BY ANN JAMIESON
When Neal was competing, the team was structured so that the riders were selected, trained, prepared, and had horses to ride, whether they were lucky enough to have a great horse of their own or to ride one that was donated to the team for the trained riders to ride. But Neal could see the writing on the wall.
Hearing conversations that he “shouldn’t have heard,” he realized he didn’t want to go with the change at that time. At that point, you still had to be an amateur to compete in the Olympics. Neal gave up his amateur status and turned professional. He spent the next two years showing horses. He had 18 to 20 horses on the road, mostly his own, while some were clients that he was training. He realized he couldn’t give the customers the time they needed to ride well while still being able to ride at the level he wanted. “I had done pretty well for myself in the sport. I had two Olympic medals, and won the Grand Prix of Aachen twice.”
He thought, “If I can’t do this and give the people the right amount of time, and keep myself where I wanted to compete, it’s time to try something else. I’m going to quit while I’m on top,” he decided.
Neal’s father was a real character, always wheeling and dealing, doing things in his own particular way. “My father and mother and a friend in Port Washington along with other friends would do things together as a group. One man knew we were interested in horses.” At that point the family still had Buttons.
The man wanted to buy a harness horse. He said, “I have a friend who has a really good trainer out in Ohio.” And he asked Neal’s father if he wanted to be a partner. “My father said ‘Of course!’ They wound up buying a horse with the trainer. My father owned 3/4 of the horse, the friend owned one quarter.”
While her racing career was less than stellar, they retired her to a breeding farm that the trainer and his father had just bought in Ohio. They had a stallion they wanted to promote and the mare, although not much of a racehorse herself, just happened to have a wonderful pedigree.
“The trainer asked my father and his friend if they could breed the mare to their stallion.
“Sure, go ahead,'” they replied. She had three foals and all three got to the races. But they were all mediocre racehorses.
Initially, when introduced to Standardbreds, Neal thought they “were not for me. They were ugly, they were taking up stalls in our barn in the off-season that I could have a jumper in. I didn’t have much use for them at the time.”
The last of the foals that the mare had was a two-year-old in 1967. Neal came home from Europe and it was the year that the Pan-American Games were in Winnipeg, Canada. Nelson Pessoa and one of the young Brazilian riders came home to the house with Neal on their way to Winnipeg.
His father said, “Hey that colt that the mare had is racing in Monticello. Let’s go up and watch him race.” They all went up to Monticello to watch. The horse had no chance of winning but did. “We were all standing there jumping up and down. We had put two dollars on the horse and it paid big numbers.”
His father said, “Let’s go meet Maurice (the trainer).” They all went to meet him, and meet the horse, and “It just went from there.”
Maurice invited Neal to come out to the racetrack and asked him if he’d ever jogged a horse before. Neal said no. He said he’d driven a pony in a cart before, but never a horse. Maurice said, “You can drive the horse. You’re good enough.”
Neal went out to the track and jogged the horse, training it in the process, and came back. The trainer said, “Want to come back tomorrow?”
Neal answered, “Yeah, I’m coming back. And that was it. Any chance I got, I was at the track.”
At the time, in 1967, Neal was still riding on the team.
“I got exposed to the track, and I really liked it. I went on and I got my trainer’s license and my qualifying license to drive, put in the required drives and time (it was like an apprenticeship), got a provisional license, and then got my “A” license,” which permitted him to drive anywhere. “That’s when I decided I really liked this and if I can win I can make a career out of this.”
Trading one of his show jumpers for land in Saratoga, he built a facility for training harness horses. He worked with them for 30 years, doing it solely for 20 years and along with riding for another ten years.
His successes in the show ring followed him onto the track. Then some friends told him he should get into the yearlings, the young horses, the stake horses. Neal said “I don’t think I know enough about it.” The friends said, “Give it a try. Try it and see what you can do.”
