Neal Shapiro: Aim High – Part I

Neal & Jacks or Better at the Royal Winter Fair


A Walk in the Park

As a child, Neal Shapiro liked to draw. There were two things, in particular, he enjoyed drawing: horses and airplanes. Neal’s father first lifted him up onto a horse’s back when he was very young, and that was Neal’s introduction to horses. 

Instantly smitten, he never looked back. When he was seven, the whole family rode at livery stables in Hempstead State Park (on Long Island, New York). They would rent horses from Ed Fisher and take an hour ride around the park. Neal had to go every weekend, every Saturday or Sunday. “If we didn’t go my parents would suffer for the rest of the week,” laughs Neal.

Neal at his first show at the Thomases School of Horsemanship in Huntington, New York (Long Island).

Initially, Neal taught himself to ride by watching other riders. He competed in his first horse show when he was 11 or 12. His father had a friend on the island who owned a horse, so they put Neal on the horse and took him to a show. Neal competed in Maiden Equitation, where the course was a simple twice around the outside. “The horse,” Neal said, “spit me out pretty good. I got really mad and determined, and I went in the next class and did well. I got fourth. I was determined I was not going to let this horse stop, and I was not going to fall off.

“And that’s how it all started.”

A Family Affair

Another of Neal’s father’s friends lived in Brookville and, in a stroke of luck, had ponies. The two men were in the same business, and soon their families began visiting on weekends. During those visits, Neal would ride the ponies. In time they made the trek to Brookville nearly every weekend. 

Eventually, Neal’s father bought a horse. A Quarter Horse mare, she came from the dealer Walter Riley in Westbury, whose stable was right across the street from the train station in an industrial park. She was by no means an ideal first horse. “She was the sourest most ornery mare that you could imagine,” Neal remembers. 

He was sure, however, that he didn’t help her any because he insisted on a western saddle along with a breastplate like the ones Roy Rogers or Gene Autry used. “I would herd this mare out to the end of the paddock, and turn around and race her back as fast as I could to the other end and jump off like I was going to be in a fight with a cowboy or something. So the mare got really barn sour. It would take me 15 minutes to get her to the far side of the paddock, and about 15 seconds to get back. That wasn’t going to really help my riding any, so my father brought her back, and bought himself a couple of other horses. He continued to go to Riley’s place and exchange horses until they got something that I could ride.” 

This back-and-forth lifestyle continued for a couple of years until eventually, Neal’s mother got tired of running to Brookville every weekend and not doing anything else. She said, “Why don’t we just move out here?” and went out and bought a house. 

The property was on Piping Rock Road and was a spec house with two acres. “My father decided he was going to add two more acres. It was in the middle of 60 acres of cornfield. There was corn on part of it and pumpkins on part of it.” With the two extra acres, they could build a barn and have a couple of horses. “The friend of my father who had put me on the horse at Thomases worked out at the nuclear facility in Brookhaven on Long Island. He was very handy, so my father talked him into building a barn for us.”

At West Hills Stable in Huntington, Neal’s father bought a little grey Quarter Horse mare named Buttons. She played polo and was a lesson pony. His father paid $280 for her. It turned out to be the bargain of a lifetime.

Back then, there were many horse shows in Brookville and endless miles of trails throughout the area. The Shapiros didn’t have a truck and trailer, but they didn’t need one. Competitors could just ride through the trails from their barns to a show, compete, and then ride back home. 

Buttons proved very versatile, and she competed successfully in every division at the horse show: hunters, jumpers, and equitation. Neal’s brother Steve and sister Jane both showed her as well. At the end of the day, Neal and Buttons would take to the trails and head back home.

Neal’s whole family enjoyed attending the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden. Neal was awed. With some showing success behind him, watching the top riders compete inspired him to reach for more. “Wow this is really cool,” he thought. “I want to do more than these local horse shows.” 

Breaking Into the Big Time

At the time, Boulder Brook held a massive show in the fall that attracted all of the top riders who didn’t head to Toronto for the Royal Winter Fair. Instead, they would go to Boulder Brook, where classes often went on until way past midnight. 

Neal chose Boulder Brook for his first foray to a major horse show. A friend of his had a driver’s license and somehow they managed to get Buttons to the show. Neal entered her in the First Year Green Hunters. “I got around those courses,” he recalls, “and they were a real 3’6″ with vertical gates and huge coops. There was no compromise.” They were called back, placing eighth or ninth in the jog in a few classes. 

