Dianne Grod hooked her arms over the fence and called out, “Papa, Papa!” The big chestnut horse at the top of the hill lifted his head.
“Then he came running full tilt to me. I thought he was going to jump out; he went absolutely berserk when he heard me,” Grod said. She hadn’t seen The Godfather in more than five years, but the Thoroughbred remembered her. They’d both been through quite a bit in the time they were separated, but their bond, formed over many, many grand prix courses, remained.
Grod took him home to her Temecula, Calif., farm, where The Godfather lived out his retirement. “He never jumped another jump. He died at age 25 and was buried there,” Grod said. “He was certainly my lifetime horse because he put me on the map. We put each other there. It was just one of those twists of fate that was a lucky deal for both of us. I was happy I was able to have him in his last days.”
It was in early 1972 that Grod first found The Godfather. Patty Jenkins, then Rodney Jenkins’ wife, had called Grod and told her about the leggy gelding. “She said, ‘I have the most amazing horse, and Rodney hates him.’ The Godfather was a really bad shipper. Rodney knew the horse was fabulous, but several times he’d try to haul him to horse shows, and he’d destroy the trailer,” Grod recalled. “He never got to show him. He hauled him all the way to Florida and couldn’t show him. Patty was keeping him at another farm because Rodney said, ‘Just get him out of here.’ She told me I had to go try him.” Ira Schulman had gotten The Godfather (not his Jockey Club registered name, which has gotten lost) off the track, and he’d gone through Wilson Dennehy and Bernie Traurig’s barns before landing with Jenkins.
Even though at 4’9″ Grod looked tiny on the 17.1-hand “Papa,” she fell in love with him right away and bought him, sending a horse van lined with mattresses from California to Virginia to pick him up. When he arrived on the West Coast, a client of Grod’s bought him for Grod to show. “He was practically unbeatable. He was an amazing horse. He was allergic to rails. We didn’t even really have to train him; he just was so good. He and I really hit it off,” she said. Papa found another kindred soul in Grod’s groom, Lynn Earl Gola McClanahan.
For the first year, the only way Papa could travel to shows was if McClanahan rode with him. “Whether I was tired or not I had to stand there with him. There was no sitting down and catching a snooze on the way home from a show,” McClanahan said. Then, she and Grod figured out the key to Papa’s travel. They loaded him into a double stall of the van backward, with his head tied to the peak of the van and his hind end in the aisle. “He rode like a champ once we figured out his trick,” McClanahan said.
Grod and Papa turned into a top grand prix pair on the West Coast, and in the mid-’70s, they traveled east, tying for 10th in the American Gold Cup and placing fourth in the American Invitational. In 1977, they represented the United States at the first Nations Cup competition held at Spruce Meadows.
“He had the perfect shoulder, the perfect hip. He was just one of those horses that standing you couldn’t draw a better type for a grand prix horse,” Grod said. “He was totally brave. I don’t think he ever said no to me. His jump was like an out-of-body experience. I spent half the time just trying to stay on him.
“In those days, women had to carry weight, 154 pounds. I was 4’9″, and I carried like 55 pounds of lead on him. Ninety percent of the winning he did, he did carrying an ungodly amount of lead,” Grod recalled.
But by the end of 1977, Grod’s relationship with Papa’s owner had deteriorated, and the owner sent the horse to Linda Allen’s barn, where he continued to show. After a few years, Papa’s show career dwindled, and Grod heard that he had returned to the track. She always kept an ear out for Papa’s whereabouts. “I heard that they had him at the racetrack ponying horses. But I lost track of him eventually. I put the word out to find the horse. I called everyone in California. He was pretty distinctive looking, so you’d recognize him,” she said.
Then one day in the early ‘80s, Grod got a call from Rudy Leone. A woman in Northern California has contacted him saying she had rescued a horse with incredible jumping talent. Apparently, Papa’s owner had passed away, and a relative had inherited him and put him in a field but wasn’t feeding him well. A woman running a boarding barn had been feeding him hay whenever she drove by, and eventually she was given the horse.
“She started jumping him and decided she’d found a real diamond in the rough,” Grod said. “She described him to Rudy and then told him she couldn’t ship him to a show, and Rudy figured it had to be The Godfather. He called me and said she wanted $1,500 for him. I bought the horse, and I paid Rudy to ship him and told him how to haul him. So Papa came home.”
Papa had captured McClanahan’s heart, too, and she still speaks of him with pride and affection. She would trail ride him during his retirement at Grod’s farm. “He cared about what he did and us and people. He gave us everything. He had a wonderful elegance about him, a really regal attitude,” she said. “They get in your heart in a big way. I remember he was with Linda Allen, and they were at a show in Santa Anita, and I walked down the barn aisle. I saw his head and called his name, ‘Papa,’ and he swung his head right around and whinnied to me. The tear ducts went crazy. He was just a great horse.”
Grod recalled wistfully the ‘60s and ‘70s, when big-hearted Thoroughbreds like The Godfather ruled the hunter and jumper rings. “I totally miss the Thoroughbreds. I miss judging them, I miss seeing them, I miss having them,” she said. “I never had one I didn’t love. Really and truly, all my special horses were Thoroughbreds. If it weren’t for them, I don’t know that I would have had a riding career at all.”
This was part of a 2013 series of Classic Thoroughbred Show Horses articles on COTH. CLICK to read them all!