had a buck which she says “originated from her uneducated flatwork. We learned everything together,” Dianne recalls.  

“I was riding some horses for Chuck Ackerman at the time. I had this goal I wanted to be the jumper champion of Virginia. He said sure you are.” Dianne traveled all over, out of state 90 % of the time including to Florida, and sure enough, Impy ended up Open Jumper Champion of Virginia!  “I got to work (without pay), and gained many rides for many great people who were helping me along the way, implementing what they were passing along to me.” 

Dianne did have a junior hunter, as well, Roman Candle, a 1/2 Arab/1/2 Quarter Horse who won the Junior Hunter Under Saddle class at the Garden. The incredibly versatile horse also did point-to-point racing with Dianne. “And I won!” she remembers. But after a big wreck she quit racing. She sold Roman Candle and he went on to be a great horse for everyone who had him. Her father had purchased the horse from an Al-Marah Arabians’ auction. “He could never put his hand down,” laughs Dianne.

Photo courtesy of Dianne DeFranceaux Grod

Steve Grod

Maryland didn’t have a lot of trainers or big jumper classes so Dianne continued to show out of state most of the time. She was 16 and had her driver’s license. As her parents didn’t show much, busy with running the farm, she went to shows with whoever was available.

Her dad drove her to Charlottesville for the Farmington Hunt Club Horse Show. She met Benny O’Meara, and the guys who worked for him were all from the Bronx, “not your normal horse show guys. Most people had Black grooms and they were awesome. Benny was with four white grooms who talked with this heavy Bronx accent. My dad pointed them out, he said stay away from them, they’re gangsters. That was the worst thing he could say to me. I married one of them.

“Benny had Jacks or Better. They had Grooms classes then. Benny came over and asked if he wanted me to help him with my future husband in the groom’s class. That was my introduction to Benny.” Dianne had started dating Steve. “Benny would ship horses and Steve would drive the trailer. There would always be more horses on the van than there were stalls for.” Dianne’s parents would move horses out of their barn for Benny’s horses to stay in when they came through. 

“I started working for him and learned a lot. You just learned so much from being around him. He had been a horseshoer and a rodeo cowboy. He was a great horseman and took impeccable care of his horses.” Kathy Kusner was his girlfriend at the time, and she and Dianne were already friends from growing up in together in Maryland.

Dianne braided for most of Benny’s shows and had met Steve through Benny as he was working for him at the time. They split up when she went to college because Dianne felt she was too young to be engaged. She didn’t want to get married until she knew that she was marrying the right person. Steve got annoyed at that, and it looked like things were over. They were separated, and while they were apart Steve got involved with the Chicago horse mafia family. Unbeknownst to Dianne, he moved to California, renting a place in Mission Valley with 400 stalls. There was a track, two good sized rings, and three different sets of barns. Steve rented out half of the complex to someone else.  

At home for Christmas that year, a friend of Dianne’s who dated another one of the boys said “There’s a party at Benny’s, do you want to go?” She did. Steve was there and they got back together and a few days later she went to visit him. She came home, got a car and drove out to California to move in with him, and then married him.

There was much Dianne didn’t know about when she married Steve. She ended up having to sell Impy to pay for the legal bills Steve had when they married (bills that were unbeknownst to her). “There was a lot I didn’t know about. It was a sad day when I had to sell Impy. I was in real trouble when that horse left.”

The First $100,000 Grand Prix

They later gave up the big barn Steve had, moving to Rancho Santa Fe and some other barns. A big horse facility was being built in Rancho Bernardo, and they were able to lease one of the barns there. “It was through my father’s connections with a big California developer, Ray Watt, that we were asked to help create the first $100,000 Grand Prix in the United States. The roads going up to the site, in Ramona, were windy and scary. 

“A client who owned the horse Boy Colonel that I had worked for Ray. Boy Colonel was another good Thoroughbred, who was sold to Winter Place Farm for Robert Ridland, who showed him in Europe. Ray built a whole equestrian center at San Diego Country Estates and they were planning a big opening for it. Billie Jean King would play a top male tennis star, Bobby Riggs. It was the first match between a man and a woman in tennis, and they called it the Battle of the Sexes.

