When Jean Roché heard that the National Horse Show was coming to the Kentucky Horse Park this week, she was transported back to 1967 and a moment so electric she has never forgotten it.
She lives in Lexington now, but back then, she was in New York, riding at a local stable. One night, she went to Madison Square Garden to see the famous riders take on the biggest jumps in the most glamorous of settings.
And "the National" did not disappoint; Roché saw a piece of history that November night.
"I saw Bill Steinkraus do that 7-foot 3-inch wall," she said. "It was phenomenal to see him come around on that gray horse. ... We all rode with him, whether we wanted to or not. We were all lifting him."
Perennial U.S. Equestrian Team member Steinkraus — riding the great Percheron-Thoroughbred cross Bold Minstrel in the international puissance class — set an international record in show jumping and tied the National Horse Show record set just the night before by Russell Steward on Dear Brutus. The record would stand until 1973.
"The trust of that horse, to be directed by that rider to approach and jump something he couldn't see over. ... I'm getting teary just talking about it," Roché said.
For Steinkraus, now 86, the moment was satisfying. A violinist and book editor, he had jumped big fences before and was considered a cool, analytical rider. But he was hardly the "nerveless legend" that sportswriters called him at the time. On the contrary, he said in an interview last week: "I'm a very highly strung person."
To counteract that, he said, "I slowed things down on the big occasions." Still, Steinkraus said, jumping that 7-foot-3 fence "felt very good."
In 1967, he referred to 15-year-old Bold Minstrel as a "geriatric miracle." Amazingly, the horse competed internationally in not one but two Olympic equestrian disciplines: eventing and show jumping. That was the kind of excitement that for decades could be found only at the National Horse Show: the best horses and the best riders taking the biggest jumps.
Glamour, athleticismand Johnny Carson
In the 1950s and '60s, the show was big sporting entertainment: In 1958, evenings at the National aired live on television. Viewers in the New York area who tuned to watch The Tonight Show got to see Johnny Carson (a guest host at the time) sitting backwards atop Snowman, the Cinderella horse rescued from slaughter for $80 by "Flying Dutchman" Harry de Leyer. Hours later, the pair won the horse show equivalent of the Triple Crown, and Snowman was named Horse of the Year. In 1959, de Leyer and Snowman were again National champions, and Snowman was the first horse ever named Horse of the Year two years running.
In that era, Steinkraus was part of one of the greatest jumping teams of all time, riding with future fellow Hall of Famers George Morris and Frank Chapot. The other member was Hugh Wiley. Walt Disney made an Oscar-winning film, The Horse With the Flying Tail, about the team's 1959 gold-medal winning performance at the Pan Am Games in Chicago, featuring Wiley and his palomino, Nautical.
That level of media attention — prime-time TV and Disney films — is almost unimaginable in the United States for an equestrian sport today.
"What has really changed is the total context for equestrian sport," Steinkraus said. "We had a horse culture in the 1950s."
Today, many people never have contact with horses. To succeed, a renaissance in the sport "depends on exposure, depends on explanation and most of all depends on putting on a very good show," he said.
He said he hopes the Alltech National Horse Show in Lexington will give people something to remember and to look forward to seeing again, just as he did in 1967 for Jean Roché.
"They will say, 'Hey, that's terrific. I'm going to go back next year,'" he said. "At its best, it's very exciting."
Back from 'death's door'
Mason Phelps Jr., president of the National Horse Show, plans to deliver that excitement, although there won't be any horses jumping 7-foot walls. Puissance, which means "power" in French, has fallen out of favor with audiences and riders, who find it too tough on horses.
"It takes a special kind of horse to do puissance," Phelps said. "Most of the riders are saving their horses for the Grand Prix, where the big money is."
