Finn Caspersen looks spiffy. He's portly and patrician, tall and splendidly erect, with a lot of beef in his jowls. His manners are immaculate, his dress impeccable: tweed jacket with matching tarn, white shirt, blue and red club tie. If it weren't for his four stopwatches, he would look almost British.
Caspersen has plenty of time on his hands because he's a groom in the four-in-hand division of the Gladstone Driving Event, a late-summer horse-and-buggy competition for New Jersey's Town and Country set. As a groom, Caspersen watches the clocks and navigates from the back of the carriage while his driver leads a team of horses through tests of discipline, stamina and suppleness. "I don't need four stopwatches," he says. "I guess I just like redundancy more than others."
Caspersen, 47, is the motivating force in the U.S. behind the activity known as combined driving, a sport in which carriages race over exacting terrain behind one-, two-or four-horse teams. He's one of those unpretentious country squires with millions in his khaki trousers and a passion for horses. And because he is chairman and CEO of Beneficial Corp., the financial services company, he has a pretty decent income with which to indulge his fancies. "Being a groom is a little less important to me than the Dow Jones falling 500 points," Caspersen concedes. "On the other hand, you don't think too much of the bottom line when one of your wheels hits a post, your carriage turns over and you have to throw yourself clear."
Largely through Caspersen's influence, Gladstone has become the U.S. Open of combined driving. Since 1981 the three-day event has been held at Hamilton Farm, a Beneficial-owned property in Gladstone, N.J., that is the home of the U.S. Equestrian Team. "I didn't pressure Beneficial to donate the land," Caspersen says. "I suppose I'm just persuasive in getting things done."
He caught the carriage bug 15 years ago when his wife, Barbara, was pregnant. Told by her doctor to stop riding horses, she switched to driving them. Around that time, the Caspersens hired a retired harness racer named Bill Long to manage their farm in Bedminster, just a short canter from Beneficial's facility. Long crossed the Caspersens' Norwegian Fjord ponies with Arabians, hitched a couple of the offspring to a carriage and won the 1978 National Pairs Championship.
Long and Caspersen decided to concentrate on the four-in-hand competition, so called because the driver holds the reins of all four horses in one fist. In 1985, Caspersen and Long took a team of Holsteiners, a German breed originally used as cavalry horses, to the Royal Windsor Horse Show in England, the Wimbledon of combined driving.
Eighteen countries hold national championships in carriage driving, but the sport's breeding is decidedly British. A couple of aristocrats thought up the idea of holding a national event in 1943 as a way to buck up the spirits of the blitz-weary citizenry. With Windsor Castle as a backdrop and members of the royal family looking on, the first competition was a national hit.
The future Queen—then Princess—Elizabeth and Princess Margaret entered the competition in its second year. Each won her class—Elizabeth in a small phaeton, Margaret in a dogcart. Neither has driven in public since, but Prince Philip won the pairs competition in 1980. Philip, who gave up carriages for ponies a few years back, is perhaps best remembered for calling fractious horses "dum-dums."
British equestrians may have used a harsher expletive in 1985 when Caspersen and Long won Windsor's four-in-hand event hands down. "The Brits haven't won it in years," says Caspersen. "Frankly, I think they'd like to kick out all foreigners." During the awards ceremony, the Queen asked about Caspersen's role as groom. "I told her it was to lower the carriage's center of gravity," he says. "She looked at my midriff and said I was well suited for the job."
Yet some wonder how Caspersen the CEO can be happy without the reins in his hand. "Why does he spend hundreds of thousands a year to be second fiddler on back of carriage?" asks Leslie Kozsely, a Hungarian èmigrè who runs a four-in-hand school in Auburn, N.Y., one of the few such facilities in America. "He does this 'Hi-yo, Silver!' That's all baloney. Why does he not buy himself a push-button horse? He doesn't have to move—he can just sit and it will go.
"Where I grew up, we rode horse-and-carriage out of necessity. It was our transportation. In America, 90 percent of the people in the sport have no love for it. They do it for social status."
Most Gladstonians earned their money the old-fashioned way: They inherited it. At last summer's competition, the aristocrats were identifiable by their club ties, green pants and similarly sensible sports garments. Some of the more mature gentlemen still affected Brooks Brothers seersuckers, but not many. All had splendid teeth. Genteel pleasures awaited the 10,000 fans in attendance, who spread their ground cloths and numerous offspring on Gladstone's grassy slopes. They perused boutiques that sold everything from English saddles to deerstalker hats, sampled buttered scones and Watney Red Barrel, and listened as the New Jersey State Police Pipe Band played Amazing Grace, or something very much like it.
The three days of Gladstone were divided into the dressage, marathon and obstacle competitions, scheduled in that order. In dressage, horses and driver were rated on poise, style, agility and accuracy. During the obstacle phase, the carriages wove through narrow gates, rails, right-angled turns and colored cones with balls balanced on top—a regimen as formal as a dinner party at Miss Manners's.
Long won both the dressage and the obstacle events without the help of Caspersen, who decided to perform his glad-handing duties during those events and limited his participation to the marathon, which accounted for about two thirds of the overall competition. A slog among tightly-spaced trees, across water hazards and over 17 miles of sometimes rugged terrain, the marathon is a perfect model for the CEO's course to the top.
A steady rain complicated this year's competition. Long and Caspersen were sloshing gingerly around an old sawmill when a back wheel caught a corner post. Their carriage flipped, spewing its contents into a ditch. The subsequent penalty kept them from winning the overall title, but their second-place finish was good enough to earn them the trophy as the four-in-hand champions for the combined driving season.
Caspersen was beaming when he arrived at the press tent. His shirttails were out, his khakis splattered with mud. "See," he said, "it's not such a wimpy sport after all." Then he took a hard swallow of drink and mused, "Where else can you be middle-aged, balding and overweight, and still be a world champion athlete?"