Saturday, Apr. 13, 2024

Democrat Jumped Into History

This incredible show jumper from the 1940s and 1950s competed on two Olympic teams and achieved recognition under three different riders in both Army and civilian events.

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This incredible show jumper from the 1940s and 1950s competed on two Olympic teams and achieved recognition under three different riders in both Army and civilian events.

At the 1941 National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden, the United States and Peru each finished the International Low Score Competition Challenge Trophy with 34.5 faults, forcing a jump-off on Nov. 7 in New York City. Two horses from each team would jump, and the pair with the lowest score would be declared the winner.
   
As was the tradition at that time, the U.S. jumping team was represented by the U.S. Army, whose horses and riders were based at the U.S. Cavalry School at Fort Riley, Kansas.

With 10,000 spectators on the edge of their seats, the first U.S. jumper, Capt. Franklin Fearing “Fuddy” Wing Jr., one of the best riders of his era, trotted into the arena on a brown gelding with a white blaze named Democrat. The 8-year-old Thoroughbred, a veteran jumper in international events, was magnificent.

“Old Democrat jumped boldly and surely,” wrote Henry R. Isley of the New York Times, “and the applause was thunderous as he cleared the final barrier for a perfect score.”

Lieutenant Carlos Alfaro, one of Peru’s jumping stars, followed on a brown gelding named Ayachucho. After an excellent start, Ayachucho knocked down a rail at the eighth jump for 4 faults. Next up was U.S. Army Major Henri A. Luebbermann on Smacko, who was on loan to the Army for the horse show. With the crowd cheering wildly, Smacko sailed over every jump faultlessly. With two perfect scores the U.S. team was declared the winner with 34.5 faults to Peru’s 38.5.

Three days later, Democrat and Capt. Wing won another prize at the National Horse Show—the International Military Special Challenge Trophy. During his stunning performance, the brown gelding had four consecutive perfect performances on the eight-jump course, winning on the third jump-off.

Democrat was brilliant at Madison Square Garden that year. And unbeknownst to the Army officers and the jumping world, Democrat, despite a four-year hold on what would be his prime years, would go on to become one of the greatest show jumpers of all time.

Undeniable Ability

Democrat (Gordon Russell—Princess Bon) was foaled in 1933 at Fort Robinson, Neb., a 23,600-acre Army reserve of rolling prairie, wooded buttes and towering bluffs. Four years later, Democrat was shipped to the U.S. Cavalry School at Fort Riley, Kansas, where he showed prowess as a jumper.

By 1940, Democrat and Capt. Wing  won the blue ribbon in the prestigious international individual championship military class at the National Horse Show. Democrat and Capt. Wing had also been selected for the 1940 Olympic Games in Helsinki, but they were unable to compete when the Games were cancelled because of the war in Europe.
When the United States entered the war in 1941, horse shows were suspended across the nation because of gas rationing. As a result, Democrat’s career as a show jumper was put on hold, and he spent the war years at Fort Riley.

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When the war ended, Democrat and Wing, who was now a colonel, were reunited. Both competed as members of the Army team at the 1947 National Horse Show at New York, the first National held since 1941.

In a series of international military jumping events against the Army teams of Ireland, Mexico and Canada, Democrat, who was 14 years old, showed that he had not lost his form. Democrat won the first day’s matinee, the International Preliminary, on three perfect rounds with speed a factor in the final jump-off.

At the age of 15, Democrat competed in the 1948 Olympic Games in London as a member of the U.S. Army
equestrian team. Paired again with Col. Wing, Democrat had tied for the individual silver medal at the end of the first round of the Prix Des Nations, however, in the jump-off, Democrat had 4 faults and the slowest time, settling for fourth place.

On To Civilian Life

After the London Olympic Games, the U.S. Army equestrian team was disbanded, as the horse cavalry had been replaced by mechanized equipment. This led in 1950 to the formation of the U.S. Equestrian Team, which competed for the first time in the 1952 Olympic Games at Helsinki. Capt. John Russell, who was now a member of the “civilian” USET squad, was paired with Democrat, who was 19.

“When we arrived in Helsinki for the 1952 Olympic Games, Democrat was really hurting,” wrote Russell in The U.S. Equestrian Team Book of Riding: The First Quarter-Century of the USET. “He was so sore that very much flat work was impossible and jumping out of the question. Even so, it was obvious that if we were to do well in the Games, the horses to use were Miss Budweiser, Hollandia and Democrat. This was a mighty shaky outfit.”

