A Jump Ahead Of Everyone Else

Melanie Smith and her show jumper, Calypso, are world-beaters, even if no one in her native land seems to know it
October 03, 1982

When Melanie Ainsworth Smith and her 9-year-old bay gelding, Calypso, won the show-jumping World Cup in Sweden in April, the 12,000 spectators in the Göteberg arena went wild. Hats and flowers sailed into the ring, and the U.S. Ambassador to Sweden, Franklin S. Forsberg, who had been watching the World Cup live on television in Stockholm, called to congratulate her "for all of America."

Of course, the ambassador, ever the diplomat, failed to mention the fact that "all of America" has never heard of Smith, because "horse jumping," as Smith says, "just hasn't caught on here yet."

"Yet" is the operative word. Smith, a 33-year-old strawberry blonde with a will of tempered steel, has been fighting long odds and winning for a long time, and if she has anything to say about it, you're going to be hearing a lot about her in the next couple of years. She plans to put the sport of grand prix show jumping on the map—specifically, the map of North America. Europe is already tuned in. "Show jumping is the second most popular sport over there, after soccer," says Smith. "It's not unusual to have 60,000 or 70,000 people come to watch a competition. The crowds in Europe know what they are watching. They're more educated."

Indeed, Europe knew so well what it saw at the World Cup last spring in Sweden that Hermès, France's ineffably prestigious silk and leather firm, long a prominent supporter of show jumping, invited 35 ineffably prestigious guests to Paris to celebrate Smith's win, an accomplishment the Hermès people regarded as worthy of only the third party that their company has hosted in 150 years.

It is a delight to visualize Smith at such an elegant fete as she sits barefoot on the grass, wearing the most pragmatic of shorts and halter top, outside the stable complex that is growing under her firm direction at Windrush Farm in Morris, Conn. She's waiting for a call from Holland to get details on the purchase of a Dutch horse; a representative from the Road to L.A. has been calling from the Coast for days, wanting to conduct a six-hour telephone interview to serve as the basis for a TV script about her; ABC has already tromped over Windrush Farm, shooting footage for a special on her sport. But at the moment the toast of international show jumping is making a necklace of clover and recalling a simpler time, when she grew up, the quintessential horse nut, in Germantown, Tenn.

"I had a wonderful childhood," Smith says. She's the second daughter of Hugh Frank Smith, a native of Alabama and an editor with the Memphis Press-Scimitar, and Rachael Ainsworth Smith, whose great-great-grandparents drove an ox-team from upstate New York to Fort Dodge, Iowa in 1802. Rachael ran a successful riding school in Germantown for nearly 30 years, but to say that Hugh Frank prefers football to horses is a decided understatement. "Every year Bear Bryant sends him a season's worth of football tickets," Rachael says. "Animals are not my husband's thing. Horses are always biting him or stepping on him." In deference to Hugh Frank, Rachael did name one of her horses The Crimson Tide—Melanie was the intermediate jumper champion on him at the Devon, Pa. horse show in 1975. Rachael, who will be 70 this week, says that she can still jump on a horse bareback and run off with only a halter on him.

Melanie began riding shortly after she learned to walk, when her Iowa grandfather gave her a Shetland pony named White Wind. She keeps a photograph of herself at age three standing, in open-toed sandals, on the bare back of the pony. The caption beneath it reads, "White Wind, my first pony. My favorite picture of all."

Melanie did not just stand around on White Wind. She rode cows. She rode pigs. She broke the family ponies to lead and to a rider. "I had a group of about six friends," she says, "and all summer we would go off with our ponies. We'd have slumber parties and take the ponies. We went swimming with them, riding them into the water until it came up to their bellies, then sliding off and letting them swim while we hung on to their manes. We took off our shirts and hung them over the fences so the ponies could jump in the moonlight. In the winter, the ponies pulled sleds if there was one snowflake, and on the last day of school we just rode our ponies up to get our diplomas."

