More than one incongruous note was struck last week in Madison Square Garden during the 91st National Horse Show. For instance, a dashing Puerto Rican rider named Juan Rieckehoff won the Grand Prix of New York City, an international jumping event, on a chestnut gelding named Don Juan. How can a gelding be named Don Juan?
But if such a thing as that has happened before, here is an undeniable first. A United States Equestrian Team made up of rookies won the Nations Cup—again. They did it last month in Washington, too, and are pretty clearly shaping up as the best international jumping team on this continent. Of course, U.S.E.T. Captain Frank Chapot is not exactly a rookie, being, among other things, an alumnus of five Olympic Games, but none of his teammates this year had competed in the class for even six months. And though Chapot rode Good Twist and the U.S.E.T.'s best horse, Main Spring, it was the new boys who racked up the points that beat Great Britain, with its individual point champion, David Broome, 82 to 78. Thom Hardy had ridden in only two international shows and has now helped to win two Nations Cups. Buddy Brown was only 18, barely out of the junior division. And there was Dennis Murphy, most interesting of all, whose first experience with horses was watching his father having trouble plowing a straight line.
A public-relations man for the show has said the international Jumping Class is what makes the New York subway rider pay nine dollars for a ticket. "It's the kids on our block against the kids on their block," he says, and for the New York Rolls-Royce riders it is practically the kids in our family against the kids in their family. Besides, it's exciting.
Chapot and the team's coach of 19 years, Bertalan de Nemethy, are at present quite excited, though one could be misled by the way the former tends to express himself. "That performance bodes well for the future of our team," he intoned after the victory. "Winning with the roster we had makes everyone who follows the progress of our team very happy." Especially Coach de Nemethy, because he has two more years to train these winners for the Olympics. (Rodney Jenkins may be the best U.S. rider, and he gave his subway fans at least $8.50's worth on the last night at the Garden when he finished second by [3/10] of a second to Michele McEvoy of the U.S. in the Open Jumper Stake. The second place was enough to keep his leading Open Jumper Rider status intact, but as a professional Jenkins cannot compete in the Olympics, which is why de Nemethy's mind is on his rookies.)
November 25, 1974
But a few more words about the horse show itself. The National has been designated by the FEI as a CHIO. That means that the Fédération Equestre Internationale, the official governing body of jumping, has adjudged it a Concours Hippique International Officiel, and that gives it the highest status a show can achieve (although Huddie Ledbetter, in The Midnight Special, has already told us how important jumping is: "Well jumping little Judy/She was a mighty fine girl/She brought jumping/To the whole round world").
At the horse show you see people running around dressed like Mrs. Astor, or the Beefeater, or Marshal Foch or Mandrake the Magician. Ads in the horse show program don't say:
DOMES' FEED STORE
Get Your Oats
From Joe C. Doates
They say, "Enter the World of Gucci." There are contests in which men wearing gray tweed double-vented jackets and strange little black snap-brim hats cause their sleek, ripply mounts to mince and jig around like courtiers at a royal ball with weak refreshments. There are dressage events in which horses actually seem to be shuffling off to Buffalo. Between events Meyer Davis music is piped in, you can buy a subscription to Sidesaddle News and, "If anyone has found a gold moneyclip..." began at least one public-address-system announcement last week. Some very lively-sounding names pop up in the course of the show, too, such as that of Mrs. Bunny St. Charles Jeffery, of Reno, Nev., who judged the Saddle Seat, or Good Hands, event. It is refreshing to watch the horses that are supposed to be standing at attention during awards ceremonies start dancing to the various national anthems. And the scene below, in the stalls area, just off the competition floor, is not effete. You may see a girl and a horse taking alternate bites out of an apple, or a rider having feverish drags on a cigarette while mounted and waiting to go on, or a fine hearty chestnut shifting his feet restively as he seems to glare at a sign that says, "No Horse Can Leave This Building Without a Release From the Horse Show Office."
