In February 1972, long before the hunter derbies of today, the first ever “hunter classic” was held Florida. With the top horses of the day ridden by riders such as Rodney Jenkins, Bernie Traurig, Katie Monahan Prudent, and Joey Darby all competing, it was a little dark bay Thoroughbred mare known as Sign The Card that won the class. With Jane Womble Gaston aboard and trained by Walter J. Lee, Sign The Card won all five of the hunter classics that she competed.
Sign The Card was bred in South Carolina by Joe Bates and foaled in 1965. She was by Double Hitch (by Double Jay), out of Princess Ala (by Royal Prince).
Nora Cooke, of Charlotte, N.C., bought the dark bay filly early in her 3-year-old year, already broken and going. It was in June of 1968 that Jimmy Lee saw Nora’s son Billy riding the 3-year-old around the show at Norfolk, Va. As soon as Lee saw her, he bought her and took her back to his Belcort Farm at Ingleside in Charlottesville.
Jane Womble (now Gaston) was showing in her last junior year in 1968. She was a great rider who dominated the pony and junior divisions on ponies and horses from Belcort that were trained by Jimmy Lee. When Gaston aged out of the juniors, she got her amateur card and bought the 4-year-old filly that was called “Mary.” The name came from the song “Proud Mary.” Lee said that he and Gaston liked the song and the name just fit the 15.2 ½ up-and-coming star of the hunter ring.
In the winter of 1968-69, Lee shipped the Belcort horses (including Mary) to Southern Pines for training in the warmer weather and sand footing. Many of the top professionals of the day wintered there. The Belcort horses were stabled at Nancy Sweet-Escott’s Tremont Farm, along with the horses of Jenkins, Delmar Twyman, and Joey Darby.
One day, Gaston was schooling Mary over a big oxer that was four feet in height. Jenkins was standing on the rail watching. When the 4-year-old jumped out of her skin over the big oxer, Jenkins said, “Man, they can sign the card on that one,” (meaning the judges could sign their judge’s cards because the mare had won the imaginary class). There the name was born. From then on, the filly that was nicknamed “Mary” was Sign The Card at horse shows.
When the spring of 1969 rolled around and the A shows started in Virginia, Sign The Card and Gaston dominated the amateur-owner division and won more than their share in the very competitive first year green working hunters at major shows throughout the East Coast including Devon (Pa.), the Pennsylvania National, Washington (D.C.), and the National Horse Show (N.Y.) at Madison Square Garden. At year’s end, they were American Horse Show Association Horse Of The Year in the amateur-owner hunters and Virginia Horse Show Association year-end champions in both the amateur-owners and the green working. After Gaston’s many years of winning all over the country on many horses and ponies, Sign The Card’s AHSA HOTY, in 1968, was the first national title for Gaston. It was just the beginning of many.
Sign The Card’s dominance continued in 1970 when she ended the year as AHSA Horse Of The Year in both the amateur-owner and the second year green divisions, as well as winning the Page Lewis Jennings Trophy for being Grand Champion Hunter of the AHSA. They were also VHSA year-end champion in the same divisions.
Tragedy struck in the spring of 1971 when Sign The Card broke her splint bone in a paddock accident. She did not like being turned out and would run from side to side. It is suspected that is how she broke the bone.
After surgery to remove the broken splint bone, Mary was laid up for the rest of 1971 but she returned to the show ring with a vengeance starting in Florida in the winter of 1972 where she won the first ever hunter classic in the United States (the precursor to today’s hunter derbies). Sign The Card showed in five hunter classics and won all of them. Now showing in both the amateur-owner and regular working hunters, Gaston and her superstar mare continued their supremacy. Once again, when year-end awards were presented, the pair were AHSA amateur-owner HOTY as well as regular working HOTY and once again won the Page Lewis Jennings Trophy for Grand Champion Hunter of the AHSA.
To watch Sign The Card, with Gaston riding was like watching magic happen right before your eyes. Gaston never missed a distance and Mary never jumped a bad jump. It was a beautiful thing to see.
Lee said to Gaston after Sign The Card’s many wins, “Our careers are all downhill from here.”
Sign The Card was a champion and she knew it. The great mare was all business. She wasn’t the cuddly kind. Lee explained, “She was very independent. She just tolerated us.”
Gaston said, “I have never had a horse that was equally as good on grass or dirt, indoors or outdoors. She was a cat.”
After the 1972 show year ended, Gastonleft Belcort to ride for Winter Place Farm (where she helped start Jet Run’s show career) and then went to Europe for a year to ride jumpers with Nelson Pessoa.
Sign The Card stayed at Belcort with Lee because as Gaston said, “he loved her as much as I.”
Sign The Card had three foals: In The Cards (by Winged T)—he was the winner of the VHSA Futurity, but then got hurt and never showed; First And Goal (by Sir Thomson)—he was sold to Jack Stedding and showed with success); and her last foal, The Winning Card (by Grand Prospect)—foaled in 1986. With Sheila Motley aboard, The Winning Card was AHSA grand junior hunter in 1994.
In 1975, Lee bought The Annex in Keswick, Va. (previously owned by Tom Lavery) and renamed it Belcort Farm. Over the years, many great champions have come from that one farm. It is there that Sign The Card lived out her days. She passed away in 1997 and is buried at Belcort.
The gravestone that Lee had made and placed on her grave reads “Sign The Card – 1965-1987 – She Was Simply The Best.”
Lee said, “I’ve been very lucky in my life to have had many nice horses and ponies but there was just one that I adored and that was Sign The Card.”
Sign The Card has been inducted into the National Show Hunter Hall Of Fame and the Virginia Horse Shows Association Hall Of Fame.
“We were along for the ride,” Lee said about his and Gaston’s time with the great Thoroughbred mare, Sign The Card.