Determined that he was really going to do this in a big way, Neal and Buttons worked hard in the stakes class, giving it their all. Their efforts paid off; they were called back second, right behind Mike McDermott and the top hunter “Sight Unseen.” Neal knew right then, “This is for me.” He knew he had to get better to compete at that level, and was determined to do so.

The following year Neal’s father became acquainted with Jack Amon, and Jack talked him into a deal. The two men partnered to buy some horses, “all kinds of horses,” says Neal, with the understanding that he had to ride them. “It was kind of like the school of hard knocks, with so many different kinds of horses,” Neal remembers.

One of the horses, Conning Tower, was a big grey that carried his head so high Neal couldn’t see over it. The two had a stellar year in 1960, winning both the Long Island Junior PHA Award, and the Long Island High Score Award in the Junior Jumpers. Later, Neal showed him at Madison Square Garden. He had some difficulty steering the horse as he had broken his collarbone a month earlier, getting out of the cast just a week prior. As a result, his right arm wasn’t very strong, and he “kind of missed one turn,” which made Neal angry with himself.

The following year Jack bought a horse and had it delivered to the Shapiro’s home without informing them that it was coming. The family was in the backyard enjoying a Fourth of July picnic when a truck and trailer drove up. The driver asked, “Where do you want me to put this horse? And where do I pick up the check?”

The driver was Vince Dugan. 

Vince delivered the horse, then known as “Charlie Gray.” That name didn’t stick long, as he was quickly renamed Uncle Max after Neal’s favorite uncle (who was at the picnic). That year Uncle Max and 15-year-old Neal went to seven or eight shows, competing in the Green Jumper Division. They were champion every time, ending up Horse of the Year for the division after Harrisburg. Neal then showed Uncle Max in the Open Jumper Division, and they won the PHA Finals class at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night. He was the youngest rider to ever win it. It was a big night at the Garden, and Neal was excited about his victory! 

Prior to becoming a jumper, Uncle Max had a vastly different career at which he excelled as well. Max had been a saddle bronc at the Cowtown Rodeo. Put a saddle on his back and he’d buck like crazy. However, when ridden bareback, Uncle Max didn’t buck. In fact, the men at the rodeo would get on him in the parking lot and jump cars on him bareback!

Max’s initial owner had ended up owing a pretty big bill for dry cleaning, so the horse soon changed hands to Bud Evans, the dry cleaner. Bud showed the horse at a few horse shows and at one of them, he attracted Jack Amon’s attention. Visiting family in the area, Jack had attended a horse show where he spotted Uncle Max. Impressed with the horse’s talent, he purchased him, representing Neal’s father. Jack traded Neal’s father’s horse for Uncle Max.

Max, harkening back to his bronc days, was always a difficult horse to get on with tack. Bareback—no problem. With tack, Neal often had to mount him in his stall, just like one would do in the rodeo. Max would go out and kick and buck, but once you got him in the ring and jumping he was all in.

Uncle Max And Neal coming down the bank at Hickstead

In 1963-64, all of Neal’s friends were telling him he should compete in the equitation division. He thought, “I can’t do that. I can’t compete with these people.” But his friends encouraged him. Why not go ahead and try it? 

Neal did, and he didn’t just try. He qualified for the Medal and Maclay for two years in a row. Riding a mare named Cameo Neal won the Revlon Open Jumper class one night and then rode her in the Medal and Maclay finals. “Back then, horses weren’t specialized,” Neal recalls. “You rode your hunter or junior jumper in the equitation classes.”

One of Neal’s qualifying wins came on the back of the legendary Snowman. Neal was showing at the Knox School, where Snowman lived, and needed one more win to qualify. Harry DeLeyer came over and asked if Neal needed a horse to ride for the equitation. “Yes, I do,” Neal answered.

Harry’s reply? “You can ride Snowman. He’s up in the barn, go get him.”

Neal and Snowman went in the class, and won it, qualifying Neal for the finals.

Neal & Jacks or Better at the Royal Winter Fair

Riding on The Team

In 1964 the U.S. team was going to Tokyo for the Olympics, and Neal got a phone call from friends, asking him if he was going to the trials. Neal hadn’t even thought about it; he didn’t think he was good enough to be considered.

