HORSEMAN OF ANOTHER COLOR

Neal Shapiro is not only a mainstay of the U.S. Olympic Equestrian Team, he is a pilot, an organist and a harness driver—but, listen, don't bet on him
July 02, 1972

Under swollen skies the other day at New York's JFK airport, a small band of travelers carefully loaded a dozen-odd horses and—with perceptibly less care—themselves aboard a chartered DC-8. The travelers were bound for Europe and, ultimately, the Munich Olympics. This was the U.S. show jumping team and its members planned to tune up for the Games by competing in horse shows in France, Switzerland and West Germany. For most of them the voyage meant being away from family stables, handsome residences and vast lawns. Such are the sacrifices people make just to be in the Olympics.

Of the three team members who took off aboard the KLM jetliner—two others were to fly over later—nobody was leaving behind more than Neal Shapiro, who would celebrate his 27th birthday in Europe. Shapiro had driven to the airport from his parents' ranch-style home 30 minutes away in Old Brookville, a community on Long Island's affluent North Shore. His luggage was piled high with no-iron shirts and enough socks, as Shapiro had emphasized while his wife Suzy and younger sister Jane were helping him pack, "that I'll have to do laundry just once a week." Shapiro also brought along his golf clubs. He had taken up golf only the year before, but Jane entertained no doubts that her brother would soon overtake Jack Nicklaus. "Everything Neal tries, he does so well," she said. Her voice had the ring less of sisterly allegiance than of dispassionate observation.

Other Shapiro observers included his neighbors, who had caught glimpses of him riding in the pine-ringed paddock out beyond the Shapiro swimming pool. This was always a splendid sight, both because of Shapiro's grace in the saddle and his vaguely sinister appearance, one compounded of swarthy features and deep, soulful eyes. Completing the picture was the thin allotment of hair that circumscribed Shapiro's head like—auspiciously, considering his mission at the Olympics—a laurel garland.

Until Munich beckoned, Shapiro dwelled on the four-acre spread in Old Brookville in amiable confusion with Suzy, Jane, his parents, a couple of dogs, half a dozen horses and his younger brother Steven. Leastwise he sometimes dwelled there. From this suburban beehive, he was generally buzzing off in so many directions that his mother, answering phone calls for him, pleaded helplessness. "No, I don't know where Neal is," Sylvia Shapiro would say. "I can't keep up with him. I don't even try."

Sylvia Shapiro's boy might be off one minute servicing jukeboxes for Docsy Enterprises, Inc., the vending machine business he and his father, Donald (Doc) Shapiro, operate out of office space in the family recreation room. At another time he could be at Long Island's Republic Field, preparing to take off in his twin-engine Cessna for another flight to one of his thrice-weekly workouts at the U.S. Equestrian Team's training grounds 90 miles away in New Jersey. Or he might be at work with the harness horses that he trains for the family's Hay Fever Farm and drives at New York's two tracks, Roosevelt and Yonkers. When you finally catch up with him, he could be dismounting from a jogging cart in Roosevelt's barn area, a polite, grinning fellow who, suddenly, does not seem sinister at all. "I'm happiest when I keep busy," Shapiro says. "I don't like sitting around."

Something else that claims Shapiro's energies is his electric organ. He allows few evenings to pass without running through "a couple of songs," which could mean the entire score of Hair. He plays well enough that he was asked to sit in during the regular organist's absence a couple of years ago at the big Washington International Horse Show. Clad in breeches and black boots, he played for 15 minutes and afterward, applause resounding through the D.C. Armory, went off to earn even greater ovations in the next show jumping class.

While it should be apparent by now that Shapiro is a man of many parts, it does not follow that he cultivates each equally. "The organ is something I do just for relaxation," he says. "The plane is for transportation. The harness horses are more or less of a hobby. The important thing is the show horses. Maybe it's because that's what I do best. But that's also what I've always worked for."

Shapiro has worked hard enough to rank as one of the leading, if least likely, riders in the world. In a sport that retains at least a few blueblood pretensions, he is a Jew two generations removed from the shtetls of Eastern Europe. Competing against riders who learned their horsemanship in exclusive hunt clubs, he made the U.S. Equestrian Team with no instruction other than "watching how the other riders did it." There is a further anomaly. In a sport populated by excitable horses—and people sometimes even more so—Shapiro is a fortress of calm and poise, qualities displayed last summer when he and Frenchman Marcel Rozier tied for the Grand Prix in the annual horse show at Aachen.

