The suspense is over. The question that has haunted the horse-show world all year—can the National survive at the new Madison Square Garden?—has been answered affirmatively. The crepe-hangers can slink back into the shadows and the yea-sayers can sing, "We told you so." This year's was the 85th National, and now there will be an 86th, because it was a good show.
A new setting, of course, called for some drastic changes in format, and the National's hierarchy is an old and often hidebound organization. But it was surprisingly pliable this time. The show's program was streamlined, some divisions were dropped altogether and a blue-ribbon qualifying screen kept many other horses away from New York. The limited stabling at the new arena proved to be an excellent excuse for demanding the presence of only quality entries. And the result was that spectators saw about four classes a night, nearly all of them worth seeing. What's more, everyone was on his way for a nightcap by 11 p.m. Gone were the endless events that bored and exhausted patrons until 2 a.m. and ran up the overtime costs for Garden employees.
Naturally there were a few exhibitors who mourned the old Garden, forgetting the damp and poorly ventilated cellar stalls, and some boxholders missed the promenade area at ringside, scene of the high-fashion parades. But everyone else was pleased, especially Walter Devereux, the show's president. Gate receipts were considerably higher than in previous years, though how much higher is a secret as carefully guarded as a Super Bowl game plan. No one in authority has yet mentioned the word profits, but even Ned Irish, the Garden's boss and no great lover of horse shows, was seen to smile briefly.
Befitting all the innovations, there was a new team in the show's feature event, the international classes. As in past years Brazil, Canada, England and the U.S. were represented, but Australia sent a team for the first time, and it was the Aussies who caused the greatest excitement. Their chief attention-getter was Kevin Bacon, whose unorthodox riding style brought gasps of laughter and disbelief every time he entered the ring on his gelding, Chichester. This is the way they always perform. Approaching a fence, Bacon jumps first, Chichester follows and they meet on the other side—somehow. It seems to be the perfect example of the wrong way to do things, with Chichester jumping more like a stag than a horse, and Bacon flying out of the saddle in his best stunt-man style. At the Garden his grunts and shouts at each fence echoed to the top balconies, but since classic form doesn't count in this event and Bacon does have an extraordinary sense of timing, he won theInternational Individual Championship by a comfortable point margin.
November 25, 1968
There was no comfort for the U.S. Equestrian Team's Kathy Kusner, however. Just prior to the show Kathy finally received a license to ride in Thoroughbred races in Maryland (SI, Nov. 18), and she planned her debut on the track after the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto. But during the competition for the Royal Winter Fair Trophy, a speed class, her chestnut mare, Fru, ran into trouble at a combination obstacle. Kathy was pitched to the ground, and the mare turned a somersault before coming down hard. Fru got up but Kathy did not. She had to be carried from the ring and was found to have suffered a spiral fracture of the right tibia, which will keep her out of action for at least three months. Before their spectacular crash, Fru and Kathy had won one class as well as placing second in another, but Kathy also took a spill when she rode Untouchable in the International Puissance. The wall was set at 6'9", but Untouchable, who had jumped that height and more several times inthe past, was unable to make it. The blocks flew in all directions, and Kathy was thrown into a nearby fence. This time she was not hurt.
When the wall was raised again—to 7'1"—the event became a duel between Frank Chapot on San Lucas, a past Puissance winner, and England's Harvey Smith on O'Malley, a horse that holds the Canadian high-jump record. Jumping first, San Lucas hit the obstacle hard; Chapot was pitched in front of him and then kicked. Frank had to be led from the ring and was disqualified for not leaving mounted. O'Malley and Smith then sailed over the wall to win the stake. Chapot, stiff and sore, took a day off and, full of Butazolidin, came back on Saturday, rode in the rest of the show and was the leading U.S. competitor.
One more accident plagued the U.S. team. On opening night Carol Hofmann took a spill in the schooling area and was laid up for two days. Despite all this bad luck, the U.S. still easily won the International Team Championship for the fourth year in a row.
Though mishaps occur at almost every show, the troubles continuing to beset the Walking Horse are hardly accidental. At the American Royal in Kansas City, which ended just before the National began, the chronic difficulties flared again. Fortunately, the Royal's judge repeatedly dismissed sore horses from the ring, but the old abuses were in evidence. Some exhibitors now are achieving a "soring" effect through shoeing—building up the heel so that the coffin bone is forced down; eventually the horse becomes permanently lame. Still another method used is to sew in sash cord or lead, not readily visible, around the edge of the boot, so that as the boot hits in the pastern area it leaves a bruise, also not visible. But no matter what the means, the result is a sore horse, and he should be disqualified.
California authorities have found a solution to the problem, and their idea was copied for the first time this year at the Kentucky State Fair. All other shows with Walking Horse classes should do the same. The horses are collected before the class, and each is inspected for soundness by one or more veterinarians. Those that are sore are not allowed even to enter the ring. This can prove to be very embarrassing to show officials; some have been obliged to cancel classes after all entries were disqualified. They should be proud to be embarrassed more often.