He did and turned out to be pretty good at it. Every year he would have at least one horse that would carry the stable, make money, and win stake races. “I had three goals in mind. I wanted to compete in the Hambletonian for trotters, and the Little Brown Jug for pacers (the equivalents of the Kentucky Derby for Thoroughbreds), get horses ready to compete and be competitive, and drive in the races (which I didn’t win but did drive in), and get a horse good enough to be syndicated for big money, which I did with Bon Vivant, a trotter. I accomplished all my goals.”
“After Bon Vivant’s two-year-old year, the Swedes came and bought him, and paid us a lot of money.” The deal was that after his three-year-old year, the horse would go back to Sweden. While he didn’t race as well there, he was then used as a stud and produced some good foals. “Trotting in Europe is huge; it’s very, very big there,” explains Neal. Bon Vivant had over $400,000 in earnings, and the pacer Bomb Rickles trained by Neal earned over half a million dollars.
While Neal had some good pacers, his most successful horses were trotting mares and trotting fillies. “I had some really good trotting mares; I got along really well with them. When Alvin Schockemöhle retired from riding, he went into Standardbreds and became the largest owner of trotters in Germany. He and Pessoa would come over to Wellington occasionally and stop to visit where I was in Pompano, and sometimes bought mares to breed.”
Another part of Neal’s childhood dreams came true when he got his pilot’s license. When trying to convince his parents to give him flying lessons didn’t work, once he had his driver’s license he snuck off to Zahn’s Airport in North Amityville and signed up for lessons. He didn’t tell his parents. He got his student license, and then went on to get his private license.
“I wanted to be an airline pilot. After I got my private, I put in an application to the airlines. I got a letter from Eastern Airlines telling me to show up for their training back in 1966 and that was the year I was asked to go to Europe with the team. So I put my airline career on hold and went with the jumping. It was a tough choice.”
Neal loves to tinker with music. In school, he played the violin and although he was fairly good at it he found it a tad boring. His mother played the piano and was quite talented. One of the things she wanted was to have a piano at the house. Instead, she came home with an organ, which came with 10 free lessons. When his mom asked Neal if he would like the lessons he said “Yes,” so every week they came to the house and gave lessons to Neal.
That’s what started it, and Neal really liked it. It was a small organ, but when Neal graduated high school he also graduated to a full-size organ. “I would play it until three or four o’clock in the morning.” But he was told to keep it really low while people were sleeping. “I always played some kind of instrument. Played the guitar, the organ…I was just able to do it.”
Once at the Washington International when Doc Rost was managing the show the woman who was playing the organ wanted to live her dream of riding on the Budweiser hitch. But she couldn’t since she was playing the organ. Doc Rost came to Neal and asked “Would you be able to play the organ while she is riding on the hitch?”
Neal answered, “I suppose I could.” He did, and “It was a lot of fun.”
Unlike previous organists, Neal was dressed in breeches and boots.
Besides riding show horses, training winning trotters and pacers, flying, and playing instruments, this Renaissance man also shoes horses. While Neal didn’t shoe all his horses all the time, when he felt it was necessary, he did. When they were in Europe he would shoe the team horses.
“I would reset them, or do any repair work that needed to be done. I had a very good friend, almost like my foster father, our blacksmith, a very good horseman, who taught me how to do it. When I went to the Standardbreds, sometimes I would do the whole stable.”
Now based in Robbinsville, New Jersey at his Hay Fever Farm, Neal is married to Mexican Equestrian Team member and fellow Olympian Elise Fernandez Shapiro, and the two share the training duties at the beautiful farm. Besides training riders at all levels, the farm has a Thoroughbred division which helps transition horses from the track to new disciplines.
Neal Shapiro has done—and done well—a tremendous variety of things throughout his life, from riding show horses to driving and training harness horses, flying planes, playing instruments, and shoeing horses. Few riders have made a successful transition from top show horses to success at the racetrack as he has. No matter what Neal does, he does it all in. An inspiration to young riders, he has led by example, learning, studying, setting, and reaching his goals.
His farm’s motto is “Always Set High Goals,” a motto perfectly exemplified by Neal’s life.
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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