In 1966 Shapiro won the Aachen event, the most prestigious in show jumping, on his own horse, Jacks or Better. Last summer's triumph, which made him one of the few to win at Aachen on different mounts, was accomplished aboard Sloopy, a 7-year-old gelding owned by St. Paul sugar magnate Patrick Butler.

It would be imprudent, however, to install Shapiro—or anybody else—as a favorite at Munich. In an Olympic track event such as the 110-meter hurdles, no more than three or four contenders might have a realistic hope of victory. In show jumping, one of three Olympic equestrian events—the others are dressage and the three-day competition—the gold medal could go to any of 20 men (or women, since the equestrian events are the only ones in the Olympics in which the sexes regularly compete on equal terms). Unlike hurdlers, show jumpers clear their fences on horses, which introduces an element of unpredictability that any experienced horseplayer will find touchingly familiar.

What compounds the uncertainty is that these jumping horses, forcibly landing with 1,500 pounds or more on brittle legs, are only too susceptible to lameness. Sloopy has a history of tendon trouble, and similar problems cloud the prospects of Bill Steinkraus, the veteran rider and team captain who at the 1968 Olympics became the first American ever to win an individual show jumping gold medal. Where Shapiro represents a new breed, the 46-year-old Steinkraus belongs to an older, still formidable generation of accomplished horsemen that also includes Germany's Hans Günter Winkler and France's Pierre d'Oriola.

This will be Steinkraus' sixth Olympics, and he vows it will be his last. A well-spoken man with slick, combed-back hair, Steinkraus commutes to his job as an editor of a Manhattan publishing house from his private 40-acre island just a water jump off the Connecticut shore. At Munich he will compete on any of three horses, one being Snowbound, the jumper he rode in Mexico but who has since had leg trouble. Along with Shapiro's Sloopy, Steinkraus' string is the most talented in the U.S. stable, and Bertalan de Nemethy, the team's Hungarian-born coach, considers Steinkraus and Shapiro the chief American threats in individual show jumping.

The same pair also looms as the mainstay of the U.S. entry in the Prix des Nations team competition, the final Olympic event. The host Germans, traditionally the sport's leading power, have further strengthened their position by buying up top horses at prices ranging up to $130,000 each. The best the U.S. has ever done in the Prix des Nations was a silver medal in 1960.

That Shapiro is even participating in the Olympics is an achievement against odds, since he suffered as a child from asthma so acute that one doctor warned he would never compete in athletics. The condition cleared up enough that Neal became a pretty fair sprinter—10.3 in the 100-yard dash—at Long Island's Locust Valley High. But he still suffers from allergies, including hay fever, and these are aggravated by horsehair and dust at horse shows, leading Shapiro to say cheerfully, "I'm allergic to horses." Neal's mother and sister also have hay fever, which is how the family came to choose the name Hay Fever Farm, after rejecting Asthma Acres.

Shapiro's refusal to be slowed by his medical problems set a pattern. It was with much the same stubbornness that years later, when his mother disapproved of his taking flying lessons, he went ahead and, on the sly, got his pilot's license anyway. When the Shapiros bought their organ, a deal that included live free lessons, Neal took advantage of the offer and, as easy as that, learned to play. At the harness tracks he doggedly goes on driving, ignoring the railbirds who, overcome by the novelty of finding a fugitive from the refined world of show jumping in their midst, taunt him with cries of "What's da mattah, Shapiro? Can't you win widout hoidles?"

Neal has, indeed, found the adjustment to the track difficult. After becoming a driver two years ago, he won a few races at lesser ovals—he preserves his amateur status by not accepting fees—but then lost his first 47 starts at Roosevelt and Yonkers, encouraging one newspaper handicapper to refer to him as "Neal (Never Won a Race in New York) Shapiro." Finally, a week before leaving for Europe, Neal drove one of his horses, a 27-to-1 shot named Candios, to victory at Yonkers. "In show jumping there's just you and the horse," he says, "but on the track there are seven other horses to worry about, and they're trying to get in your way. When I have more time, I'll do better."

In insisting on driving as well as training, Shapiro is acting out of a thoroughness that also prompts him to sometimes shoe his own horses, which he learned by hanging around one of Roosevelt's blacksmith sheds. Behind all this activity is a restlessness that also finds expression in the way he races through his meals. "When you sit down to dinner, you're supposed to eat," he says. Not one for wasting time, Shapiro hoped to become a veterinarian, but he quit college with 2½ years of credit from Long Island's C.W. Post and Rutgers. "I wanted to take vet courses," he explains, "but they made you take requirements"—he screws up his face—"like art history."

