In a script worthy of pitching to a nearby Hollywood studio, U.S. riders Smith, Joe Fargis, Leslie Burr and Conrad Holmfeld, coached by Frank Chapot, trounced the courses set by their former coach Bertalan de Nemethy to win team gold for the first time in history. Fargis and the inimitable mare Touch of Class won a gold-medal jump-off against his friend and teammate Homfeld on Abdullah. The domination prompted letters of congratulation in to the Chronicle from around the world, and the Southampton, N.Y., mayor to declare Aug. 29 “Touch of Class Day.”
Show jumpers earned team silver in the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games as well, when Greg Best put in the strongest performance to score individual silver on Gem Twist.
U.S. eventers in Los Angeles wore team gold too, anchored by individual silver medalist Karen Stives and Ben Arthur. Legendary coach Jack Le Goff retired at the end of that year, and eventers couldn’t produce the same results in Seoul, where the team was eliminated. (Phyllis Dawson and Albany II were the lone bright spot, finishing 10th.)
But the most memorable combined training medal went to Kiwi Mark Todd, who rode Charisma to back-to-back individual gold medals in ’84 and ’88.
The star of the ’76 dressage team, Keen, spent years out of commission with back and leg problems, but that Thoroughbred earned the highest U.S. score in Los Angeles with Hilda Gurney. Dressage star Robert Dover attended both Games, scoring the highest U.S. marks in ’88 aboard Federleicht, but the team wasn’t yet competitive with the dominant German squad.
Selection Gets Ugly
There’s always been consternation over the Olympic Selection process, but in 1988 it got ugly.
That year Kerry Millikin filed a complaint against the U.S. Equestrian Team and the American Horse Shows Association, arguing that the selection committee hadn’t followed the written criteria sent to long-listed riders. (The memo in question stated that, “All Olympic candidates must, in principle, have completed the [Kentucky CCI].”)
Millikin looked like a strong candidate to head to Korea after winning the Kentucky and Almaden Chesterland (Pa.) CCIs in 1987 as well as the last Olympic selection trial at Fair Hill (Md.). She broke her leg the following year at Kentucky on cross-country on HMS Dash and was unable to complete the event on Pirate, her Olympic contender, and she wasn’t included on the USET’s list for the Olympic squad or list of alternates.
While there was plenty of confusion over the timeline of the U.S. Olympic Committee’s approval of the selection process, arbitrator William M. DeLong eventually decided that Millikin shouldn’t make the list.
The pro- and anti-Millikin camps hashed out their opinions in the letters section of the magazine (as of July 1, 1988, the Chronicle received 64 letters against Millikin’s attempt to make the team, and 10 letters in favor.)
And in show jumping land, Peter Leone followed suit after Millikin’s case was decided, arguing that he and Oxo should replace Katharine Burdsall and The Natural on the squad thanks to a superior record at the Olympic observation trials. But 24 hours before the USET had to declare its nominations for the Seoul Olympics, the arbitrator decided to let the USET’s announced team stand.
USET’s executive vice president, John Fritz, quoted USET President Vincent Murphy’s remarks in the Newark Star-Ledger (N.J.): “These cases point [out] the difficulties of communicating how the Selection Committee is going to judge performance versus what the participants understand. That leads us to realize we must be far more clear in our explanations of the criteria and what we are looking for.”
Show Jumping Stars
While the 70s seemed to be the golden years of U.S. eventing, in the ‘80s U.S. show jumpers ruled.
U.S. riders and our neighbors to the north won every single FEI World Cup Final in the 1980s, and some years Europeans didn’t factor at all in the medals. (Don’t feel too bad—Germans had a similar streak of good fortune through the 2000s.)
Conrad Homfeld and Balbuco kicked off a serious U.S. winning streak in 1980, followed by Michael Matz (Jet Run), Smith (Calypso) and Norman Dello Joio (I Love You). Canadian-turned-U.S. rider Mario Deslauriers, then 19, interrupted the U.S. onslaught in 1984 in Götenburg, Sweden, aboard Aramis, but then the U.S. got back to business.
Homfeld rode Abdullah to win in 1985, Leslie Burr Lenehan (McLain) took the title in 1986, and in 1987 Burdsall and The Natural would become the last U.S. pair to win the award until this year. Canadians Ian Millar and Big Ben picked up the torch, winning back-to-back titles in 1988 and 1989.
After coaching the U.S. team to win at the Prix de Nations at the 1988 CSIO Spruce Meadows Masters (Alberta), George Morris rode Rio to the biggest purse in show jumping history to that point when he won the $506,000 du Maurier International Grand Prix at that show.
“Watch out for old horsemen,” he said. “Horsemen of the old school learned a lot out of necessity—you had to do more for yourself. We rode our horses to the shows—you fended for yourself. Young kids today have a disadvantage because it is too easy.”
In the 1980s, even the up-and-comers looked good. “The article on [Chris] Kappler in the Feb. 21 issue was an interesting description of a very good young horseman,” wrote reader Judith Moore in 1986 in the letters section. “One comment though—Meredith Michaels of California has matched Kappler’s achievements in competing in equitation finals and the USET Finals—West.”