Thursday, May. 23, 2024

How A Cellar Dweller Rebellion Paved The Road To Rolex

PUBLISHED
BRDennyEmerson

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Long before the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event came to be, Neil Ayer and Jack Le Goff envisioned an event that would be a summit for the sport.

Every story has a back story and another before that and another, far back into time.

This improbable story of how Rolex Kentucky came to be the summit of American eventing begins about 50 years ago because of the resentment of a proud French eventing coach at being relegated to Bert de Némethy’s basement in Gladstone, N.J. Being a “cellar dweller” figuratively or literally, as in this case, was far from what he’d imagined when he accepted the job.

When Jack Le Goff, the newly hired U.S. three-day coach, arrived from France, around 1968 or 1969 at the huge stone building that housed all the U.S. Equestrian Team horses, he discovered that when people of that era referred to “The USET” they almost invariably were talking about the show jumping horses and riders. And that squad, under the direction of de Némethy, had their headquarters on the upper level of the barn, the part you enter from the parking area in front, with lovely stonework, shined brass stalls, and all the elegance befitting equestrian royalty.

There’s a ramp leading down to more stalls in the basement, and it was in that environment, darker and hidden from the public, that the three-day event squad toiled away in relative obscurity.

Anyone who ever met Le Goff could understand in 10 minutes that in no conceivable way would he ever accept second class citizenship from anyone. He always reminded me of a saying about “center of attention” type people: “He wanted to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.”

As Jack was chafing at his Gladstone situation, up north in South Hamilton, Mass., Neil Ayer, MFH of the Myopia Hunt, was getting more deeply committed to his additional role as the new and vibrant president of what was then called the U.S. Combined Training Association (now the U.S. Eventing Association).

Jack appealed to Neil to help him find a better situation, and Neil arranged with his friends and neighbors, the Forrester Clark family, to have the Clark estate on Bridge Street in South Hamilton, be donated to the USET as the new headquarters of the three-day team.

To Ride Against The Best

Now our story jumps ahead a couple of years to a morning meeting at Neil’s house on Larch Row in Wenham, Mass. Jack’s USET team had just won the silver medal at the 1972 Olympics in Germany, and Neil and Jack were brainstorming over coffee in Neil’s kitchen.

“What would it take,” Neil asked, “to put the USET into gold medal contention?”

“Giving American riders more chances to ride against the best in the world more often than once or twice every several years,” replied Jack.

Out of this informal coffee klatch came the seeds of an idea: to create a true U.S. summit of eventing at Neil and Helen Ayer’s Ledyard Farm, to which Neil would personally invite and pay the air transport for 10 to 15 of the top event riders from Europe. De Némethy and the show jumping world already had their pinnacle at Madison Square Garden. Now Boston, always a rival of New York City, would create a corresponding eventing summit, in the foxhunting territory of the Myopia Hunt.

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Neil Ayer, Jack Le Goff, Jack Burton, Jack Fritz and a few other leaders of American eventing had further meetings. They concluded that by creating a major international event right here at home, many more U.S.-based riders would have the chance to compete at a world standard rather than only spending money to send a few Americans to England to compete at Badminton and Burghley. They also hoped to inspire more Americans to get involved in what was, at that time, a rather obscure sport.

A Concentration Of Eventing

With that goal set, the first of three “Ledyard Internationals” took place the following summer of 1973 at Ledyard Farm.

It’s hard to believe these 45 or so years later just how solidly that North Shore area of Boston became the epicenter of U.S. eventing. Bridge Street was the site of the new USET Three-Day Team Headquarters. The USCTA office also resided on the same Clark estate. Neil, the USCTA president, lived around the corner. Gen. Jack Burton, the USET vice president for eventing, was Neil’s next door neighbor, right across the road from the cross-country course.

In addition to the event at Ledyard, there were two more horse trials within a five-mile radius, the Pingree family’s Flying Horse Farm event and the Winthrop family’s Groton House Farm event. Appleton Farms had a huge hay field that became the steeplechase venue for Ledyard. The Myopia Hunt Club polo fields became the show jumping venue.

Never before or since has there been anything in America approaching the concentration of eventing expertise that existed in the Hamilton-Wenham area of Boston during the golden era of the 1970s.