They thought differently.

“You should go to the trials,” he was told.

“What do I have to do?” asked Neal.

They responded, “There are four days. The first day you do flatwork under observation, the next day you do a simple dressage test. Day three you have to do gymnastic exercises and the fourth day you do a modified Grand Prix.”

Neal answered, “Well I could come the last day and do the Grand Prix.” He then honestly explained, “First, I don’t think I’m good enough to be on the team. Second, I don’t even know what dressage is, and third I have two horses, Uncle Max and Jacks or Better. Either one of them would destroy the gymnastics. They don’t know how to do them, they go in the ring and they go fast and they don’t knock the jumps down. That’s what I can do.”

Neal was told, “We’ll get back to you.”

He received a call a couple of hours later. His friends had arranged to have a very nice local woman, Sarah Steale, loan him her green hunter, a nice Thoroughbred. “You can do the flatwork and gymnastics day with him, she’ll show you what to do, and then on the jumping day you can go in with one of your jumpers.”

Neal showed up, and after jumping their own horses, four riders were chosen to come back and ride each other’s horses. The others were Carol Hoffman, Kathy Kusner, and Jimmy Serino, a young rider from Miami. They switched horses, then after lunch, the committee came back and said that Neal and Jimmy would be the alternates. Of the six riders that went to Europe that season, four would go on to Tokyo and compete in the Olympics, while two would come home and join Neal and Jimmy at Harrisburg.

There, Neal won three classes and was second in another two classes. He was just one point off of the Leading Rider title, which was earned by Jimmy Day. It was Jimmy’s first international horse show as well. He also won three classes, in addition to other placings. “We kind of dominated the international division that year,” says Neal understatedly. “That was going to be the end of it for me,” says Neal. “Or so I thought.”

But something happened to Mary’s horse, Tomboy, at the Tokyo Olympics that year, and she was unable to compete. Neal was asked to fill in and rode Jacks or Better on the team, as well as a hunter he had used in the Maclay finals one year. “He was my speed horse,” he remembers. After that Neal was asked if he wanted to come train with the team during the winter of 1965, which he did. “And that’s kind of how it started.”

Riding with the team widened Neal’s vision. He says, “I was introduced to stuff that I didn’t know existed. It was eye-opening. Riding with Bert and the team was just amazing.” He didn’t ride for the team on the fall circuit that year, instead competing in the regular jumper divisions. But the following year (1966) he was invited back to the team, and they asked if he wanted to go to Europe. Of course, he did!

Neal “had a tough time making the transition” from how he had been riding to what he was learning on the team. “I had been riding just from instinct,” he says. “I was very competitive, and I was very brave, nothing scared me, but I would just run and jump. And I would just ride these horses like they needed to win, which probably led to some of my successes that I shouldn’t have had, but did.

He rarely rode his own horses and sometimes felt out of place around others who had Medal/Maclay victories on their resumes and great trainers they’d worked with. In college at the time, he transferred to Rutgers University in New Jersey to be local to train with the team. While he may not have shared the same background as others, he had the drive and the desire to learn and always pushed himself to be the best he could be. 

One of his teammates shared simple, but invaluable advice with him. Bill Steinkraus suggested he shorten his stirrups by two holes. Neal’s “whole world changed” with this adjustment.

Neal “just kept going to the trials and getting selected, for around 10 or 12 years.”

Bert taught Neal basic dressage: getting the horse balanced, soft, and forward, in the right way. He trained the young riders on what he had learned in the cavalry. “The cavalry way of doing things is pretty much universal. Years ago there were no tanks, no trucks. Everything was done by horse. Your soldiers had to deal with horses, had to learn to ride, and learn to ride pretty quick.”

While Uncle Max and Neal did extremely well, scoring numerous wins and titles, the horse wasn’t Bert DeNemethy’s idea of the perfect mount. He was a little too unconventional for Bert’s liking. They were at Hickstead when David Broome approached Neal to find out if Uncle Max was for sale. He was looking for a horse for his brother-in-law Ted Edgar, a horse that could put Ted on the map. Uncle Max was perfect for the job and went to his new home in England while Neal came back to America without him.  

In 1966, with Jacks or Better, Neal won the Grand Prix at Aachen, known as the toughest Grand Prix in the World. He repeated that win a few years later, in 1971, on Sloopy, a horse loaned to the USET for Neal to ride, joining the elite few who managed this coveted win more than once. 