What these early experiences did was consolidate Smith's invaluable, instinctive feel for horses that could not have been instilled through hundreds of hours of instruction. "When I began competing and the pressure came," Smith says, "I had so much confidence, such a rapport with horses, that it was just not a part of riding to feel nervous or tense. Riding was more natural to me than walking. I fall off my high heels more often than I fall off a horse."

Show jumping derives from fox hunting, in which horse and rider hurl themselves over whatever presents itself while in pursuit of the fox, whether fence, ditch or stream. At 14, Melanie was a whipper-in and rode with the Longreen Hunt in Collierville, Tenn. for five years. Last New Year's Day she was invited to ride with the Warwickshire Hunt in England, an experience she found something of a revelation. "It wasn't a question of is there a ditch after this fence, but of how wide and deep will this ditch be. The views were spectacular, but there were 12-foot drops. There was a field of 150 riders—do you go to the front and fall off and get trampled, or hang back and trample on the ones who have fallen off already? It lasted six hours!"

In show jumping, these natural obstacles are simulated by a course designer, who arranges a variety of jumps and fences, and it doesn't matter how the horse gets over them, but whether or not it can go "clean," i.e., finish the course without knocking a fence rail down, refusing a jump or throwing the rider. The point is to finish the course in the fastest time with the least number of faults, and there are a set number of penalty points assigned to each infraction: For instance, each rail down equals four faults.

On the grand prix level, the highest level of international competition, the courses are more difficult and the fences higher (up to six feet) and wider. There are times when the horse brings down not only the fence, but the rider and himself as well—to "crash and burn," as Smith puts it—and years of experience don't always insure against such occurrences. In May at Hickstead, England, a member of the U.S. Equestrian Team broke his leg in just such a fall, and one of England's top horses crashed into a fence and shattered a leg. He had to be destroyed on the course.

Hickstead was a preliminary event to the World Show-Jumping Championships in Dublin in June, where the U.S. finished a disappointing fourth. Yet it was the only nation to have all four riders on its team in the top 20, underscoring a key problem for the Americans. The U.S. has many of the world's top riders but lacks a similar depth in its string of horses. One reason for this is that the best jumpers are bred in the countries where show jumping is important. Smith found Calypso, the best American horse, in Holland in 1978. The fact that she still has him is something of a miracle, and a review of her career points up why.

The Smiths weren't wealthy, but like so many parents of promising amateur athletes they were willing to make sacrifices to help their child achieve a goal. As a girl Melanie had modest successes in Mid-South horse shows, but to advance any further she needed expert coaching and top horses. That would cost money. A lot of money. The Smiths chose another route. In 1968 George Morris, a 1960 Olympian and the premier U.S. jumping coach, held a clinic in Knoxville, and Melanie, then 19, and Rachael double-teamed him. "George was recovering from hepatitis, and he was mean as hell," says Rachael of this first meeting. "But I walked right up to him. He said, 'What do you want?' He was thinking, 'Oh, God, here comes another idiot mother.' I said, 'I want the Olympic team.' "

"Can you imagine," moans Smith, "this little country stranger telling George Morris she wants her daughter on the Olympic team?" Morris told the Smiths flatly that Melanie was too old to begin serious training and didn't have a good enough horse or sufficient money. But Melanie tackled him again the following year. This time Morris agreed to coach her during the six-event Florida circuit in the winter of 1970. She became champion in the amateur-owner jumper division and won the national title in that category later that year. Then Morris asked her to work with him, although he had never before taken on working students. She has been with him 12 years now, longer than any other student.

Smith's relationship with Morris became her entree to the all-important "A" show-jumping circuit. In exchange for her grooming and braiding horses, Morris coached her and, as she says, "gave me organizational and technical knowledge. I found out that the things I had been doing all along had names."

She continued to chalk up a string of impressive victories until, in 1974, she got a sponsor, Stillmeadow Farm in Connecticut. Sponsorship is the only way most riders are able to compete over the long term, because it can cost more than $100,000 a year for a top-level rider and horse to stay on the circuit. Smith's arrangement was like most: Stillmeadow picked up the tab for keeping her on the circuit; in return, she trained and showed their horses in competition. To preserve her amateur status, required for the Pan-Am and Olympic games, Smith can accept none of the money or gifts won in competition. Those go to the owner of her horse.

