Our columnist recalls with fondness the man who changed the face of U.S. eventing.
Over the past 35 years, the easiest and most simplistic way I’ve used to describe Jack Le Goff, who died July 24 at the age of 78, is to say that he was eventing’s answer to Vince Lombardi, the tough, brilliant, abrasive, obsessive football coach of the Green Bay Packers whose name and the phrase “to win” became essentially synonymous.
People hear that, nod their heads and assume instantly that Jack Le Goff was a tough, brilliant, abrasive and obsessive winner. Which is totally appropriate, because it’s the right assumption.
Of course, like Lombardi, Jack was infinitely more than that.
He could scream and rant at his riders with the best of them, but he could be infinitely soft and gentle with a nervous horse. He was a master psychologist who knew instinctively which riders needed pressure, which needed stroking and praise, and which ones might even fight back more effectively if he insulted and belittled them.
Everyone who ever rode with Jack has a store of “Le Goffisms,” the little sayings he used to sharpen and elucidate whatever point he was trying to make. Here’s an example, one of his favorites:
“I am galloping down to the big ditch and wall, and my horse is getting all strung out. I pick up the telephone to dial the horse…but…there is no answer!”
Jimmy Wofford told me once, “Jack doesn’t care if he breaks your egg to make his omelet,” and Jack’s omelet was the success of the United States Equestrian Team’s three-day eventing squad. For the years that he was our coach, that was his mission, and he set about achieving his aims in multi-dimensional fashion that even, now, nearly four decades later, still amazes me.
The USET three-day team, when Jack arrived here in 1970, was located in the basement of the USET headquarters in Gladstone, N.J. When people said “USET” back then they were referring to Bert de Nemethy, Bill Steinkraus and the U.S. show jumping squad, which occupied the main floor of that splendid edifice. Three-day eventing (and dressage) were afterthoughts.
Always Front And Center
Now if there’s one thing Le Goff never was, it was an afterthought. Whether on a horse, on the dance floor, teaching a lesson, leading a course walk or opening a wine bottle, Jack was front and center, the main attraction at the main event in town.
Jack understood strategic alliances. And he wanted out of that cellar!
It just so happened that in South Hamilton, Mass., there were two potential and powerful allies—Tim Clark and Neil Ayer. The former possessed a magnificent estate that he would be willing to donate to the USET, and the latter was the president of the U.S. Combined Training Association, the Master of the Myopia Hunt and the owner of Ledyard Farm.
That trio—Le Goff, Ayer and Clark—now sadly all departed, became the nucleus of what was to become the golden age of U.S. eventing. The Clark family donated stables, housing, a racetrack, an estate, and later, superb horses.
Neil and Helen Ayer established a huge international three-day competition site at Ledyard Farm and hosted the first three big international events in the United States in 1973, 1975 and 1977. Ledyard was only a 20-minute hack from the USET headquarters on Bridge Street, so team riders could use that incredible resource as a training site.
Also within hacking distance from the Team headquarters were Groton House Farm, Appleton Farm, Flying Horse Farm and the Myopia Hunt grounds. During the magical ’70s, South Hamilton, Mass., became the epicenter of U.S. eventing, with Jack the master magician.
In 1973, I rode a tough, hot little Canadian crossbred named Victor Dakin in that first Ledyard International, and the following year Victor and I were selected to be part of the USET squad to take on the reigning Olympic gold-medal British, as well as the rest of the horse world, on Britain’s home turf, at the Burghley World Championships.
Three years after our team won the gold medal at Burghley, I was asked by Anna Buxton to contribute a chapter about the American team experience to a book she was writing and editing called Burghley–The Three-Day Event.
My comments about Jack from 32 years ago have an immediacy that sums up what he was like during the peak years of his coaching career.
• “To help ‘outsiders’ understand the American Burghley expedition it is necessary to confirm some of the beliefs about our uniformity and precision approach, but to tear away the mystery behind that approach. The system is simplicity itself, and it centers around one outstanding coach who organized the training and conditioning routine and who in all other ways ‘ran the whole show.’
