After famous hunter rider Jennifer Alfano finished her junior years, she knew her future was in the saddle, but she wanted a little break first. She decided to travel down to Florida for the season to groom for Greg Best, the son of her trainer Maxine Best. She became the groom of the now legendary grand prix jumper Gem Twist (Good Twist—Coldly Noble, Noble Jay), a whirlwind adventure that took her all the way to the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games as Gem’s groom.
You can read more about Jennifer Alfano’s path from barn rat to superstar (and that of four other equestrians) in the article “Ask 5: What Advice Would You Give A Junior?” in the July 3 Junior and Pony issue of The Chronicle of the Horse.
Here are Alfano’s memories of her grooming days:
It was the winter of 1987 when we drove from New Jersey down to Florida. Greg was about five years older than I was, and he drove the horse van and I followed in the car. Greg had been riding with Frank and Mary [Chapot] for quite some time, and though he’d been around, he was relatively unknown. Greg had taken Gem to the Rolex-USET Show Jumping Talent Derby [N.J.] two years earlier, when Gem was just 6. It was just going to be the two of us going down there, no other grooms or anything.
Really, at that time, I just went for fun. I didn’t go specifically to learn anything—I was 18 years old and needed a little break from my routine, and I thought going to Florida sounded like it would be one big party.
Back then the Florida circuit started in Ocala, then we’d go to Wellington, then to Tampa. It wasn’t nearly as long as it is now, where you camp in one place for months at a time. We brought four to six horses, and at the beginning I was thrown into a world where I had no idea what was happening. I’d shown plenty as a junior, and I’d always taken care of my horses (among others), but I didn’t know anything about big jumpers. The closest I’d come to that was watching the grand prix at the Pennsylvania National once as a kid.
In Tampa he got his first big grand prix win. [Despite a lost stirrup, Best and Gem Twist topped the $30,000 Grand Prix of Tampa in their first win, beating out 70 entries—equaling the biggest grand prix field ever at that time. They edged out 1984 individual gold medalists Joe Fargis and Touch Of Class.] All of the sudden it hit me that this was a really big deal. The next week in the Grand Prix of Florida he was first and Greg’s other top horse Santos was second. All of the sudden he was an overnight sensation.
After that I would take care of Gem on the road, and at home I’d work for the Chapots. I helped Laura [Chapot] with her ponies and Wendy [Chapot] with her junior jumper. Ironically Laura showed a great pony, Bon Soir, who I’d gotten to show a bit years earlier.
This spiral with Gem just kept going. He kept winning, and later that year we went to the Pan American Games in Indianapolis, where Gem and Greg won team silver. That was the first time that I’d seen truly international riders—Wellington wasn’t what it is today—and I was in close quarters with other riders of that caliber and really top grooms. Rodney [Jenkins] was on the team there, and Richard Slocum was taking care of his horse [Czar, who earned individual and team silver].
That was when I really started to wake up and say ‘I should probably be really studying what these other people are doing.’ It was an eye-opener. The Chapots are great horsemen, and their style is really minimalist. I’d always paid very close attention to every inch of Gem—and my other charges—and at the Pan Ams I started asking lots of questions of other grooms, to pick up more tips.
Frank was all about horses being horses. Gem got loads of turn out, and he never saw a leg wrap. I carry so much of what I learned taking care of him and others to how I run my barn today. My horses do get wrapped, but in the winter everyone gets their shoes and blankets pulled, I don’t bandage on long trips—things like that. I really like that system, and I was able to supplement that education with learning from all the great grooms as Gem was competing at the international level.
Gem went to two FEI World Cup Finals, one in Gothenburg, Sweden, and one in Tampa, neither of which was a major highlight [of his career]. But the biggest thing by far was getting to go the Olympics in South Korea in 1988 [where Gem and Best won individual and team silver.] At all those international championships I loved to watch the amazing riders and the other grooms to people taking care of their horses in different ways. I remember being in awe of combinations like Ian Millar and Big Ben; Pierre Durand Jr. and Jappeloup [who won gold in Seoul] and Milton and John Whitaker.
Again, Gem was really low-maintenance. In the morning I’d braid him—he got a red, white and blue lucky braid—and bathe him, and after he was done I’d cool him out and bathe him and check him carefully before dinner and that was it. Gem was a very sweet horse. He had no quirks or issues, and there was nothing difficult about him. I would hack him here or there, but I never jumped him.
It was such an incredibly exciting time. The whole experience was amazing, in part because I learned so much, and in part because, let’s be honest, we won all the time.
It was really hard to leave. Gem and Greg were this amazing combination and they just had this magic together, and it was really special to be a small part of that. But since I was a little girl I knew all I wanted to do was ride. Not too long after the Olympics I knew it was time or I’d stay there forever.
Gem showed for years after that, and I’d always go visit him whenever we were at the same competitions. I went to go see his retirement at Madison Square Garden, and when I went to go see his clone, Gemini, when he was just a baby. That was really fun, and Frank was showing him off just like a proud father.
In the hallway outside my apartment I have a wall devoted to Gem. There’s the saddle pad he wore at the Olympics, a picture of me holding him, that fabulous famous photo of him that everyone knows and the tribute that the Chronicle did for him after he died.
These days I’m busy with my own barn, which focuses on hunters, but once in a while I get to re-live my grooming days and absolutely love it. When my good friend Callan Solem comes to HITS Ocala to compete sometimes I’ll help her groom, Holly Osman, by bringing one up to the ring for Callan. Holly does all the work getting them ready, but it’s really fun for me to bring one down, set jumps and get him polished up and ready to go in. One time I got to take [VDL] Wizard to the ring and we won, which made it that much more fun.