At precisely 3 a.m. 29 years ago a cavalry captain in Front Royal, Va. got out of bed to answer the telephone. A son, he learned, had been born to his good friends, First Lieut. and Mrs. "Gyp" Wofford. The awakened captain, now a retired general and a director of the U.S. Equestrian Team, recalls the night all too well. "That boy," he says, not without malice, "has caused people nothing but trouble since the day he was born."
"That" boy is John E. B. (Jeb) Wofford, now of Milford, Kans., who, after a five-year legal battle, may have succeeded in suing himself onto a U.S. Olympic team. Backed by a court order, Jeb Wofford, once declared ineligible for life by the USET, will be jumping horses over fences and riding them across country and through streams in the national three-day trials at Pebble Beach, Calif. this week.
No matter what the outcome is in California, Wofford can be counted upon to twang the stretched nerves of the equestrian officials. Strong men like Whitney Stone, the team's president, have been known to flush purple at the mere whisper of Wofford's name. Another USET director blames Wofford for a recently acquired but highly promising ulcer.
The odd thing about Wofford is that he does not look the part of an agitator. A millionaire bachelor, the smooth-cheeked, neatly barbered and manicured Wofford is regarded by his friends as an equestrian Douglas Fairbanks, romantically doing battle with entrenched fuddy-duddies who hold too tight a rein over the last of the aristocratic Olympic sports. The trouble, Wofford's friends think, goes back to the days when the U.S. cavalry supplied the teams for all international equestrian competitions. The sport was obviously exclusive then, and it was the intention of those directing it to keep it that way even after armored vehicles put an end to the U.S. cavalry.
A new civilian organization was chartered in 1950, and Wofford's father, Colonel Gyp, was made president. A former Olympic competitor turned coach, and a rich man, he was attuned to the military and the "hunt-breakfast set" nuances of the sport. Supplying horses and money to help keep the organization going, he seemed a perfect choice for the job, but eventually he found himself at odds with both military and civilian members. He resigned the presidency, although he stayed on as coach. Those who support Jeb Wofford believe that he fell heir to his father's conflicts; those against him will tell you his talent for riding on his father's coattails was greater than his ability on a horse.
On paper, Wofford's record is good, but his detractors point out that because of his father he has always had the best horses. It is not his riding that has disturbed equestrian people so much, however, as his behavior at competitions. Wofford has always been a loner with decided views on riding and training. Before the Helsinki Games in 1952 he was placed on probation for not following his coach's orders. "Imagine!" exploded a retired cavalry general. "A 20-year-old pup like Wofford thinking he knows more about horses than people who have been around them all their lives."
At the Games themselves, the U.S. team won the bronze medal, but Wofford's performance was the worst of the team of three. Some of the more exercised members of the USET hoped that Wofford would give up the sport. Wofford had no such intention, and he went on to win at national trials with embarrassing regularity. He was first at Fort Riley in 1953 and second the following year at Nashville, and first at Oxford, Mich. in 1955. At Nashville he qualified for the Three Day Team in the Pan American Games, and two weeks later, at Hinsdale, Ill., for the show jumping team.
General Guy V. Henry, who had ridden in the first equestrian Olympics in 1912, admonished him by mail, "The Games committee feels that you may present a disciplinary hazard with the equestrian group. It sincerely hopes that such will not be the case...."
But such was very quickly the case. The day that Wofford was cut from the show jumping squad he gave a reporter an outspoken interview. Action could have been taken against him immediately, but Whitney Stone, new president of the USET, agreed that young Wofford could ride at his own expense in the open classes at Harrisburg and New York City, where the official show jumping squad was also competing. Later, however, Wofford presented a bill for feeding and freighting his horse and then sued the USET. (It was the principle involved, he pointed out, not the money; his family gave far more annually than the amount involved in the court action.) The USET eventually paid the $2,190.50 demanded, but some cold words about gentleman's agreements and the esteem in which his father was held accompanied the check.
In the interim, there had been hot words at the Mexican Pan American Games. Colonel Wofford died in Kansas, and Jeb had to leave the training of his horses to sympathetic teammates. He returned to Mexico to find that the horses had all been suffering from a form of pneumonia and were not fit, particularly for the cross-country, in Mexico's high altitude. In addition, several of his teammates' horses had been injured. Wofford gave the better conditioned of his two mounts to one of them, but then he himself fell into disagreement with team officials over the fitness of his own mount, Cassevallanus. It was agreed that Cass was not completely fit and that Wofford should not try for the bonus points earned by speed. The important thing was to finish the course.
Wofford's idea of how to finish was original—between the fences he not only walked his horse but got off and walked on his own two feet. Finally the pair got together and crashed into an obstacle, giving Wofford a slight concussion and the U.S. one of the highest penalty point totals ever amassed in an international competition. It was a double humiliation.
A questionnaire about Wofford's conduct which implied that he might have thrown the event was circulated to a select list. An anonymous "friend" mailed Wofford a copy. Wofford promptly sent a sharp letter to the USET expressing his annoyance. "From my experience of these confidential reports in the past," wrote Wofford, "I find they are usually read by more people than the funny papers."
After some further squabbling via the mail, the USET board went into a huddle, and in May of 1955 Wofford received a telegram announcing that it had been decided that Wofford was "temperamentally unsuited to be accepted in the future as a candidate for qualification as a riding member of the United States Equestrian Team."
Wofford was not to be dismissed that easily. In the national trials at Oxford he beat every eligible candidate and won first place. Still the selection committee refused to consider him for the 1956 Olympic squad. As the time for the Stockholm departure drew nearer, Wofford and his lawyers arrived in New York to plead his case before the Olympic Association. Despite his unquestioned amateur standing and his victory in the nationals the association refused to reverse the USET ban, and he was kept off the team.
"We have not heard the last of this young man," wrote General Henry. He was right, of course. Wofford returned to Kansas, hired a new lawyer and started fighting to clear his name for 1960. In May 1957 the USET stopped struggling in mid-suit on the grounds that it could not afford to spend money in court that should be dedicated to the horses. Wofford won a court order stating that he was eligible to try out for the team. Ever since, the order has been as basic a part of his athletic equipment as his boots and saddle. Armed with it, he has been able to command official recognition at all events in which he has wished to compete.
The latest instance came early this year when candidates were invited to apply for Olympic training. Wofford submitted his name and the USET bounced it right back, saying it did not consider him eligible. Wofford was back in a flash with court order and lawyer, and in no time he was training with the Three Day Team.
This week it is up to Jeb Wofford and his horses. A lame horse, a bad spill or better competitors and his five-year fight is over. But it will not have been in vain. In his way Jeb Wofford has become a pioneer. As J. Lyman Bingham, executive director of the Olympic Association, said after one of the many Wofford hearings, "When a Games committee tells us so-and-so is not suitable for a team, we accept that. I don't think that anybody has ever challenged that except Wofford." Not only did he challenge, he won.