In 1972, Neal and Sloopy were headed for the Olympic Games in Munich. They were part of the team that included Kathy Kusner, Bill Steinkraus, and Frank Chapot who took the silver medal in Show Jumping at Munich, with Neal also claiming the Individual bronze medal.  

Yet Sloopy almost didn’t make it to the Games. He was a six or seven-year-old, and although he was wonderful, he was relatively green and a bit short on experience, Neal remembers. Sloopy had already missed a previously scheduled European tour with Neal when he panicked at the airport. In his shipping box, planes coming in for a landing were flying right over his head. He had to be taken home or “he would have killed himself.” 

This time the airport and flight over were successful, but Sloopy became very ill leading up to the Olympics. On the morning of the Nations’ Cup in Aachen he was not feeling well at all. When he fell even sicker it was determined that he had some sort of a virus. It became clear that he probably would not be able to participate. 

The Olympics were only eight or ten weeks away.  

After Aachen, there were two shows in France to compete in before returning to Germany to move into the Olympic village. The horses that were not going to participate in the Olympics (like the speed horses) would be shipped back to the United States. Although initially, it seemed as though Sloopy would be on that flight, he started to feel better. He missed the shows in France, but he kept working. 

Neal credits Dr. Danny Marks for helping Sloopy recover. “He took care of him, and did a fabulous job.” Sloopy got stronger and put on weight. Then he suffered another setback. During schooling, he took a misstep and slashed his leg open. The nasty wound required 30 stitches. Again, Dr. Marks did an excellent job and thanks to him Sloopy recovered enough to compete.

He did it with a vengeance, taking it to a three-way tie for the individual medals. A little tired after his illness, Sloopy had two rails in the jump-off, placing them in the bronze position. “The course,” said Neal, “was as big a course as you would ever want to see.” But Sloopy kept going. Neal was thrilled; he hadn’t even thought they would have the chance to participate!

The following week before the closing ceremonies there was the Nations’ Cup for the team medals. Sloopy’s score counted for the team in the first round. In the second round, Sloopy jumped one of three clear rounds of the day (Bill Steinkraus and Main Spring had another one of the clear rounds). The United States team ended up taking Silver to the German team’s gold…by a 1/4 of a fault!

Unfortunately, the win was tempered by the unprecedented terrorist attack on the Games. What had started out as a cheerful celebration with athletes from all countries and sports mingling with one another in the recreational areas changed rapidly. The Munich Olympics marked the first return of the Games to a German city since 1936 in Berlin, a Games rocked by racism and anti-Semitism. Dubbed “The Cheerful Games,” and meant to offer in part a contrast to the repulsive display of Nazi hatred, the games instead provided a continuation.

As the athletes became aware that something was going on, their first take was that it was simply a dispute. Then they found out about the hijacking, and things got serious…deadly serious. The Games were up in the air. Were they going to continue, or come to an end? No one, including the officials, was sure what was happening or what the plan was.

Neal first noticed something was amiss when, up for an early breakfast at 5 a.m., he saw German soldiers running on the rooftops, and cars coming in surrounded by machine guns. When he went out to the stables there was a TV at the barn and he started to learn what was happening. Jim Mckay, covering the Olympics for ABC, provided preliminary reports of the attack. Tragic mistakes were made by the German organizers, who had insisted that security personnel be unarmed.

Two members of the Israeli team were killed in the initial attack, and nine were taken hostage, yet IOC organizer Avery Brundage insisted that the Games continue. During negotiations, the Germans made incredibly stupid errors (such as broadcasting the actions of West German police on live television) and some of the German police deserted their posts.

Arrangements were made to have helicopters come in to transport the athletes and terrorists to the airport for transport out of the country as the terrorists requested. Instead, they were taken to a military base. The terrorists responded to the deception by massacring the remaining nine hostages. To a world anxiously awaiting news Jim McKay said simply, “They are gone.”

All events were postponed while a memorial ceremony took place. While the Olympics continued after the ceremonies, the atmosphere was never the same. It was quiet and subdued.

Neal continued to compete for the team and contributed to 12 winning Nations Cup teams.  He has been inducted into the Show Jumping Hall of Fame.

Click here for part II

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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