Ray “wanted to do some sort of a horse show and asked me how much money it would take to bring in the best riders in the world.” Without hesitation, Dianne answered, “One hundred thousand dollars.”

They came. David Broome, along with four of the five biggest European riders came. Rodney Jenkins, Conrad Homfeld, Joe Fargis, and Thom Hardy all came. Some riders were invited and their expenses were paid, others were just invited to compete. The whole idea was to draw a huge crowd to San Diego Estates. It worked, proving a smashing, groundbreaking success!

Track exercise rider

Dianne’s father had racehorses, and Steve wanted racehorses. He wanted her to go to the track and come back and let him know what she learned from being there, to scope things out. Dianne initially rode for the Hendricks Brothers, whose specialty was retraining horses with behavioral issues. They didn’t know lead changes, had a lot of other tricks, and needed a jumper rider to get them broke. Dianne weighed 100 pounds. They put a Stubben saddle on the horses and wired a pipe across the withers to the top of her legs to help keep her from getting dumped. “That could be good and it could be bad,” recalls Dianne.

She found it difficult to get her license because there were so many family members who rode that they didn’t want to license yet another one. “But the Hendricks’ Brothers told the stewards ‘This girl can ride circles around any one of your former jockeys.’ So initially they gave me a provisional license.”

Dianne’s first horse, a mare, came from Charlie Whittingham. The mare would break out terribly in the paddock before races. She “washed out,” and “was all nerves and had nothing left in the tank when she came out onto the track.”  To fix it, they “blindfolded her in the stall, led her over to the paddock, and lead her around the track that way. Then they told Dianne to gallop her blindfolded.

“I was so dumb,” Dianne recalls, “I just believed if they said it was ok it was ok.” The mare had closed cup blinkers on. The stewards said no. If you blindfolded the horse the flannel needed to cover the horse’s eyes with a string to the flannel across the top of the poll, attached to Dianne’s hand so if the mare fell the blindfolds came off.  “We did this for 30 days straight.”

The mare stopped washing out in the paddock. Charlie at the time was the top trainer in the country. He took her back, but they didn’t continue blindfolding her. The first time she raced after leaving she placed in a Maiden Stakes race, second or third. The owners seemed to believe that she was completely fixed. She wasn’t; she didn’t stay fixed.

The second horse Dianne rode would make a u-turn as it came out of the gate. She got the horse more broke on the track and doing changes. He didn’t want to do them, he just basically had a bad attitude. Being in the gate, Dianne recalls, was the “scariest thing I’ve ever done. You’re in such close quarters and all of a sudden the gates open.” The horse couldn’t get her off, although he’d been getting all of the jockeys off. “When he found out he couldn’t get me off he quit trying!”

One morning after riding eight horses and being totally exhausted, with aching arms, Dianne was told “I think you’re ready for Winter Khaled. He was just the most beautiful 17 hand grey horse built like a brick shithouse, a perfect type for a jumper.” Dianne knew by the time she got to the end of the shed row that this wasn’t going to be good. An outrider, Sonny, who was the best in the business, and a good friend of Dianne’s, accompanied her. Everyone knew Winter Khaled was going on to the track. His reputation preceded him.

“At first he wasn’t doing anything, just going along,” Dianne remembers. “I think ‘What’s wrong with this horse, he seems fine?’ and all of a sudden he’s gone! And then I went to reset my hands and he was gone like a dart. They had said to me if he gets away from you break over to the rail and just work him for 5/8th. So I break him on the rail, and work him for 5/8. Sonny comes over to pick me up and boom he’s gone again. He went around that track two times! Two miles! I was exhausted and crying. Everyone was looking at me like ‘that stupid jumper girl doesn’t know what she’s doing’ and I was so embarrassed. Then this heavy rider comes over to me and says ‘Lady, lady don’t cry. I weigh 145 pounds and that horse got away from me every time I rode him. Don’t feel bad.’ That was so nice. I went to gallop him again toward the end of the meet when I felt ready. And I did.

I galloped for several other trainers at the track as well. I could only do it a couple of days a week because we had a full barn of horses. So I would leave the track at 10 a.m. and have to go ride all of our horses. I did it for two years for them and then it was too much.” 

When she and Steve split up, Dianne kept the show horses and Steve got the race horses.

Click Here for Part II.

Click Here for Part III.