Furthermore, the various jumping contests are rousers. Fences get kicked over, people fall off horses and horses land on their (the horses') heads. Any jumping rider appears from the rear, as he goes over an obstacle, to have been hoisted by a comic explosion, or jerked up like the ditchdiggers Hung skyward by the police motorcycles chasing W.C. Fields' car in The Bank Dick. The horses themselves snort as loudly in their exertions as any NFL tackle. So the international jumping is not something rookie Dennis Murphy has to be embarrassed about having lent his presence to the next time he visits the boys in the Birmingham garage he used to work in.
Three of the four U.S.E.T. riders at the Garden this year may have been rookies, but Murphy is special. "One year after every Olympic Games," says de Nemethy, a former Hungarian cavalry instructor who looks like the proprietor of a nice French restaurant, "we are advertising in the newspaper and bulletin that we will have trials on the East Coast, in Florida, the Midwest, California. We are making screening trials!" Open as it sounds, this invitation to be trained for an Olympic riding team is apt to draw people with good horses, and Dennis Murphy, 30 years old, born the son of an Alabama sharecropper, still cannot afford to own a good horse.
"I never saw Dennis before," de Nemethy says. "I never heard his name. For the last set of trials, in Gladstone, N.J., he just applied and arrived, and look, the man is like a cowboy. What he's doing is coming only from the natural instinct. Whatever you can tell him, he can only be better, but it is so obvious! The rider and the horse together, in a harmony with the center of gravity! This is what you can notice, and from nowhere! From Ollabonna! People from the West Coast and East Coast are being taught from little kids and they come to the trials at 18. Dennis is so much older. You don't want to realize that somebody without your knowledge is so good. But Dennis has the natural feeling, the feeling for the rhythm, and the balance. That you cannot teach!"
With de Nemethy pronouncing Murphy's home state Ollabonna and Murphy saying "aholt" but making it in the highest circles of fancy horsemanship, what are things coming to? Well, Frank Chapot observes that 15 or 20 years ago the horse show was stuffy, "but the social thing is a thing of the past," and Rodney Jenkins recalls, "I saw Murphy four years ago on the Florida circuit, when he came in with green horses and beat everybody. He wasn't as polished, but hell, he had the desire. That's the thing in any sport."
Murphy began life on his grandfather's farm in Blount County, Ala. "People were just naturally expected to take care of animals," he says, and he enjoyed helping his grandparents with the horses, mules and cows. But his father was not only uninterested in jumping horses, "he didn't even work good with horses on the farm. And my mother, with horses, she didn't even want to touch one. She likes 'em at a distance. She was an athlete, though. When she was 40 she hit .500 and was the MVP in her softball league."
When Murphy's grandfather died and an uncle inherited the farm, the family moved to a little patch of ground they rented outside Birmingham. "My father was definitely from the working group...he did so many things," says Dennis. "But we didn't have any horses, so I started hanging around a livery stable when I was eight. I'd curry horses, exercise 'em, be a trail guide. I just liked horses. I'd worked mules, too, on the farm, but they weren't an image to look up to. Horses were pretty agreeable. When I was 10 or 12, jumping seemed to be the thing everybody at the stable was doing, so I started, too. When they weren't watching. Sam owned a horse at the stable. We just sort of rode together. Didn't seem like anything serious was going to become of it when we were 10 or 12."
"Sam" is the name by which Murphy has always called Mary Ellen Adams, whom he married after they'd been riding together for 10 years ("She said she'd never marry anybody unless they knew more about horses than she did," says Mary Ellen's father).
"We had to take a written exam to get into the Pony Club,"' Murphy recalls, "and to tell you a little bit about my spelling, when I spelled 'Shetland' I put an 'i' in it. I was better in the jumping than I was in the textbook. In the jumping, I could've been handicapped, "cause I might not've had the best horses. Some of the kids that owned their own horses had better ones."
