BY NANCY JAFFER
It was a bit surreal to be at the Show Jumping Hall of Fame’s annual dinner watching a 1981 video of Michael Matz competing on Jet Run, only to look over at the next table and see Michael eating his meal. Ditto Leslie Burr Howard (Friar Tuck) and Robert Ridland (Island Discovery).
That was then, the video of the $80,000 Meadowlands Grand Prix in New Jersey. This is now: Michael, an Olympic and Pan American Games medalist, works as a Kentucky Derby-winning racehorse trainer whose son, Alex, competes in grands prix. Leslie, an equitation champion, Olympic medalist and World Cup finals winner, still shows. Robert, also an Olympian, is the U.S. show jumping team coach.
Nothing brings the past and present together like this gathering of stars, where new members are inducted to join the ranks of their famous predecessors. It was held last weekend at a golf, tennis and polo club in Wellington, Fla. The Who’s Who of show jumping gives a special perspective on the sport. As members gather for their group photo wearing the Hall’s coveted blue jackets, there’s a feeling of awe to see so many people special to the sport together for a unique moment in time. It blends the generations–Mary Mairs Chapot, a U.S. Olympian of the 1960s, sat in the middle of a row flanked on the ends by Olympians of this century, Beezie Madden and Margie Engle, whose records are so stellar that they made the Hall while they are still riding.
“This is so exciting because it’s really our opportunity as a sport to connect all those horses, riders, every part of our sport that brought us to where we are now and connect with the next generation of riders that will move the sport on to the next frontier,” said Robert.
“It’s such an important part of making sure the next generation sees how the sport is and knows the sport. The old days were different from the sport now and we believe the sport has continued to progress. This is our chance to celebrate this,” he explained.
Dozens of Hall of Fame plaques commemorating luminaries, human and equine, connected with show jumping hang in the Rolex Stadium at the Kentucky Horse Park.
The first honorees of the Hall in 1987 were former U.S. show jumping coach Bertalan de Nemethy, former U.S. team captain Bill Steinkraus and the great show jumper, Idle Dice. All are gone now, but their biographies on the plaques continue to inspire, along with dozens of others who have left us, such as Snowman (The $80 Champion), show entrepreneur Gene Mische, veterinarian Dr. John Steele and Nautical, (The Horse with the Flying Tail).
It’s all too easy to forget the achievements of the past in the frenzy of the present, so what the Hall offers is a chance to reflect about both what has gone before and the progress that has been made.
The dinner is an innovation, started last year. It was very popular, and gave people more time to chat and reminisce than the way new members previously were inducted, during halftime at the American Invitational and then at the Devon Horse Show.
It’s an honor to be voted into the Hall, and those who make the grade deserve an occasion during which they can enjoy the experience for more than just a quick presentation. Hall Chairman Peter Doubleday, Executive Director Marty Bauman and Liz Soroka worked hard making it an evening to remember.
Although everyone in the Hall has to be from the U.S., a new international award was given to Canada’s Ian Millar, who switched careers after a half-century as a show jumper to become the Canadian team’s chef d’equipe. In his first outing on the job, his team won the Nations Cup at the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, the night before the Hall dinner.
“It’s an amazing thing to be part of this atmosphere,” said Ian, after receiving a Hall of Fame tie.
“Everybody knows everybody, and probably way more about each other than they should,” he chuckled.
“There is no greater honor than to be recognized by your peers. It’s great to be a part of this evening.”
This year’s inductees were two course designers, Linda Allen and Anthony D’Ambrosio, but the videos with which they were introduced showed they came to those positions from a solid base of horsemanship.
Linda, a Californian, started out riding saddlebreds, dabbling in western and switched to the hunter/jumper world. She was part of the ground-breaking all-female U.S. Nations Cup team that appeared at Spruce Meadows. She has been a judge and a technical delegate, as well as an author and designed courses for everything from the 1992 World Cup Finals to the 1996 Olympic Games.
She didn’t come to the dinner alone. As usual, she brought along her dog, always a Papillon. This time, it was 3-month old Jessica who lay quietly in her bag during the program.
“When I look at the list of members of this Hall of Fame, I am inspired, I always have been, I see idols, many friends and many colleagues.” said Linda. “I’ve had a lot of opportunities as a result of this sport.”
She mentioned people who “were so generous in their help and willingness to do what they could for me,” in the days when she was riding.
“It didn’t take me too long to figure out if I went where the best designers were, my riding improved and my horses improved.”
In terms of course designing, she gave credit to her mentor, Pamela Carruthers, who brought to the U.S. the caliber of course designing that was found in Europe.
Anthony once was best known for his record-breaking puissance rides, over a 7-foot, 4-inch wall in 1973 on Sympatico at the National Horse Show in Madison Square Garden, and in 1983 over 7 feet, 7 and 1/2 inches on Sweet ‘N Low at the Washington International Horse Show. That remains the indoor record. His resume also includes designing the routes for several World Cup finals and serving as a technical advisor both here and abroad.
“One of the best things about course designing is working with my associates,” said Anthony.
“I have always had the good fortune to work with the top people in the business. Linda Allen, thank you for inviting me to Dublin to assist you in 2003.” He also mentioned gratitude to others who had shared their knowledge with him while he spent time developing his craft, including Leopoldo Palacios and Steve Stephens, a member of the Hall who was at the dinner.
The evening was wonderful, though one element was missing. Members of the younger generation, who need to understand the roots of the sport in which they participate, missed a bet by not attending and getting a chance to speak with the stars who made show jumping shine bright.
Michael enjoyed seeing everyone, but added, “It would be a little bit nicer for me if the younger people took more interest in what happened in the past. I wanted my kids to come tonight, but they were all busy going in every direction. I wish they took more interest and maybe in the years to come, they will.”
Time goes by so fast, and it’s all too easy to forget the personalities who laid the groundwork for what we have today.
As Michael noted, “Sometimes I go back to the show and people say, `Who is that guy?’”
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