August 27, 1948
Thomas Clyde reported on the show jumping competition at the 1948 London Olympic Games for the Chronicle.
When Mariles Cortes of Mexico trotted into Wembley Stadium on Saturday on his famous bay Arete, he shouldered a nerve racking responsibility. He was the last rider of the Mexican team, and he was the last competitor of 44. The Mexicans could afford 28 faults to beat Spain who made 56½. But although Cortes had this fair margin of faults, he had to complete the course or else his team would be disqualified.
That was not all. No one had jumped a clear round, and, up until that moment, three riders tied for first place with 8 faults apiece—Orgiex of France, Wing of U.S.A., and Uriza of Mexico. Cortes could win the team event for his country, and he could win the individual event for himself and his horse. The jam-packed 82,000 spectators were fully aware of the dramatic import of that final round.
For two and a half hours they had been treated to a brilliant exposition of horsemanship under difficult conditions. The going was very deep, and, despite doctoring with sand, the arena was badly cut up, causing a number of refusals and falls. The 832 metre course had to be completed in two minutes and ten seconds, and there were 19 obstacles, varying between 4 ft. 3 ins. and 5 ft. 3 ins. in height. They were all formidable, demanding not only height, spread, collection, and timing, but on account of their tricky positioning, handiness.
The third jump, a vertical five barred gate, had only been cleared five times. The fifth, an in-and-out rustic gate with a ditch on the take off side of the ‘out’ had caused a lot of grief, including Colonel Frierson’s Rascal of the U.S.A. who, until then was faultless and looked set to put the U.S.A. in the running for the team event. But he refused with the stubbornness of a mule.
The third time Colonel Frierson drove him with a determination that told that someone was going over. Rascal cleared the ‘in’, took one stride, swerved violently, and it was the Colonel who went over his head. This was bad luck as Rascal is normally a good jumper.
The eighth, a stile with water on the landing side, had notched a high number of faults as had the treble, and the water with a spread of 14 ft. 9 in. The trouble here was not solely the formidable width, but the fact that if taken too fast you were immediately on top of the next and last obstacle, the red bricked wall.
At the end of the first round, Sweden was leading with 12 faults by Captain Eric Soerensen, Great Britain was second with 16 faults by Lt. Colonel Nicoll, and Mexico was third with 20 faults by Alberto Valdes. Captain Russell of the U.S. started well, and was the first to clear the gate with a remarkable high jumping screw of his horse’s hind quarters. Then he was in trouble at the tricky ‘out’ of the double rustic gate with a refusal.
He was over at the second attempt but dropped four faults at the style and water, and another four at the grey wall. This got him wrong for the treble that followed, and he had a refusal. Somehow he managed to correct the disastrous series of faults, cleared the treble the second time and went on to jump the remained fluently. The lapse however caused him 38¼ points.
At the end of the second round, Mexico had taken the lead with a spectacular round of only 8 faults by Ruben Uriza. Sweden had dropped to second, and Spain came up to third by reason of Colonel Navarro’s competent performance on his free running bay Quorum. Chevalier d’Orgeix of France caught the imagination of the crowd with his pink coat and black huntsman’s cap. There was a hush of expectation (the first of the day, and only senses again with Llewellyn, Great Britain’s hope, and Cortes, at the very end). It was not in vain. The Chevalier appeared to ride on the long side but took a short hold of his horse, Sucre de Pomme. He had a clear round until the tenth jump, the devilish treble and here dropped eight faults. But that was all, and he took the lead in the individual. France was already out of the team competition as Captain Maupeou had a nasty fall in the first round. de’Orgeix was soon challenged by Colonel Wing of the U.S. on Democrat who put up a beautiful performance, dropping 4 points at the double paralleled bars, and four at the treble. This brought the U.S. into fourth place for the team event.
The going was steadily getting worse. The sun which had been shining brightly had moved round to the West and threw new shadows across the fences, so that of the 15 competitors in the third round (the best of their teams) only five got round at all. Commandant Cruz of Spain on Bizarro did a fine round with only eight faults to the water, and it looked as if there would be another contender for the jump off. But the inevitable white flag went up as he landed and d’Orgeix, Wing, and Uriza still remained in the lead. Next, Lt. Colonel Lewis of Ireland unfortunately took the wrong course at the twelfth and was disqualified. Sweden’s team hopes were dashed when Captain Hultberg suffered the same fate for exceeding the time limit.
Then came Harry Llewellyn on his own Foxhunter for Great Britain. It was now or never for the Olympic hosts. There was an unlucky four points dropped at the second, then four more at the gate. The usual traps were safely negotiated and the unexpectedly he hit the “road closed” and finally the wall—16 points in all. Colonel Frierson’s unhappy debacle for the U.S. followed.
This was the setting when Cortes came into the ring. Conditions were against him, but he could benefit from the mistakes of others. 28 faults was a lot in hand for the team event, but for individual he could only afford one mistake for an outright win. There was a deathly hush as the bell rang and he wheeled Arete between the posts of the automatic timing device. He cleared the gate. It was perfection at the in-and-out. Across the diagonal and over the stile; down the far side, with superb impulsion and control over the treble. There was a wave of applause, quickly surpressed. He was going steadily, there was a risk of time faults, but how right to at all costs avoid a major disaster. Over the triple bar, and now the water, and then the last, the wall.
The tension in that stadium was so great that it felt as if 82,000 people were instinctively lifting the horse and rider. He landed, there was no spout of water, but immediately the white flag flew to the horizontal in the hands of the official. 4 faults. There wasn’t time to exclaim. He was three strides from the wall. He must clear it to win, and he did, with ears pricked. A thundercap of applause echoed round and round that mighty oval in just recognition of a great horse and a great horseman.
The impartial voice of the announcer added the 2½ time faults had been incurred. A totoal of 6½. Cortes was the winner. For the jump off for second place between Chevalier d’Orgeix of France on Sucre de Pomme, Colonel Wing of U.S. on Democrat, and Uriza of Mexico on Hatney, over six jumps, the triple bar was raised to the maximum 5 ft. 11 in. Sucre de Pomme and Democrat both hit the “road closed,” while little Hatney cleared the lot without a fault. Sucre de Pomme was placed third with the better time. In the team event, Mexico was first with 34¾ points, Spain was second with 56½, and Great Britain was third with 67.
Fifteen nations had taken part in the greatest jumping competition in the world. Luck had played its usual unpredictable role, but no one could question the supremacy of the Mexicans. It was their day. Already there is talk of the next Olympic at Helsinki. That’s a pretty remote spot, but nowhere is too remote to visit if it can produce the spectacle and excitement of that closing day at Wembley.
This article was first published on August 27, 1948, in The Chronicle. It’s part of a series celebrating 75 years of Chronicle history.