Later that year Smith won her first grand prix event, on a bay gelding named Radnor II. (In 1976 Radnor II was the leading money-winner, and Smith was chosen as an alternate to the Olympic Games but did not get the chance to ride.)

In 1977, Stillmeadow purchased another horse, a 12-year-old French gelding with a weakness for Life Savers named Val de Loire. Val de Loire became Smith's regular mount, and she rode him to an unprecedented five grand prix wins in 1978. Val de Loire was Horse of the Year, Smith was Rider of the Year and between them they won $36,800 for Stillmeadow, a lot of money for the sport at that time.

Nineteen seventy-eight turned out to be the pivotal year for Smith in another way: She found her one-in-a-million horse in Holland. She bought Calypso, then five years old, for Stillmeadow for $40,000, a price that was to prove decidedly bargain basement. She began training him, and soon they emerged as a team that was to set show jumping on its ear.

In 1980 Smith realized her dream of being selected to represent the U.S. at the Olympic Games, but then, of course, the U.S. didn't participate in Moscow. Instead the team competed in Rotterdam, Calypso's home turf, at the alternate Olympics, and once again fate almost cost Smith the chance to ride for her country.

It was the morning of the final day of competition. A rookie groom was mucking out Calypso's stall, unaware that Calypso didn't have the good-natured personality of his stablemate, Val de Loire. Calypso has a strong sense of privacy; he doesn't care for strangers in his stall and can make that perfectly clear in a few seconds. Calypso is often bluffing, but when he made a move toward the groom in Rotterdam, ears menacingly slicked back against his head, the groom panicked and accidentally rammed a pitchfork tine into the corner of the mouth of America's best hope for a medal.

"Calypso was bleeding all over the place," Smith recalls with a grimace. "We alternated icing and heating the wound, but he was so sore I couldn't put a bit in his mouth. I had to work him with a halter." A few hours later Smith and Calypso went into the ring and emerged with a bronze medal. Typically, Smith gives her horse the credit. "He really rises to the occasion," she says, no pun presumably intended. "He seems to know when an event is really important."

Unfortunately, back home, matters were not going so well at Stillmeadow Farm. Smith's once close relationship with the owners had deteriorated to the point where she was no longer living there; she was expected just to show up before a competition to ride the horses. In a sport in which the rider is also the trainer, the arrangement was at best counterproductive. Horses require a daily training program. Smith was not permitted to control their regimen, and a distinct falling-off was observed in their performance.

To this day Smith refuses to comment on the details of what led to her final break with Stillmeadow, but about the time the relationship went sour, a successful young entrepreneur named Marc St. James was looking for a new investment. St. James is a spectacular example of the workaholic; his idea of fun is a 20-hour business day. At 36 he was the owner of several privately held companies engaged in a variety of business activities, but he wanted something different that would appreciate in value, produce revenue and provide a tax shelter. Horses, he found, filled the bill. "The thoroughbred market was fully developed," says St. James, "so I hired people to do original research on show jumpers." What he discovered was that jumpers outperformed stocks, bonds, gold, diamonds and real estate, so in October 1979 he purchased a rundown 25-acre farm in the small northwestern Connecticut community of Morris. He named it Windrush after the winds that sweep over its hillsides the year around. He rid the barn of hundreds of rats, removed 28 tons of manure from the show ring, built some stalls and began looking for a top trainer and rider for the horses he planned to purchase.

The timing was almost perfect. The previous month St. James had taken his wife, Joyce, to the American Jumping Derby in Portsmouth, R.I., where Smith and Calypso won the first leg of show jumping's Triple Crown. In 1981 the pair won the second leg at the American Gold Cup in Devon, and in 1982 Smith and Calypso polished off the third leg with their win at the American Invitational in Tampa. This marked the first time these events had been won by the same horse and rider. In fact, no horse or rider had ever won all three, much less the same horse-and-rider combination.