• There was once a famous American football coach named Vince Lombardi whose teams won championships year after year. All the sports writers agreed that his teams didn’t do anything that was different or more dramatically than the other teams, but that they did the basics very, very well. Jack Le Goff is a Vince Lombardi. He is, as we say over here, a hard nosed S.O.B. when he trains his riders. He works through constant repetition, is tough on the riders (but not on the horses) and is very tough on himself. Picture the maestro of a symphony orchestra. As he conducts, he listens and can ‘feel’ the nuances and tonal qualities he is trying to draw from the musicians. This high intensity approach to teaching (typically Gallic, we might say) must for the instructor be enervating and frustrating to the point of rage. But it worked for the riders who could realize that it wasn’t personal, although even then a ‘one to one’ session with Jack was almost more fraught with tension than actual competition!
• Once, all six of us were at Wylye, our pre-World Championships headquarters, practicing a simple dressage test on our second string horses prior to the Dauntsey Park event. Don Sachey remembered his test, but then Beth Perkins forgot a movement in hers. Small blow-up from Jack. Then Bruce Davidson and Caroline Treviranus did theirs correctly. Then Mike Plumb made a mistake. ‘Mike! We are supposed to be serious guys; you are the captain etc., etc.’ Then I made a mistake, the third out of six. ‘God for damn!’ Slam! (his walking stick on the ground). Aargh! (unintelligible), Slam! (his hat). Then about five minutes of tirade with my five buddies snickering and smirking out of Jack’s sight, glad that I was getting it, not they.
• This is not to say that all our training was painful confrontation, but there was a constant awareness of pressure and urgency that somehow (and I’m not sure how) made us want to work harder, do better and help each other, where it might so easily have worked the opposite effect. If there is a phrase that, for me, sums up Jack’s teaching (and hence our uniformity of approach, I suppose) it would be, ‘constant, meticulous attention to detail.’ ”
Making The Chicken
But Jack wasn’t only a coach. One really salient point about Le Goff, which I think hasn’t been emphasized nearly enough, is that in order to “make his omelet” he really had to first help make the chicken.
U.S. eventing scarcely existed when he arrived here from France in 1970. The USCTA (now U.S. Eventing Association) was only 13 years old, and had, I think, fewer than 2,000 members. Huge sections of America had no eventing at all, and even Areas I and II had few competition venues.
Jack intuitively understood that a strong eventing pinnacle depended upon a strong eventing base, and that what was good for the lower levels was good for the USET, and that a strong USET would in turn bring prosperity and growth to the base, creating the perfect symbiotic relationship.
Jack became a U.S. citizen, and he dove into the job of helping Neil Ayer create the infrastructure of American eventing, top to bottom, bottom to top. Much of what U.S. eventers take for granted today grew out of that Le Goff–Ayer partnership.
The last time I saw Jack was a few years ago when he was a dressage judge at Fair Hill. I saw the bowler derby, and I said something like, “I see you’re the judge.” His round, red face broke into that huge, familiar smile, and he answered in that endlessly imitated French accent: “Oh yes, you know how it is! First you ride, then you coach, then you judge, then you Jury of Appeal, then the worms eat your toes!”
These were Jack’s five phases of an eventer. He missed a few, of course, at least about himself. He forgot tactician, consensus builder, consummate horseman, outrageous flirt, teller of terrible jokes, promoter, master chef, father, fisherman and probably that most defining persona of all, the quintessential French male bon vivant.
The Lone Ranger radio episodes always ended with a question and answer. “Who was that masked man anyway?”
“Why, Mister, you must be a stranger in these parts. That was the Lone Ranger!”
So let’s try this:
“Who was that man I just saw? He was laughing, talking loudly in a weird accent, dancing wildly with a pretty girl, smoking a cigarette, drinking a glass of wine, and he did all of that while galloping down to a big ditch and wall on a runaway horse?”
“Why, Mister, where have you been for the past 40 years? That was Jack Le Goff!”