Most of Neal's interests have been bankrolled by his father, a large, rather rumpled man who tools around in a '64 gold Cadillac. Doc Shapiro also eats fast, though in his case it may only be to get his ubiquitous cigar back into his mouth. Among those in the horsey set who still bother to distinguish between old wealth and the nouveau riche, it must cause shudders that Doc, when emptying vending machines, is obliged to go around with a money bag in each hand. One recent afternoon he sat in the family dining room. Neal was out in the paddock schooling one of the horses that the Shapiros planned to show to a prospective buyer, a visiting Californian.

"I'm probably seeing myself in Neal," the elder Shapiro said, cigar ash drifting onto the vinyl tablecloth. "He's doing things I never had a chance to do." Of course, Doc was never exactly idle either. Growing up in North Dakota, where his immigrant parents had settled, he boxed as an amateur under the name Doc O'Day, which left him with a ruined shoulder and a permanent nickname. He later became a restaurateur in North Dakota, a deputy sheriff in New Mexico and a shipyard rigger in San Francisco. He also toured the Midwest operating a wheel-of-fortune booth in a carnival owned by an entrepreneur named Greener. The troupe was known on the carny circuit as Greener and His 40 Thieves.

Something else that Doc Shapiro became was a horse owner, but this was after he and Sylvia moved to New York, where Neal learned to ride at public stables. The boy soon was entering—and winning—shows on his own horses. But the one that thrust him into the limelight, acquired in a trade when Neal was 15, was a big gray gelding that the family called Uncle Max.

He was named after Mrs. Shapiro's brother-in-law, Max Moscowitz, who is a Brooklyn garment manufacturer. "There was only one trouble," Neal says. "Then we had to do the same thing for all the relatives." Soon there were a mare named Aunt Hannah, after Max' wife, and a gelding called Uncle Is, after a great-uncle, Isidore Foreman. The practice continues with Hay Fever Farm's current crop, including Uncle Milton, a 4-year-old jumper named after Suzy's father, Dr. Milton Siegal. "But sometimes we just call him the Galloping Orthodontist," Suzy confides.

Uncle Max would have attracted notice for his name alone, but he had other distinctions. Supposedly a former rodeo horse, he was an erratic performer who sometimes balked at fences. But he was a bold jumper and Shapiro rode him to the runner-up position in the 1962 horse-of-the-year category of the Professional Horse Show Association. The winner was Jacks or Better, owned and ridden by the storied Ben O'Meara, an ex-blacksmith who was to die four years later, at 30, in a plane crash. In 1963 the two horses traded places, with 18-year-old Shapiro becoming the youngest ever to win the PHA title. As the season ended, O'Meara offered to deal Jacks or Better to the Shapiros.

A difficult decision followed. Jacks or Better was unorthodox, with a short neck and an odd, shuffling gait, and many attributed his success to O'Meara's skill. "I didn't want to make Neal look bad," Doc recalls. "He did good under Benny, but there was only one Benny." Neal, however, was game. "Everybody said he was too much horse for me. Well, I'll try anything once."

Doc traded four horses for Jacks or Better, and Neal rode him ably from the start. He wound up 1964 capturing the PHA horse-of-the-year on Jacks or Better and placing third on Uncle Max. He also was chosen that year for the U.S. Equestrian Team, whereupon the coach, Bert de Nemethy, began to polish the untutored Shapiro.

It was a process that de Nemethy recalled one morning in the gabled old stable that the U.S. Equestrian Team occupies outside the New Jersey hamlet of Gladstone. De Nemethy, a onetime Hungarian cavalry officer, is a wiry man of 61 with wavy, iron-gray hair and a courtly manner. He arrived in the U.S. in 1949 and six years later became coach of the U.S. Equestrian Team. After all these years in the U.S., de Nemethy still speaks with an accent so thick—he pronounces "gas pedal" to rhyme with hospital—that one horseman complains, "You can't talk to Bert over the phone. You have to go to Gladstone and watch his lips move."

Shapiro trained with de Nemethy for three winters, living in a cramped room over the Gladstone stable. His breath frosty in the cold morning air, he rode while his coach commanded: "Make exercise your arm." Or: "Don't let forward your legs."

"Bert made me realize I knew nothing about riding," Shapiro says. "I realized I'd just been sitting on a horse."

