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May 29, 2012

Benny Beats The Heat

The U.S. Equestrian Team Trial placers from the 1953 Three-Day Event in Nashville, Tenn., (from left) Jonas Irbinskas holding Pat’s Sister and Flashmark (third and fourth), Jeb Wofford with Benny Grimes (second) and Frank Duffy with Drop Dead (first).

Sept. 17, 1954

This account of the selection trials for the Pan American Games and the Olympic Games leaves the reader wondering how any combinations were fit to compete!

It was hot at Nashville. The U.S. Equestrian Team, Inc., at the invitation of the Nashville Tennessean, offered at Warner Park the tests to select a team to represent this country at the Pan American Games next March and at the Olympic Games in 1956. On the first day, Saturday, September 4th, the day of the dressage phase, the thermometer went to 103 degrees. It was discouraging for the spectators but most of the contestants approved, even though they had to ride in heavy formal clothes. The horses, tight and fit for the 17 1/2 miles the second day, were also a bit above themselves for the necessary precision of the dressage event in a restricted arena. So they welcomed the heat which took the excess spirit out of their mounts.

The next day the story was different. The thermometer hitched itself up another 2 degrees to 105, an all-time record. There had not been a good rain since May and the fields were slightly harder than the black-top roads. The Committee had done an extraordinarily good job—roads and trails perfectly marked; the Iroquois Steeplechase course furbished up for the occasion; a really wonderful cross-country course of 32 jumps, not high, but built with imagination and variation to test the courage of any horse and rider; an Army intercom system, and an army of judges and timers.

There were two added tests which the committee had not counted on, however, heat and hard going; and the added burden was nearly too much for many of the contestants. Half the horses had to be treated for various degrees of heat prostration, while two others were withdrawn because of injuries.

Three days before the Trials, Jeb Wofford, a member of the 1952 Team which placed 3rd in the Olympics, was released from the hospital after an attack of dysentery. He rode two horses and tied for 3rd in dressage the first day, although he didn’t feel too sharp. The next day he rode his second string horse in the early morning and collapsed half way. His best horse, Benny Grimes, was slated to go last. With the help of a local doctor and the full support of his 2 brothers and his parents, he came round sufficiently to start. Mrs. Wofford pointed out that Col. Wofford had trained and that she had bred Benny Grimes, his sire and his dam. She could well have added that she had also bred the rider.

The first three phases, 9 1/2 miles of roads and trails and 2 1/4 miles over the steeplechase course, took about all he had. Because of the extreme heat, the Committee had allowed all contestants to take a 16 minute breather after Phase C, and liberal application of ice bags got him back on the horse again. By the time he came to the 22nd jump, the solider talking over the intercom commented that Wofford was talking to himself and didn’t look as though he knew what was going on. The same comment was heard in increasing volume as he negotiated the remaining 9 obstacles.

When he emerged from the woods for the final Phase, .82 miles on the flat, Wofford blacked out completely and fell over Benny Grimes’ neck, which he clasped with both arms. But the little horse seemed to sense that it was up to him and scuttled round the course in one of the fastest times of the day. Willing hands grabbed the bridle as the pair crossed the finish line and led them to the scales for Wofford to weigh out. He was practically in tears as he came to, saying that he hadn’t made the run-in, which, of course, he had done, thanks to Benny. As a matter of fact, he had made the second high score for the day, with only Frank Duffy ahead.

Benny Grimes was a great horse at Helsinki in 1952. He should be even greater at Mexico City and Stockholm in 1955 and 1956. But the hundreds of contestants, officials and spectators who stood in the pitiless sun on the concrete baked course in Nashville were not thinking of the Games. They were thinking of such things as intelligence and courage and loyalty—of the qualities which brought immortality to the horses of Achilles and Alexander the Great, of Paul Revere and Phillip Sheridan, of the Pony Express and of the Burma Road. When Benny Grimes galloped with his master across the finish line, he also galloped into that immortal company.

This article was first published on Sept. 17, 1954, in The Chronicle. It's part of a series celebrating 75 years of Chronicle history.

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