Despite his poor condition, Democrat finished 24th individually and helped the new USET win the team bronze medal.

William Steinkraus, a rising star in jumping, made the newly formed USET at the Fort Riley Olympic trials in 1951. (Steinkraus would go on to have an illustrious career as a member of six Olympic jumping squads and become the first U.S. rider to win an individual Olympic gold medal in equestrian sport at Mexico in 1968). When Steinkraus was in need of a string of horses for competitions in Europe, he inherited Capt. Russell’s mounts, including Democrat.

“I was not overjoyed by this prospect,” wrote Steinkraus in The U.S. Equestrian Team Book of Riding. “Though Democrat had been Russell’s Games mount in Helsinki, and I admired him ever since his brilliant performances at London and Dublin in 1948 (which I witnessed), he was then 19 years old and starting to look it. Moreover, Russell, who knew him well, had encountered some real problems with him that summer; he tended to jump to the corner of fences and sometimes stopped, and a lot of the time he didn’t look very sound.”

Steinkraus worked with Democrat in the weeks leading up to the first major horse show of the 1952 fall circuit, the Pennsylvania National Horse Show at Harrisburg. Steinkraus found Democrat “rough-gaited and rather like a crotchety old man.” The first time he and Democrat were paired was in an easy speed class over a hunter course that was also used for the jumpers.

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The last fence, however, was a problem.

It was a triple bar that had a four-foot single rail in front, a five-foot single rail behind and an eight-foot spread in between. As they walked the course, the riders thought it was “unjumpable.”

“As luck would have it, Democrat was drawn as the last horse to jump in this first test of our new partnership,” wrote Steinkraus, “and as I watched uneasily from the in-gate area, I saw little to reassure me. By the time the gate opened for us, there had still been no clear round, nor had any horse cleared the last fence; on the contrary, the ring crew was running short of rails, and there had been three or four shattering falls. I was not brimming with confidence.”
   
What happened next would never be forgotten.

“Democrat jumped the early fences well enough, though his turns were a bit rough,” recalled Steinkraus. “Because of the handy nature of the course, you couldn’t even get much of a run at the last fence, and as we came through the pen the last time and cranked up for the triple bar, I didn’t see any way the fence could be jumped. In fact, there was only one thought in my mind: ‘I hope we don’t break anything.’

“I remember clearly that we met that first rail a bit too long, and then I must have literally shut my eyes. What
happened next is what produced my biggest show jumping thrill, for I found myself transported effortlessly aloft, as on a 747 takeoff; the old man landed just as far from the top rail as he’d stood off and never laid a toe to it.

“I can’t swear that I even heard the crowd’s roar, but I know I wore a stupid grin from ear to ear as I rode out of the ring,” wrote Steinkraus, “and it was some time before I regained my senses. I simply couldn’t believe what happened.”

An Amazing Career

After Harrisburg, Steinkraus showed Democrat in all the remaining competitions—a total of eight—and the brown gelding went on to win every single individual class. Moreover, Democrat contributed to several team victories, including the Nations Cup at the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto. Incredibly, he jumped almost 150 fences during that 1952 fall circuit before incurring a fault—at the age of 19.

With the completion of the 1952 jumping competitions, Democrat was finally given his well-deserved retirement and sent to pasture at Morven Stud, home of then USET President Whitney Stone, near Charlottesville, Va.
In 1957, Democrat died at the age of 24.

Looking back at Democrat and his legendary career, Steinkraus may have best described the key to the inner strength the great horse exhibited for so long, as he remembered the horse’s astounding performance at Harrisburg in 1952:

“Later on the circuit I learned that Democrat’s jet-propelled leap was no accident at all, but simply one of the things that he could do under pressure, like the singles hitter in baseball who can knock one completely out of the park when he has to.”

Those that saw the handsome, graceful gelding with the white blaze and shiny coat soaring over the fence in perfect form, his ears pointed forward and eyes fixed on the course ahead, marveled at his ability and poise. Later in his career, people admired his longevity and endurance. Most importantly, as the decades passed, Democrat’s feats stood the test of time, and the “old Army campaigner” was inducted into the Show Jumping Hall of Fame in 1999.  

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