After seeing Smith's performance on Calypso at the American Jumping Derby St. James approached her with an offer she found hard to refuse, but she held on as long as possible to the arrangement with Stillmeadow, because they owned Calypso. When the final rupture came, in June of 1981, it was a heartbreaking moment: She was going to have to start from scratch with new, untrained horses.

But she got lucky. On July 1, she heard that Calypso was up for sale and tried to buy him for St. James. Stillmeadow, obviously not wanting Smith to have the horse, insisted Calypso was not for sale, but Smith learned that a friend had an option to purchase him, and after several months of tense, complicated negotiations. Windrush Farm succeeded in buying Calypso for $535,000.

"The man who had the option knew Calypso was the best jumper in the world," says St. James. "Fortunately he wanted to keep the horse in America and make sure it was in the right hands, and the right hands were clearly Melanie's. She had found the horse, trained him and won with him. He truly belonged to her."

It was late on the night of Sept. 1 when the van finally pulled up to the stable in Morris with Calypso safely on board. Smith had not seen him in nearly three months, and as he was led down the ramp she, the St. Jameses and a dozen farm employees greeted him with cheers, tears and champagne.

Last December, Calypso became the first show jumper to be syndicated through a limited partnership. The price tag was a staggering $650,000—and this for a gelding. There could thus be no earnings from sales of future foals or from stud fees, as is normally the expectation with livestock syndications. But Calypso is already 15% ahead of his projected earnings; before the World Cup win in Sweden, St. James was offered $1.4 million for him. The present estimate is that Calypso will be worth more than $2.1 million after the '84 Olympics.

This could be just the beginning. St. James and Smith believe a main reason that show jumpers haven't been as popular investments as quarter horses and thoroughbred racehorses is the lack of a show-jumper breeding program in the U.S. To solve this problem, a second syndication is now being put together that will comprise five horses—a stallion, two geldings and two mares. It will also include an agreement with a group of Colorado-based genetic engineers, who will provide expertise in an innovative, high-tech approach to breeding called embryo transfer that is already widely used with cattle. The plan is to breed the mares in the syndication to the stallion and, shortly after conception, non-surgically transplant the embryos to surrogate mothers that will carry the foals to term. This way the biological mothers can remain in competition on the show circuit—thereby continuing to add dollars to their value and to that of their progeny. It is estimated that each mare could produce six foals annually and still show jump. The next object is to increase show jumping's prize money and make the sport more economically feasible for amateur athletes. "Golf and tennis bloomed when they went professional," says St. James. "Currently, the total prize money available from every pro event on the show-jumping circuit in this country is around $250,000, maybe a maximum of $2 million in the entire sport worldwide. I would like to see to it that single events here will be contested for purses of $250,000. And this isn't a sport where you're washed up early. The average age of Olympic horses is 14, and riders can continue into their 50s or beyond." If purses of $250,000 are offered, it's a safe bet good horses and riders will really hang in there.

Meanwhile, Smith is still pursuing her Olympic dream, while hoping her sport will soon become of real importance in the U.S. Little more than a year ago she felt her best chance for a medal had been dashed with the apparent loss of her beloved Calypso. Now, not only does she have him back, but also, on Sept. 19, she bested the field in the Gold Cup in Devon again. The capacity crowd outdoors at Devon was only 5,000, and there were no ambassadorial compliments this time. They gave Smith a standing ovation, though, a rarity in the sport. And there are going to be many more.

PHOTO PHOTOSmith checks out the course at the World Championships in Dublin, jump by jump. PHOTOAt a minor meet Smith jumps the mare Belle, who'll have an embryo-transplant role. PHOTOIt's no myth: Smith once bought a unicorn, and friends keep picking them up for her. PHOTOHugh Frank and Rachael are still going strong in their own different directions. PHOTOSt. James's 130-year-old study was transported board by board from England and was reassembled in his house in Connecticut. PHOTOMelanie and Calypso at Windrush Farm, in clover at last. Well, actually, in dandelions.

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)