De Nemethy acknowledges as much. "This boy Neal had many bad habits as a rider, but I thought I could change him. I knew that if I could, he would be a top rider. I realized that this guy had natural balance. He had very good feeling and timing."

With his first Grand Prix at Aachen, the one in 1966 on Jacks or Better, Shapiro's labors under de Nemethy began to pay off. It was a victory that some horsemen, noting Neal's inexperience in international competition, regarded as a fluke. Others tried to find meaning in the fact that a Jew had won one of Germany's biggest sports events. A similar exercise recently engaged a reporter for the Long Island paper Newsday. Cornering Shapiro, he began discussing the possibility of a gold medal in the same breath with Jesse Owens' triumphs at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Shapiro still chafes at the thought of it. "It matters that I'm Jewish to only one person—to that reporter," he says. Even Neal's father, who admits that "being Jewish hasn't always been easy in this sport," reacted strongly. When the Newsday story came out under the headline YOU DON'T HAVE TO BE JEWISH TO LOVE NEAL, Doc Shapiro snapped, "Now what the hell does that have to do with anything?"

As for the Aachen victory being a fluke, that notion was dispelled when Shapiro, who had been left without a top horse after Jacks or Better went lame, was assigned by de Nemethy to ride Sloopy. In some ways Sloopy was an even greater challenge than Jacks had been. A son of Ambehaving, Sloopy began as a racehorse but was surly and disobedient. Converted to jumping and cured of the worst of his antisocial behavior, he demonstrated he was a gifted performer. It was because of his extraordinary jumping ability that he was given his name, one inspired by the old rock song that runs, "Hang on, Sloopy, Sloopy hang on...."

Sloopy remains a highly independent animal. Two years ago he acted up so much when the team tried to load him on the plane for Europe that he was prudently left home. Last year, on the trip that produced their Aachen victory, Shapiro and Sloopy made the crossing by ship. In preparation for this year's journey, Sloopy was taken to the airport a couple of weeks early for a dry run, and his actual departure came off with a minimum of tugging and pulling. "We didn't prepare him properly that first time," Shapiro says.

All this makes it tempting to think of Sloopy as the Joe Namath of show jumping: a picture-book performer, devilish away from the playing field and, unfortunately, beset by those leg troubles. But if Sloopy's physical condition puts their Olympic prospects in doubt, there is no longer any question about the skill of Shapiro. "This is a strong boy, and he is also firm and cool-headed," de Nemethy says. "This is what Sloopy needs. With a strong, opinionated horse like this, you don't want some weak girl to ride him. But this horse also needs finesse—not roughness—because roughness he will fight back. This guy Neal has the finesse, too."

Having proved himself in show jumping, it remains only for Shapiro to do the same in harness racing. One indication he intends to stay on the trotting scene is that he and his father, branching out from vending machines, have just built and opened a 24-hour restaurant, a place called the Monte Carlo, immediately opposite Roosevelt Raceway. It is a logical sideline since most of Docsy Enterprises' jukeboxes go into restaurants. Doc Shapiro has invested in other eating places, too, including a Long Island restaurant he recently loaned money to with the understanding that the debt be repaid partly in trade. As a result, in the weeks before the Equestrian Team's departure, hardly an evening passed that you couldn't find Neal, Suzy, Doc, Sylvia—everybody but the dogs and cats—eating there.

The Shapiros were dining in this restaurant the day the California horseman stopped by. The visitor finally decided not to buy any horses, but it was not through any lack of salesmanship on the part of Neal, who had showed off one horse, a young hunter, by riding him full tilt over a series offences. When Neal dismounted, he was reproached by Suzy, who had been watching with the customer. "My God, Neal, you rode him like a Kamikaze" she said.

On the way to the restaurant, as Neal accelerated along suburban streets graced by large houses with circular driveways, Suzy said, "You drive the car like a Kamikaze, too." At dinner Shapiro demolished a platter of chicken à la king like a you-know-what and then he and Suzy went home. There was time maybe for "a couple of songs" at the organ and a snooze before Neal would awake at dawn and fly off to New Jersey. During a rare lull in this relentless schedule. Shapiro was asked if it might not be tiresome eating all the time in the same restaurant.

He shook his head. "Oh, the food's pretty good," he said. "Besides, they've got a big menu." Of course, even if he ordered chicken à la king every night, nobody could possibly suggest that Neal Shapiro's life was seriously lacking in variety.

PHOTO PHOTOSHAPIRO, WHO IS ALLERGIC TO HORSES, SHOES A PACER FROM FAMILY-OWNED HAY FEVER FARM

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)