This year's Grand Prix — sponsored by the horse show's title sponsor, the Nicholasville-based global animal nutrition giant Alltech — will have $250,000 in prize money and is drawing a strong field of nine former Olympic competitors and other top-ranked international riders, including McLain Ward, a two-time Olympic gold medalist for the U.S. team, and top international rider Rodrigo Pessoa, an Olympic gold medalist for Brazil.
"It's going to be very competitive," Phelps said.
The rest of the show, from hunters in the morning to speed jumpers in the evenings, also has drawn renewed attention.
"We were really on the verge of death's door a year ago," Phelps said. "We were begging them to come."
Now, he has had to turn away 164 horses.
The VIP seating area that originally was planned for 30 tables has been expanded to 50 and will sell out. The 6,000-seat arena probably will be close to full on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, Phelps said.
Just as Alltech did with the World Equestrian Games in 2010, the company is promoting the National heavily and working hard to fill the seats with special deals for the military, police and firefighters on Thursday; college students on Friday; and public school groups during the days.
To make the show more than just a competition, ticket sales from various sessions will benefit nine local and national charities: the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Kentucky Equine Humane Center, Lexington and Louisville mounted police, Shriners Hospitals for Children-Lexington, the Alltech Sustainable Haiti Project, the Kentucky Horse Park Foundation, the Kentucky Horse Park Mustang Troop, and the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation.
Phelps said one of his goals is to bring the glamour and excitement back to the National. To that end, there will be a special area set aside for "after-parties" for competitors and sponsors each night.
"We're encouraging black tie on opening night and grand prix nights," Phelps said.
The show has always had a social role. The Social Register originally was drawn up from a list of boxholders at the National Horse Show.
And yet, the National was surprisingly egalitarian. Eleonora Sears competed astride (instead of sidesaddle) in 1915, five years before she could vote; black riders were competing and winning at least as early as 1916.
Campaigning a horse on the show jumping circuit could be ridiculously expensive, but the chance to say "I rode at the Garden" could only be won, not bought.
But times change.
Once the fixture that kicked off New York's winter social season, the horse show gradually became less relevant in a world where many women didn't wear evening gowns to horse shows.
By the end of the 1980s, the National needed a change. First, organizers tried moving it to the Meadowlands in New Jersey, where there was better stabling and better footing.
But competitors missed the excitement of driving a horse trailer through the heart of Manhattan, so it returned in 1996 to huge crowds. That didn't stick, though, and it bounced around from Wellington, Fla., to Syracuse, N.Y., before the board voted last year to come to the Kentucky Horse Park, which is swiftly cementing its place as the premiere equestrian venue in the United States.
Now, in its 128th year, the National looks to be getting a new lease on life.
"I keep pinching myself. The stars just keep lining up," Phelps said. "There's so many elements — the arena, the sponsors. The equestrian community has embraced this event."
The competition at the Alltech National Horse Show this week can be largely divided into three parts: jumpers, hunters and equitation.
Jumpers: These might be the most familiar horses, as they were prominently featured at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games last year. The competition is an exciting crowd-pleaser that's easy to understand: Whichever horse jumps quickly over very high jumps without knocking any down wins.
Hunters: The hunter divisions, by contrast, are judged subjectively. The horses compete in divisions based on their age or the age of their riders, and they are judged on how smoothly, beautifully and athletically they jump over a series of fences.
These horses have won points at horse shows all year leading up to this event, and they nearly all look and perform beautifully, so it's up to the judges to discern minute differences between their performances.
Equitation: On Sunday, the ASPCA Maclay Horsemanship Finals will judge 200 riders younger than 18 — all of whom have qualified in previous classes — as they maneuver over a complicated series of jumps.
The riders are judged on form, technique and execution, as opposed to that of their horses. The riders jump over one initial course, and then finalists will be called back for a series of harder tests, such as jumping a series of fences without stirrups.
Many past Maclay winners have gone on to greater fame in the equestrian world, including the Olympics.
Herald-Leader Staff Report
Reach Janet Patton at (859) 231-3264 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3264.