Throwback Thursday: A Lucky Dollar Bill For Three Olympic Champions

Dec 13, 2017 - 9:11 PM

Following the recent passing of equestrian legend Bill Steinkraus, a story resurfaced of a “lucky” dollar bill that changed hands between three of the most renowned show jumping athletes in history.

The dollar bill started its path to glory in the pocket of Steinkraus, who rode Snowbound to the individual Olympic gold medal at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games. He was the first American rider to win individual Olympic gold in an equestrian discipline, and he did so with a dollar bill folded in his pocket as he collected his medal. Steinkraus kept the once-ordinary dollar bill—folded in a specific, peculiar way—for 20 years after those Olympic Games.

Bill Steinkraus on Snowbound at the 1968 Olympic Games where they won individual gold with the dollar bill in Steinkraus’ pocket.

The bill popped up again at the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games, where Pierre Durand Jr. and the iconic Jappeloup were competing for France. Steinkraus found Durand during the course walk for the individual final and gave him a little extra luck.

“Steinkraus headed towards me and slipped it in my jacket pocket, a one dollar [bill], folded in eight,” recalled Durand in a post on his Facebook page. “A ‘Lucky Dollar,’ as we call it in America, to bring us luck! He wanted us to be Olympic Champions.”

The dollar bill worked its magic, and Durand and Jappeloup did indeed bring home individual gold for France.

CSIO San Marino 1991, Pierre Durand (FRA) riding Jappeloup
Pierre Durand, Jr., on Jappeloup. Photo by Split Seconds/Alamy

Durand kept the bill, folded in the same specific way, for another 16 years. When he arrived at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games to commentate for French television, he found the next keeper of the dollar in Rodrigo Pessoa.

“Pierre was cleaning up at home, opened a drawer, and found this bill. It reminded him of the story, and as he was packing for Athens, he took the bill with him,” Pessoa said. “I had finished the course walk for the individual final and was sitting on the grass on the side of the ring contemplating the course. He said, ‘I want to give you something.’ He opened my pocket and slipped the bill in, then said, ‘This is a good luck charm from me to you.’ ”

“I had the urge to bring luck to a rider for whom I had a lot of sympathy and admiration,” wrote Durand in his Facebook post. “In accordance with the same ritual, I gave Rodrigo Pessoa the lucky dollar. This is the expression of my gratitude to a generous man and a remarkable state of sportsmanship.”

Durand made no mention of the history of the dollar bill when he gave it to Pessoa, leaving it as a simple good luck gesture between long-time friends. Durand is a good friend of Rodrigo’s father Nelson Pessoa, and he and Rodrigo had, after many deep conversations about the role that concentration plays in their sport over the years, become quite close themselves.

In the first round of the individual final in Athens, Rodrigo and his mount Baloubet Du Rouet had 8 faults, described as a “catastrophe” by Rodrigo. It seemed the bill wouldn’t see another gold medal ceremony. But Rodrigo and Baloubet returned for the second round to jump clear, and went into a jump-off that left them in the silver medal position for the prize-giving. (Read the full story of Rodrigo and Baloubet’s partnership in the “Horse of a Lifetime” cover story in the Dec. 18 issue of The Chronicle of the Horse.)

Rodrigo Pessoa and Baloubet Du Rouet. Photo by Tricia Booker

“It was in my back pocket,” said Rodrigo of the dollar. “I didn’t touch it. After the first round, I was so upset. I didn’t pay any attention, and I didn’t change my breeches. After the class, Pierre came to me and said, ‘That note I gave you wasn’t only from me; it came from Bill Steinkraus and he carried it in 1968. He gave it to me in 1988.’ It’s a powerful note.

“I was really touched by the gesture,” he continued. “I didn’t really think about [the dollar bill] again until I was standing on the podium. I looked up and saw Pierre in the commentary box, and we made a sign to each other. That’s when it clicked again for me. I can’t believe that from 1968 to 2004, it was 36 years between the beginning and that moment. It was quite incredible.”

A photo of the actual dollar bill, taken by Durand and included in his Facebook post with the story.

With the positive drug test of the gold medal winner in Athens and the resulting fallout, it was not until April of 2005 that Rodrigo was named the official Olympic champion.

“One of the first people I called after my dad was Pierre,” recalled Rodrigo, who joked with Durand before the April announcement that maybe the bill was doing its magic. “I said the dollar bill was exhausted, but it did its work. We were awarded the gold medal. We talked about it but couldn’t really decide on what to do with it.”

In August of 2005, Rodrigo attended a special medal ceremony in his home country of Brazil to accept his gold medal. He received the gold medal from then-President of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge. He told him the story of the dollar bill, of its trip from Mexico in 1968, to Seoul in 1988, and then Athens in 2004. Rogge asked if the dollar bill could be given to The Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland. Rodrigo asked Durand, who thought it was a great idea and told Rodrigo he should call Steinkraus as well, whom Rodrigo had only met in person twice before.

“We wanted his blessing. [Bill] said it would be great to put it in the museum, and that it was a very nice thing to do,” Rodrigo confirmed.

When donated, the lucky dollar bill was part of the 2006 Acquisitions exhibition at The Olympic Museum. It still lives there, framed on the wall along with its story, memorializing three incredible moments in Olympic equestrian sport.

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