In 1974, Le Goff’s USET squad, of which I was a member, won the team gold medal at the World Championships at Burghley, England. By virtue of Bruce Davidson winning individual gold on 1973 Ledyard veteran Irish Cap, the United States earned the honor of hosting the next World Championships in 1978.

In 1975, Neil and Helen again hosted foreign riders at Ledyard Farm, for the second Ledyard International. In 1976, Jack’s USET squad won the team gold and the individual gold and silver at the Bromont, Canada, Olympic Games. That year, the Radnor Three-Day in Pennsylvania, rather than Ledyard, hosted the U.S. National Championships.

Changing Times

The last Ledyard International was in 1977. In 1978, America hosted the World Three-Day Championships at the Kentucky Horse Park. The following year, 1979, the U.S. National Championships went to Bruce and Carol Davidson’s Chesterland Farm in Unionville, Pa.

Jack and Neil’s vision of creating an annual permanent place for the most important American event was slipping into a shifting uncertainty. The summit that Neil and Jack had envisioned had gone from Ledyard to Radnor to Chesterland, but none of those three venues seemed likely, as the 1970s drew to a close, to become a permanent site because all were privately owned and subject to the fluctuating circumstances such reality entails.

Other disintegrating forces were also at work. The USET was finding it increasingly difficult to fund even one team headquarters in Gladstone, and the South Hamilton site was becoming a financial albatross. Both Gladstone and South Hamilton were based on the premise that the best U.S. show jumping and eventing riders would come to live at those riding centers, giving up any chance of making a living or having independent lives of their own. From a purely sports perspective that concept made sense, but as the riders got older, had families and personal financial obligations, the best riders became increasingly unwilling and unable to give up six to 10 months a year to live away from home.

Also at that time, wealthy sponsors like Patrick Butler and the Clarks would donate horses to the USET for Le Goff and de Némethy to allocate as they saw fit. But donors like these began to sponsor individual riders, and, increasingly, their own children, rather than donating to “The Team.”

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EEI To The Rescue

William Butler Yeats wrote the famous lines in his poem The Second Coming, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”

This is where the sport of eventing seemed to be heading, until a new hero, in the form of Equestrian Events, Inc. rode to the rescue.

EEI had been running smaller events at the Kentucky Horse Park since its first preliminary horse trials in 1976. In 1978, EEI proved that it could compete on the world stage when it hosted the World Championship Three-Day Event, and 170,000 spectators thronged the horse park and pumped $4 million into the local economy.

Another bonus was that the Kentucky Horse Park was owned by the Commonwealth of Kentucky, which gave the site greater permanence than Ledyard, Radnor or Chesterland.

Lexington, Ky., is the heart of American horse country. It seemed to be the ideal solution to fulfill Neil and Jack’s vision 10 years earlier to create a crown jewel for American eventing.

EEI ran its first advanced event in 1980, became the recipient of Rolex sponsorship in 1981, and the rest, as they say, is history.

It seems an unlikely beginning, that Jack Le Goff’s rebellion at being relegated to a “cellar dweller” existence in Gladstone, N.J., all those years earlier would pave the road to Rolex, but that is what happened.

Had Jack been given better accommodations, he’d not have wound up in Hamilton, Mass. Had he not moved to Hamilton and gotten closely involved with Neil Ayer, the idea of the Ledyard International becoming the pre-eminent event in America would not have happened.

Without that fixed goal of a summit, the sport in America would have continued to flounder as it had to that point.

So, as you sit drinking your morning coffee at Rolex this year, before you head out to watch cross-country at that glorious horse park, raise a cup to the memory of Neil Ayer and Jack Le Goff. You are sitting there this morning because of them and what transpired over their morning coffee in Neil’s kitchen so many years ago.


Denny Emerson rode on the 1974 World Championships gold-medal eventing team. He served as the U.S. Eventing Association president twice and won the USEA Wofford Cup for his lifetime dedication to the sport. At his Tamarack Farm in South Strafford, Vt., and Southern Pines, N.C., he trains horses and riders, and he owns shares in stallions standing at other farms. An original Between Rounds contributor, Emerson began writing his column in 1989.

 

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