But Murphy was winning, and when he was 15 he went to a clinic held in Atlanta by de Nemethy. "I saw some of the horses there, and listened to him talk." says Murphy, "and I realized for the firs' time I couldn't make it. I didn't have anybody to help me, and I couldn't get the horses. I couldn't even say 'de Nemethy.' "
So Murphy resigned himself to whatever other kind of career he might be able to work out. He finished high school and "tried to go for a year to Birmingham Southern, worked for the government a little bit and then for the parts department of an aircraft company. But there weren't any horses connected with that, so from the time I was 20 till I was 25 I didn't ride at all. It just didn't look like the opportunity would ever come for me to do any good. I worked in a garage for a while, and we owned a garage one time, with a service station kind of combined. Five years ago I came to Tuscaloosa to lake a job with the Gulf States Paper Company, and I met Mr. Warner."
Anybody who has spent any time around Tuscaloosa knows of Jonathan Westervelt (Jack) Warner, the president of Gulf States. He publishes a vivid periodical for his several thousand employees, many of whom are pulpwood and sawmill folk, on top-quality slick paper, with plenty of color photos of himself in his riding togs or displaying his Japanese gardens. He has a good man in Dennis Murphy, but it took him a while to realize how good.
"I went to work for a division called Warlanco—Warrior Land and Timber," says Dennis. "I worked with the forestry people. The company stables were part of the forestry, and Jack Warner rode. I started going to shows with him and helping, but for me to tell him I could ride too kind of ruffled his feathers a bit. I'd say, 'Listen, you believe it or not, I can ride your horses.' It was like going up to a race car driver and saying, 'Let me drive your car.' But he had a lot of horses and couldn't work them all."
Murphy started riding a horse that had "what they call a roar. It's a wind problem. He was 12 years old then, and sometimes when a horse gets older this flap in his throat loses its elasticity and makes a roaring noise," Murphy recalls. "His name was Blaze. And he was about as average a horse as that name is."
"With me on my good horses," says Warner, "and Murphy on his sorry one, he considered me just a competitor." Pretty soon it became clear that Murphy was good enough to be on the good horses. "He rides softer than any person I've ever seen," Warner says, "and I was in the cavalry when cavalrymen were the Olympic team. A kid like Dennis, who doesn't have a rich momma and daddy, he's got to have somebody helping him. A poor man can't do it. Now it's gotten to where I'm training for Dennis."
The switch came about when Murphy made his decision to try out for the U.S.E.T. last year.
"I had a little problem understanding Bert when I came to Gladstone," Murphy says of de Nemethy. "Now, if I'm looking at him, and I kinda figure out what he's talking about to start with, it's pretty clear. But I was a little scared at first. Bert would say, 'That's the wrong way to work him.' I always used to just make the horse do what I wanted, however I could, but Bert wants the horse trained the right way, and now he tells me what to do and I do it."
Murphy was picked to be one of the four young riders de Nemethy will spend the next two years working with, along with eight other, more experienced, hands, and from this group of 12 the Olympic team will be chosen.
Murphy attained to this select company aboard old Blaze. And where is Blaze now? "Horse heaven, we all hope," Murphy says. "His Achilles' tendon ruptured and he couldn't stand up. He was 15. I'd rather people didn't hear all about it. He got me started. Let him rest." This is said with some emotion, and Murphy is not a demonstrative man.
Do Right, Murphy's current favorite mount, cost Warner $4,000. "He was a very nervous horse," Murphy says. "He'd been through different hands, and trained on tranquilizers. I saw them lunging that horse for an hour. When you lunge a horse you tie him to a rope and let him lunge against it to tire him out, then work him. I figured any horse that tough...well, I changed his name from Roguish Eye to Do Right. I worked him for three months. I figured one of us would start understanding the other. He got so fit he wanted to go 100 miles a day. Finally I started working him twice a day for just 15 minutes. He kinda builds up on the inside. As soon as he starts getting tense we quit. You have to go a long way to get to the bottom of him. Do Right, he'll work for me, but he won't ever say uncle. I believe a horse that trains very early usually gives up very early, so it's worth working with a hard horse sometimes. When you're on the course, asking unbelievable things out of 'em, they won't spit out the bit."
Murphy was on the course with Do Right in the Garden, and Do Right did not spit out the bit. In the Puissance, the jump that is the high point of horse show proceedings, Do Right carried Dennis Murphy up and over 7'1". Dennis Murphy spoke later of having won the "Poosance."